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The Boston Globe

Business

Dockworkers threaten strike along East Coast

Billions of dollars in imports online as walkout looms

NEW YORK — Anyone who has seen ‘‘On the Waterfront’’ knows East Coast longshoremen can be a tough bunch.

The dockworkers are flexing their muscles again, threatening a strike beginning Sunday that would shut seaports from Massachusetts to Texas. It would be the first such coastwide strike since a two-month walkout in 1977 paralyzed the flow of tens of billions of dollars of imports — and the nation’s retailers and other businesses fear a painful replay if the 14,500 dockworkers make good on their threats.

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“Unless something miraculous happens, I think we’re looking at a strike,’’ said Kevin M. Burke, president of the American Apparel and Footwear Association, which represents an industry that imports $72 billion in dresses, shoes, and other goods each year through the East Coast and Gulf Coast ports facing a possible shutdown.

The strike threat has so alarmed corporate America that more than 100 business groups wrote to President Obama last week to urge him to intervene to push the two sides to settle — and, if need be, to invoke his emergency powers under the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act to bar a strike. President George W. Bush invoked the act in 2002 to end a lockout at ports on the West Coast, where a different union represents dockworkers.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey estimates that a strike would cost the region $136 million a week in personal income and $110 million in economic output.

The dockworkers union, the International Longshoremen’s Association, opposes presidential intervention, and labor specialists say Obama, like previous union-friendly Democrats, may be reluctant to enjoin a strike. On the other hand, the economy already faces a potential blow from tax increases and federal budget cuts scheduled to begin Jan. 1, and a strike would cause further damage.

‘‘The last thing the nation needs right now is a strike that would shut down the East Coast and Gulf Coast ports,’’ said Jonathan Gold, the ­National Retail Federation’s vice president for supply chain policy.

The 14 ports threatened with a strike — including Boston; New York-New Jersey; Baltimore; Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga.; Miami; and Houston — handled 110 million tons of cargo last year.

The contract negotiations, which have continued fitfully for nine months, broke off Dec. 18. At the behest of a federal mediator, the two sides are planning to resume talks this week to try to reach a deal before the deadline of 12:01 a.m. Sunday.

Although several issues need to be resolved, the two sides are deadlocked over one point in particular. The United States Maritime Alliance, an association of shipping companies and terminal owners, is demanding concessions on ‘‘container royalty payments,’’ which the companies share with union members for each ton of cargo handled. The companies want to freeze those payments for current longshoremen and eliminate them for future hires.

The maritime alliance, known as USMX, says it paid out $211 million in container royalties to the longshoremen last year, averaging $15,500 per eligible worker. James A. Capo, the alliance’s chairman, said that came to $10 an hour, on top of what he said were already generous wages.

The alliance says that, including the royalties, the longshoremen earn $124,000 a year on average in wages and benefits. Union officials say those figures are misleading and put average annual wages at $75,000 before benefits — still far more than most union members earn.

The container payments were created in the 1960s to compensate the longshoremen as ports embraced automation and the use of standardized, 40-foot-long containers to ship goods. That caused a big decrease in jobs and working hours. Employment of longshoremen in the Port of New York and New Jersey has dropped to 3,500 from 35,000 in the 1960s.

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