A strike involving 20,000 port workers from Maine to Texas may begin Oct. 1, threatening countless fresh produce shipments, if negotiations can’t resolve contract issues between the U.S. Maritime Alliance and the International Longshoremen’s Association by the end of September.

The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service will bring together the parties the week of Sept. 17 for negotiations at an undisclosed location.

Jim McNamara, New York based spokesman for the International Longshoremen’s Association, said he couldn’t comment on how far apart the sides were or what the specific sticking points are. Media reports indicate overtime rules and royalties payments for dockworkers based on weight are two points of contention between the U.S. Maritime Alliance and the union.

“We’re very happy they put together this negotiating session,” McNamara said Sept. 12.

McNamara said the contract includes workers loading and unloading automated cargo (containers) ships from Maine to Texas.

Michael Warren, president of Central America Produce Inc., Pompano Beach, Fla., said any strike that would stop container traffic would exact a heavy toll on the fresh produce industry.

“From October to December, we are bringing mangoes, pineapples and melons from Central and South America,” he said. “Any type of strike would definitely have an effect on the import situation for as long as it might last,” he said. However, Warren said he couldn’t foresee any work stoppage lasting very long.

The potential strike would also hurt exporters and importers on the East Coast, including ports in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware that are important to Southern Hemisphere fruit exporters.

If East Coast and Gulf ports are shut down in October, media reports indicate shipping lines intend to tack on congestion surcharges of $600 to $1,000 per container for shipments to the U.S. West Coast.

In 2002, a labor conflict between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association resulted in an 11-day lockout that began Sept. 29 that shut down 29 ports on the West Coast. As a result of the work stoppage, West Coast produce exporters saw some of their intended fruit exports rot, costing growers and exporters millions.

On Oct. 1 that year, a federal mediator was appointed to aid talks between the two groups, but that bid failed to produce an agreement. Finally, President Bush invoked the Taft-Hartley Act, which enabled the president to seek an injunction ordering the end of the lockout. The ports reopened Oct. 9, and the two sides finally reached a deal Nov. 24.