Wednesday, May 22, 2013
PORTLAND — A threatened strike by longshoremen is prompting several Maine businesses to plan for the worst, including longer shipping routes and potential delays in customers' orders.
Talks between the International Longshoreman's Association, which represents dock workers along the East Coast, and the U.S. Maritime Alliance, representing container carriers and port operators, broke down last week.
Late Tuesday, the union authorized a strike if there is no agreement when its contract expires at the end of September. A strike would affect ports all along the East Coast, including Portland.
The union is negotiating the master contact under which local unions operate, said John Henshaw, executive director of the Maine Port Authority.
"We are already seeing implications from the standoff they're reached in negotiations," he said.
Henshaw said businesses are already moving their shipments off the East Coast, since they must plan shipments weeks in advance. Longer shipping routes would add costs for businesses.
"The strike is bad, but even the threat of a strike is bad," Henshaw said.
The Port of Portland stopped receiving cargo this spring, when American Feeder Lines suspended operations.
Henshaw said the port is still used as a U.S. Customs clearing station for truck cargo that's unloaded from other ports. The port clears 50 to 100 trucks a month – a number that will drop if longshoremen strike, he said.
When Portland stopped getting marine cargo shipments, businesses including White Rock Distilleries, L.L.Bean and Sappi Fine Paper turned to ports in Boston and New York to ship their goods.
Those companies are now watching the contract negotiations closely and making alternative shipping plans in case a strike closes ports on the East Coast.
White Rock Distilleries of Lewiston, which now imports its weekly shipments of French grain alcohol through Conley Terminal in South Boston, is making plans to use Canadian ports, said Harold Jones, the company's traffic manager.
If the strike happens, Jones said, the company will likely hire a trucking company to transport its weekly shipment of as much as 72,000 gallons of grain alcohol from Halifax, Nova Scotia.
"It's not the preferred method, but we still need to get the product into the country," Jones said. "That's really the best option if the East Coast ports are shut down."
Jones said it takes about 13 hours to drive from Halifax to Lewiston, compared with 3½ hours from Boston to Lewiston. With eight to 12 trucks making the trip from Halifax weekly, an extended strike could eat into the company's bottom line.
"It's much more expensive," Jones said. "I don't have the exact figure. We haven't done trucking from Halifax in quite some time."
L.L. Bean in Freeport is also exploring new routes for its imports and exports, said spokeswoman Carolyn Beem.
Beem said L.L. Bean relies mostly on New York ports to ship its products. The company would likely switch to West Coast ports and use rail to get products there. It's too soon to say how operating costs would be affected, she said.
Beem said the company is concerned that an extended strike would delay orders, because remaining ports would be inundated with goods. And the timing couldn't be worse, with the busy fall and winter shopping seasons right around the corner.
"It doesn't really matter where you ship from, it's going to be such a domino effect," she said. "Everybody that imports and exports is going to be impacted."
Negotiations between the longshoremen's union and the alliance hinge on issues of overtime and container royalties, which are paid to dock workers based on cargo weight moved through the ports.
The longshoremen's union in Portland, which represents about 20 workers, would be affected by a strike. Its business agent, Jack Humeniuk, did not respond to calls or emails for comment.
Sappi Fine Paper, which operates mills in Westbrook and Skowhegan, is also watching the negotiations, said Joanna Rieke, corporate communications manager for Sappi Fine Paper North America.
Rieke would not elaborate on what East Coast ports the company uses, or detail the company's contingency plans.
Both Jones and Beem are hopeful that their companies will not have to use alternative shipping plans.
"We're hopeful the strike can be averted," Jones said. "It isn't good for anyone to have a stoppage at the ports."
Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: