By Marcy Nicholson
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Dock workers on the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts moved closer to a potential strike, which would disrupt the delivery of everything from furniture to coffee, after talks broke down between their union and the organization representing shipping companies and ports.
"They've authorized the (ILA) president to call one if necessary but we still have time between now and the end of this extension," said International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) spokesman Jim McNamara, referring to a potential strike.
The ILA and the U.S. Maritime Alliance (USMX) have been negotiating with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service since the contract, which was initially set to expire in September, was extended in September to December 29.
Talks broke down on Tuesday, and as of Wednesday, neither side had agreed to return to the bargaining table. If the ILA contract expires on December 29 without a resolution, ILA president Harold Daggett could call a strike a day later, McNamara said.
It would be the ILA's first industrial action on the U.S. east coast in 35 years, he said.
Some importers have taken steps to avoid any potential disruption to deliveries and supplies, although retailers may be relieved a work stoppage would come after the seasonal Christmas rush.
The collapse of talks follows an eight-day strike by harbor clerks at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach earlier this month, which brought activity almost to a standstill and sapped the region's economy of an estimated $8 billion.
Staff at the two neighboring ports in California returned to work on December 5 after the International Longshore and Warehouse Union reached a contract deal with management.
On the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, the ILA represents roughly 15,000 to 20,000 dock workers who load and unload automated containerized cargo at 36 major ports from Maine to Texas. The cargo ranges from clothes to agricultural commodities to beverages and furniture.
The Port of New York and New Jersey is the biggest on the U.S. east coast, according to the New York/New Jersey Port Authority's website, with nearly 5.3 million 20-foot containers (Teus) moving through it in 2011, up 4 percent from 2010.
Both sides are at loggerheads over the container royalty, which the ILA dock workers receive at the end of the year and which goes toward their benefits.
Before talks collapsed, the ILA had proposed extending the current contract until February 1, provided that the container royalty was removed on the negotiating table. McNamara said this was rejected by the USMX.
In turn, the USMX said the ILA had rebuffed a separate proposal by the mediator for a contract extension to February 7.
"While USMX agreed to the extension, ILA rejected it, refusing to discuss any changes to the status quo on container royalty and renewing its vow to strike," the USMX said on its website.
Wages for ILA dock workers range roughly from $21-$33 per hour, McNamara said. (Reporting By Marcy Nicholson; Edited by Josephine Mason and Bob Burgdorfer)