Port of Philadelphia
Port of Philadelphia

(UPDATED COVERAGE, Dec. 28) The threat of a longshoremen’s strike at East Coast and Gulf Coast ports that worried some exporters about the fate of fresh produce has been averted.

The International Longshoremen’s Association and the U.S. Maritime Alliance have reached an agreement in principle on container royalties and extended negotiations to Jan. 28.

“While some significant issues remain in contention, I am cautiously optimistic that they can be resolved in the upcoming 30-day extension period,” George Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, said in a news release.

Terms of the agreement were not disclosed. In the coming month the union and the U.S. Maritime Alliance will negotiate all remaining master agreement issues, including some specific to New York and New Jersey. A strike, had it happened Dec. 30, would have impacted ports from New England to Texas.

It’s unclear what delays or losses for fresh produce would have resulted, despite assurances from the union that its members would still handle nonfrozen perishables under a coast wide master contract.

“We’re being told by ILA that perishables and petroleum are not going to be affected,” Ellen Kennedy, spokeswoman for Port Everglades, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said Dec. 27, before negotiations were extended. “The only tricky part we can see is that a couple of containers here and there might not get serviced. We don’t have an answer to that. But Chiquita, Dole, they’ll all be fine.”

Peter Chaires, executive vice president of Florida Citrus Packers, Lakeland, Fla., was hearing mixed signals.

“It’s looming large over us,” Chaires said before negotiations were extended. “It’s the peak of our season and we don’t want to see an interruption of service to our primary markets on export grapefruit. That’s our main concern. The slightest interruption could have ripple effects on the availability of vessels.”

“There’s some confusion over whether perishables would continue to go,” he said. “If they’re palletized, is one thing we’ve heard. But I don’t know that, or how the movement of containers would be affected. Our hope is that the talks will be extended until the parties can reach an amicable agreement, or they reach one by Dec. 29.”

ILA’s presence varies by port as various terminals use nonunion labor or staff with members of other unions, like the Teamsters.

“A strike that would shut down the Eastern Seaboard all the way to Texas, and that’s massive when you think about how much product moves there,” Chaires said. “D.C. has other things on its mind now with the fiscal cliff, but export trade and inbound product is very important to our economy here. We’re hoping it’s as high a priority to our elected officials as it is to us.”