U.S. Port Dispute: Plan for Plan B, Retail Group Warns

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August 27, 2012

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U.S. retailers could be forced within days to find alternative ways to import goods unless the threat of a strike by domestic dockworkers at ports stretching from Maine to Texas lifts, the sector’s main lobby group warned Monday.

Contract negotiations between dockworkers and employers at U.S. East and Gulf Coast ports turned frosty last week, raising the specter of labor unrest during the critical peak shipping season in the fall.

The National Retail Federation urged the two sides to hold fresh talks, and said some members had already taken measures to ensure goods reached shelves.

“Now that there is a real risk of disruption, most retailers using the East and Gulf Coast ports will be forced to executive contingency plans within the next week to meet in-store holiday deadlines,” said Federation Chief Executive Matthew Shay in a statement.

Mr. Shay added that a dispute could drive shippers away from East and Gulf Coast ports, citing the shift in their favor that followed a dockworkers’ dispute on the West Coast in 2002.

A scheduled three-day session of talks between port operators and the main dockworkers’ union broke up early last week, with the existing contract due to expire on Sept. 30.

The United States Maritime Alliance, which represents shipping companies and marine terminal operators, last week accused the International Longshoremen’s Association of taking an “uncompromising stand” in negotiations. The union has called for fresh talks, and called on the port body to stop what it called “inflammatory rhetoric.”

Port of Houston Authority Interim Executive Director Leonard Waterworth said in an interview Monday that he was “confident” an agreement could be reached without industrial action.

-By Doug Cameron and Bob Sechler. (c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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