U.S. ports give assurances over fruit & veg trade
With just over two days until port strikes could threaten U.S. international trade from Maine to Texas, operators are hopeful the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) and the United States Maritime Authority (USMX) can reach an agreement in master contract negotiations. If talks fail, several port authorities have indicated they will take the ILA at its word that perishables will not be impacted, while specific local arrangements will assist the fruit and vegetable trade in many areas. Produce however is not enough to keep an economy going, and some have called on President Barrack Obama to intervene through the Taft-Hartley Act.
Florida's business leaders and politicans sure know the political pull they hold in Washington, which makes it no surprise that the state's Governor Rick Scott is leading the charge to get the President to prevent a potential stoppage once the ILA-USMX master contract expires on Dec. 29.
Scott held a press conference today to highlight the livelihood of families that "hang in the balance" if an agreement is not reached.
"If a strike or a lockout occurs at that time, Florida’s largest ports could be shut down, sending shockwaves through jobs all across our state - including truck driver jobs, manufacturing jobs, warehousing jobs - and many jobs beyond the ports themselves," he said.
Port of Miami port director Bill Johnson told www.freshfruitportal.com he was not optimistic, but hopeful.
"I hope that if the strike were to happen the president will enact the Taft-Hartley Act because a strike would mean billions of dollars in losses for the economy," he said.
"It would be a double whammy with the fiscal cliff debated in congress and shutting down ports - a huge huge disruption in the U.S. economy, and we're only just getting out of the recession."
On a more positive note, Johnson did confirm that perishables should not be impacted, as the ILA has indicated in a letter to union members.
"It's only going to be containers. Fruit and vegetables are supposed to flow," he said.
Elsewhere in Florida, Port Everglades spokesperson Ellen Kennedy clarified that only about 30% of the containerized cargo business at her specific port was handled by ILA workers. She said out of 12 terminal operators, two were expected to be affected.
She added safety areas would be established to ensure safe picketing, assuring that fresh produce imports would not be affected by any work stoppage under ILA requirements.
A spokesperson for Pacific Seaways in Chile told www.freshfruitportal.com the Port of Wilmington in Delaware had informed the company the strike would only affect container cargo and not Chilean fruit.
"On the other hand, the Port of Wilmington has reached an agreement with the local union associated with the ILA to extend the current collective contract until a later date at the end of the Chilean fruit season," the spokesperson said.
"This reinforces the commitment that the union has taken to work with Chilean fruit even in a strike or lockout scenario."
One industry source, who requested not to be named, said similar negotiations were in play for other fruit-importing ports.
Port of Wilmington executive director Gene Bailey was not able to confirm this arrangement, but did emphasize that as the Delaware port mainly dealt in perishable goods, problems were not anticipated.
"It’s the commodities that we deal with that are not going to be affected by the strike," he said, referring to the fact most shipments are perishable goods from companies like the Dole Food Company and Chiquita Brands.
"We do not expect any problems because of the commodities we handle."
Philadelphia Regional Port Authority spokesperson Joseph Menta also did not know about any special deals reached with local unions in nearby Wilmington, but told www.freshfruitportal.com he remained optimistic.
"What we’re doing in case it happens though is keeping gates open for longer so that trucks can come in and take existing cargo out of the facility, because once there’s a strike they wouldn’t be able to do that," he said.
"If cargo can't enter the Port of Philadelphia I would at least hope it could stay in the area and go to the South Jersey Port Corporation or the Port of Wilmington.
"If there is a strike it would affect 50-60%, as fruit would still be able to go in to Tioga and non-containerized fruit shouldn’t be affected."
He added that ILA did not account for all dockworker arrangements, citing Pier 82 as an example as its workers belonged to a different union.
The Port of Houston Authority (PHA) in Texas warned customers and stakeholders Wednesday that a strike would likely affect Barbours Cut Container Terminal (BCT) and the Bayport Container Terminal, sparing PHA's general cargo facilities and the Turning Basin Terminal.
Both the BCT and Bayport Container Terminal would be closed for all vessel and gate activity in the case of a strike, with storage and demurrage charges for all containers suspended as well.
Extended hours were scheduled for Dec. 26, 27 and 28 to accommodate customers trying to clear cargo early.
The Port of Houston is the largest container port in Texas, receiving 96% of the state’s waterborne containers, according to the PHA.
The West Gulf Maritime Association reports that over 1,000 ILA members work on Port of Houston wharves on an average day. The port authority itself employs only about 80 to 150 ILA workers for container terminals at a time.
The North Carolina State Ports Authority also advised plans be made in the case of work stoppage.
Karen Fox of the authority’s business and economic development department clarified that reefer containers should not arrive to the Port of Wilmington that cannot be shipped prior to Dec. 28.
"Should the parties fail to reach an agreement and a work stoppage occurs, the North Carolina Ports must remain neutral. Accordingly, as the operator of the terminals, the Ports of Wilmington and Morehead City will work as usual under the direction of the ocean carriers," she said.
"Some terminal operations that are performed by the ILA, however, will not continue for the duration of the strike or until work resumes. This includes monitoring and repairing reefer containers."
In New Jersey, the Port Newark Container Terminal (PNCT) advised that no vessel or gate activity would occur in the case of strike action.
PNCT began extended hours Dec. 17 and will operate on such hours until Dec. 28 to accommodate cargo arrivals before possible stoppages.
Photo: Philadelphia Regional Port Authority