Dockworkers at Atlantic and Gulf ports agreed last Friday to continue negotiations with terminal operators for another 30 days, until Jan. 28 in an attempt to wrap up a new labor contract. The announcement by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service said the two sides had reached an agreement in principal on a container royalties issue that had kept the two sides apart, subject to completion of a final overall contract accord. Royalties paid to container handlers were seen as the major issue in the contract talks.
The question now is whether the two sides can come to a final agreement by the end of January that would keep many of the nation’s major ports active. If there were to be problems wrapping up the talks and the longshoremen went on strike, it would be a major blow to the U.S. economy, as the 15 container ports that would be affected handle a significant amount of U.S. imports and exports. For example, the ports of New York-New Jersey alone handled $108 billion worth of cargo in 2011.
Should there be a strike, President Barack Obama would be under pressure to invoke the federal Taft-Hartley law that authorizes the president to intervene in strikes or potential strikes that create a national emergency. Whether Obama would choose to alienate his labor supporters is unknown, but does have a precedent: President Truman, himself beholden to organized labor, invoked Taft-Hartley 12 times during his second administration as the nation worked to shift back to a consumer-oriented economy following World War II.