Contract negotiations have broken off this week between shipping companies and dockworkers less than two weeks before the current contract expires December 29, leading to concerns that a strike will be difficut to avert.  The strike could necessitate the closure of 15 ports from Massachusetts to Texas, causing a devastating blow to the supply chain.  With no new talks scheduled, dockworkers could walk off the job as early as December 30.

The International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) union on the East Coast represents 14,500 workers at the 15 ports, which extend south from Boston and handle 95 percent of all container shipments from Maine to Texas, about 110 million tons’ worth.   The New York-New Jersey ports handle the most cargo on the East Coast.  The last time there was an East Coast longshoremen’s strike was in 1977.

Various issues, including wages, are unresolved, but the sides could not agree on what is  becoming the key sticking point, container royalties. The royalties are payment to union workers based on the weight of cargo received at each port. They were created in the 1960s to boost wages and finance worker benefits after increased automation cut down salaries and jobs.

Meanwhile, in a December 18 letter to President Obama, the National Chicken Council, along with other poultry and meat organizations, called for “immediate intervention by the administration to avert a strike.”  “Allowing a strike to occur for even one day could have a negative impact on all of those downstream businesses and employees who rely on the ports. The U.S. economy cannot afford to wait for a strike to occur before we see administration action.  We urge you to get engaged now with these parties to ensure a stirke does not occur,” the letter said.

In addition to NCC signing the letter were USA Poultry and Egg Export Council, National Turkey Federation, American Meat Institute, North American Meat Association, U.S. Meat Export Federation, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and the National Pork Producers Council.  A copy of the letter is available here.