With Washington frantically trying to stave off a national “fiscal cliff” of tax increases and automatic budget cuts, the already wobbling US economy likely would have teetered further if the 14,500 longshoremen had walked off docks from New York to Houston on Sunday. The workers handle 40 percent of US container traffic – about 100 million tons a year – and a strike could have cost $1 billion a day by blocking what is, in effect, the lifeblood of the US marketplace.
The situation had become serious enough for state leaders, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott, to call on President Obama to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, a federal labor law used by President George W. Bush to end a 10-day, 29-port lockout on the West Coast in 2002.
The gritty longshoremen, meanwhile, are uniquely situated to push their agenda, even at the risk of losing public and political support, labor experts say. While relatively small, the longshoremen’s union historically has been aggressive in protecting its workers’ benefits, and its members’ central role to the US economy makes the union a particularly tough negotiator.