The protagonist of the 1993 movie Groundhog Day is forced to relive the day over and over until he overcomes his selfishness and becomes a better person. As a result of the film's success, the phrase "Groundhog Day" has come to represent the act of going through a phenomenon repeatedly until one spiritually transcends it.
As the calendar moves closer to Feb. 2, the thousands of businesses whose livelihoods depend on labor peace at East and Gulf Coast ports must feel that life is imitating art.
On Dec. 28, the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) and U.S. Maritime Alliance, which represents ship management at 14 ports from Maine to Texas, extended their current contract until Feb. 6. This extension was so they could work out differences that nearly led to a commerce-paralyzing Dec. 30 strike.
Late yesterday, in a related dispute, ILA representatives walked out of talks over a local contract with the New York Shipping Association (NYSA), the ship management association for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
The master, or coastwide, agreement addresses wages and benefits for the 14,500 longshoremen that work the nation's East and Gulf Coast docks. The local contract deals with issues specific to the individual port, such as work rules, and covers only the 3,300 dockworkers at the Port of New York and New Jersey, the nation's third busiest port.
It is unclear what impact the ILA's abrupt departure from the local talks will have on the status of the coastwide labor contract negotiations, set to resume next week.
Meanwhile businesses dependent on East and Gulf Coast shipping have been whipsawed for months by the ups-and-downs of the labor battle and continue to endure the unknown and unknowable. In a letter today to the ILA and the U.S. Maritime Alliance more than 120 trade associations representing a large chunk of American industry urged the two sides to remain at the bargaining table and stay focused until a master contract is reached.The letter, which was crafted by the National Retail Federation (NRF), says "just the threat of a port shutdown creates a level of uncertainty" that threatens commerce and jobs. The nation's supply chain, and the employees who are involved in it, can no longer afford a lack of clarity, according to the letter.
The supply chain has seen this movie before. The ILA first threatened to strike when the original contract was set to expire on Sept. 30. A Sept. 20 agreement, which came with the peak pre-holiday shipping season already underway, extended the contract for slightly more than 90 days and averted a potential catastrophe.
On Dec. 18, both sides broke off talks over the thorny issue of annual royalties paid to each ILA member based on the revenue generated by container shipping at the 14 ports. At the time, virtually everyone became resigned to the inevitability of a work stoppage. However, the two sides agreed to a second extension until Feb. 6, and federal mediators overseeing the talks claimed substantial progress had been made toward resolving the royalty dispute.
POSSIBLE SHUT DOWN?
If the ILA and the NYSA don't reach an agreement in the local dispute, the port of New York and New Jersey could shut down, said Jonathan Gold, vice president of for supply chain and customs policy for NRF. "The biggest issue is whether or not the local union would approve the master contract without a local contract and if that would impact the other locals," Gold said today in an e-mail.
Gold said it is unlikely that ILA President Harold Daggett would allow a vote on the master contract until all of the local contracts are finalized.
ILA officials could not be reached for comment. James Capo, chairman and CEO of U.S. Maritime Alliance, referred DC VELOCITY to the NYSA, which was unavailable to comment.