For the first time in 35 years, shipping at ports from Morehead City to Maine could grind to a halt, triggered by a labor dispute now in a stalemate.
Contract negotiations between workers who handle cargo and shipping companies have stalled, creating concerns that shipments could be disrupted along the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf of Mexico.
The dispute involves the International Longshoremen Association, a group representing port workers who load and unload cargo, and the U.S. Maritime Alliance, an organization serving shipping companies.
A deadline originally set for Sunday to finalize a new contract was recently extended 90 days until Dece. 29. A federal mediator in charge of the negotiations said in a statement the new time frame will allow discussions to be more productive.
"In taking this significant step, the parties emphasized that they are doing so 'for the good of the country' to avoid any interruption in interstate commerce," said George H. Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.
The ILA represents workers from 55 American ports on the Gulf of Mexico and East Coast. A similar labor dispute closed 29 West Coast ports for 10 days in 2002. The dispute cost an estimated $2 billion each day of the strike.
The port at Morehead City is one of the deepest on the East Coast, a leading exporter of phosphate and the second largest importer of rubber shipments in the country.
Restaurant owner Jeff Garner runs Morehead City's landmark Sanitary Restaurant in the shadow of the port, and said in an interview Tuesday that no more longshoremen coming ashore would affect business.
"It would decrease our daily local traffic, certainly," Garner said. "Things are tough enough as it is. We don't want to see anything in our state cease to operate."
Labor negotiations remain behind closed doors, and information will be limited until the revised December deadline approaches.
"Due to the sensitive nature of these high profile negotiations, we will have no further comment on the schedule for the negotiations, their location, or the substance of what takes place during those negotiations," Cohen said in the latest statement regarding the mediation.
During the 2002 ports strike, President George W. Bush intervened to end the impasse. The current dispute centers around proposed changes in work hours and overtime pay.