SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Georgia's ports chief and the leader of a Savannah union both sounded optimistic Thursday that U.S. dock workers and shipping companies will resolve a contract dispute without a strike that would shut down seaports from Maine to Texas, including the nation's fourth-busiest container port in Savannah.
Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, sprinkled praise throughout his annual State of the Port speech Thursday for the 1,500 members of the International Longshoremen's Association who load and unload cargo at the Port of Savannah. Foltz used his closing remarks to comment on the threat of a strike if no agreement is reached by Sept. 30.
"I'm very hopeful and somewhat optimistic that, between now and the end of this month, they're going to come together and do everything in their power to make sure that our customers that we all worked hard to get to come to the East Coast will continue to come to the East Coast," Foltz told a crowd of about 1,200 government, community and business leaders.
As Foltz was delivering his speech, federal mediators announced talks will resume Sept. 17 between the longshoremen's union that represents East and Gulf Coast dock workers and the U.S. Maritime Alliance, which represents shippers.
The longshoremen's contract expires at the end of September and talks broke down in late August over issues involving overtime rules, efficiency and automation.
"We're making significant progress," Willie Seymore, president of the ILA's Local 1414 in Savannah, said in his first remarks on the contract talks. "Hopefully, by the end of the month, everything will be in order."
A dock workers' strike would threaten the nation's fragile economic recovery, especially now as retailers are importing more goods to stock their shelves for the holidays. Foltz said some shippers are already diverting 5 to 10 percent of their East Coast-bound cargo to the West Coast as a precaution, though he said it's unclear how the shift will directly affect Georgia ports in Savannah and Brunswick.
In Georgia the economic impact would ripple far beyond the docks. Truck drivers would be sidelined with no cargo to move. Distribution warehouses in the state for retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and Home Depot would cease receiving merchandise to supply their stores. And Georgia businesses that export products from frozen chicken to kaolin clay may be forced to wait out the strike with no economical means of sending their goods abroad.
"You just don't ship it if it's not cost effective to move it to the West Coast," said Page Siplon, director of the Georgia Center of Innovation for Logistics based in Savannah. "It depends on the commodity."
If the two sides can't reach an agreement, President Barack Obama could intervene. The Taft-Hartley Act gives the president power to stop strikes that threaten to create a national emergency.
A University of Georgia study earlier this year found more than 352,000 jobs statewide and $18.5 billion in income are tied to goods that move through the state's ports.
Foltz said the Georgia Ports Authority's 1,000 Savannah employees will continue to report for work even if there's a strike.
"We would not dispatch containers through our facilities and we would not load and unload ships," Foltz said. "That's ILA work and we're going to respect and honor their work."
In spite of the dispute between the union and shippers, Foltz predicted more growth in the coming year for Savannah's port. The port moved 2.98 million containers of imports and exports in fiscal 2012, and Foltz said he's confident it will exceed 3 million next year.