ILA, ports to resume labor talks

With a labor contract covering dock workers from Maine to Texas set to expire at the end of this month, port officials and business groups were pleased to hear that stalled negotiations will resume.

Negotiations between the International Longshoremen’s Association and the U.S. Maritime Alliance broke down on Aug. 22, leading to talk of a possible strike Oct. 1 at ports including Charleston.

On Thursday the ILA and USMX agreed to meet soon, though neither side has publicly budged from the positions staked out in August.

When talks broke down, the ILA accused the group representing shippers of making unreasonable unilateral demands, while the USMX accused the longshoremen’s union of being unwilling to discuss work rules involving overtime pay and guaranteed hours.

S.C. State Ports Authority President and CEO Jim Newsome said that despite the Sept. 30 expiration of the current, six-year-old labor contract, he thinks there’s still time for the two sides to reach a deal.

The SPA is not involved in the negotiations, but would suffer if there is a strike or if companies start diverting cargo from East Coast ports.

“I don’t think anybody wants to go to the last minute on this,” Newsome said this week, before the resumption of talks was announced. “I believe there will be a quick settlement, if something (like a labor action) happens.”

The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service is bringing the longshoremen and the shipping companies back to the bargaining table, something that typically happens when both parties request the government agency’s involvement.

“Upon the request of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, the parties have agreed to resume negotiations under our auspices during the week of September 17, 2012,” the FMCS said in a statement Thursday. “Due to the sensitivity of this high profile dispute and consistent with the agency’s longstanding practice, we will not disclose either the location of the meeting or the content of the substantive negotiations that will take place.”

The USMX declined to comment, and the ILA would say only that union “President Harold J. Daggett is grateful to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services for their offer to help and for bringing about a resumption in negotiations.”

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The National Retail Federation applauded the resumption of talks and encouraged negotiation.

“We continue to strongly encourage both sides to remain at the table until a new deal is agreed upon, even if it goes beyond the end of the current contract on September 30,” said Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy. “It is critical that negotiations continue without disruptions to the supply chain that could impact the critical holiday shipping season and the overall U.S. economy.”

In Savannah, home to the nation’s fourth-busiest container port, Georgia’s ports chief and the leader of a Savannah union sounded optimistic that a contract agreement could be reached.

“We’re making significant progress,” said Willie Seymore, president of the ILA’s Local 1414 in Savannah, in his first remarks on the contract talks. “Hopefully, by the end of the month, everything will be in order.”

Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, said during his State of the Port speech Thursday that he is “very hopeful and somewhat optimistic” that the labor and management negotiators will work things out.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews. The Associated Press contribueted to this report.