Dipping its toe into the contentious contract dispute between the union representing East and Gulf Coast dockworkers and a consortium of shipping companies, the White House on Thursday urged the parties to reach an agreement expeditiously.

This story first appeared in the December 28, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Matt Lehrich, a spokesman for President Obama, said the White House is monitoring the situation closely and implores the International Longshoremen’s Association and the U.S. Maritime Alliance to “continue their work at the negotiating table to get a deal done as quickly as possible.”

Talks between the dockworkers and shipping companies broke down Dec. 18 over unresolved issues such as container royalties — the payments to union workers based on cargo weight that have been in practice since the Sixties when containerization and automation took hold. The ILA and the USMX agreed to meet this week at the request of the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service, which is mediating the negotiations.

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Industry groups such as the American Apparel & Footwear Association and the National Retail Association have urged Obama, who returned to the White House on Thursday facing a deadline of his own — a Jan. 1 date with the fiscal cliff — to get involved before the pending Saturday midnight contract expiration. Representatives of the industry organizations are said to have a meeting set for Friday with Deputy Secretary of Transportation John Porcari to discuss this issue. U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it is establishing procedures in case a strike is called and results in major delays and diversions of vessel cargo arriving and departing ports along the East and Gulf Coasts.

The USMX said last week that a strike by ILA members would not only have “serious consequences for the nation’s still-recovering economy, but it would also jeopardize the financial well-being of the ILA’s 14,500 members, who would lose nearly $5 million in wages and benefits for each day they’re out of work, or a total of $150 million in lost compensation in just a month.”

The ILA said if a strike is called, it would be limited to containerized cargo, and that it would still handle perishable commodities, military cargo, containerized mail, noncontainerized cargo and autos and passenger ships.

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