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Consumers pawns in any port strike

Published 9:52pm Thursday, December 27, 2012

Christmas — especially this year’s, as dockworkers prepare for a possible strike — is a good holiday to ponder the impact on our lives of consumer goods and how they reach us from often-distant shores.

Today’s economy is closely linked to spending on consumer goods. Whereas the nation once prospered by creating and producing things, it now relies heavily on citizens spending big on items that are usually — especially when it comes to components and underlying materials — imported from countries where labor is cheap.

If I stopped and looked at the gifts I unwrapped on Christmas morning, I’d be hard pressed to find any that didn’t get to me via a shipping container.

The dispute between East and Gulf Coast dockworkers, including those at the Port of Virginia, could have spiraled into industrial action before Christmas, imperiling the passage of many of those gifts and inevitably resulting in “Grinch” headlines.

It would have made for a less-than-merry Christmas for many of us, considering how much gift buying is left to the last minute.

The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service announced on Christmas Eve that talks between the International Longshoreman’s Association and the United States Maritime Alliance would resume ahead of tomorrow’s expiration of an extended contract between dockworkers and employers.

The dispute is over a royalty that carriers pay dockworkers for the containers they load and unload, amounting to about $15,000 for the average annual payment.

Who in this dispute has the upper hand and right on their side is hard to tell with the private nature of the negotiations, and would be a matter of opinion at any rate, but given the possible consequences of a strike, it’s clear that the longshoreman have a lot to leverage. The problem for the rest of us is we’re in the way of the pinch bar.

The alliance, representing employers of port workers, says the overall impact of any strike is “yet to be determined,” but notes that a 10-day strike “at West Coast ports in 2002 cost the U.S. economy an estimated $1 billion a day” and caused a loss of cargo volume that those ports are still recovering from.

With the large amount of business that goes through its port, a strike would mean doom and gloom for Virginia. And big-box retail stores like Walmart and Home Depot would be forlorn places without the “essentials” of life lined up on shelves and customers flocking like seagulls.

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