Baltimore's port readies for strike as deadline nears

Retail giants, shipping companies and federal agencies are racing the clock to make plans as an East Coast and Gulf dock strike this weekend appears imminent.

The International Longshoremen's Association, representing nearly 15,000 dockworkers from Maine to Texas, and the U.S. Maritime Alliance, which represents shipping companies and port operators, are scheduled to meet with a federal mediator Saturday afternoon in a last-ditch effort to head off a crippling work stoppage. In Baltimore, about 1,200 workers are represented by the union.

If they don't reach an agreement or reject another contract extension, negotiators still might have a sliver of wiggle room. The contract is set to expire at one minute past midnight Dec. 30 — a Sunday. Monday and Tuesday are union holidays. That means the full effect of a walkout wouldn't be felt until Wednesday, Jan. 2.

The American Apparel and Footwear Association, which represents a $350 billion industry, is meeting Friday with Deputy U.S. Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari to discuss the looming retail crisis and ways to restock shelves after the holidays and avert shortages.

"When ports go black, it's almost like America isn't open for business," said association spokesman Scott Elmore. "Our economy can't afford a hiccup like this."

Ports America Chesapeake, which operates the Seagirt Marine Terminal in Baltimore, has extended hours to move as many shipping containers as possible and has established storage terms for containers caught in port during a strike.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has issued guidelines on how it will process and inspect ships that could be prevented from docking or forced to divert to a foreign port.

Some clothing and footwear companies anticipated the possibility of a port shutdown and ordered early while others are making plans to use West Coast and foreign ports and then ship merchandise by truck or rail to the East Coast. But every alternative is expected to drive up the cost of goods to the consumer, Elmore said.

A strike would stop all container traffic at the port of Baltimore but allow bulk cargo, autos and machinery, and cruise ship arrivals and departures to continue. However, if management locks out workers in retaliation, port activity would cease.

Although 106 trade organizations have urged President Barack Obama to order an 80-day cooling off period, there is no indication that the administration is contemplating that step.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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