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Potential Strike At East, Gulf Coast Ports Would Hurt Charlotte

Shipping activity at the major ports along the East and Gulf coasts could grind to a halt late next week. That's because negotiations have broken down between dockworkers and ocean carriers to renew an expiring contract. If a strike happens, the effects would stretch across highways and railroads to Charlotte and beyond.

After the current contract expires December 29, dockworkers from Maine to Texas will likely go on strike. That's how the president of the union representing the dockworkers put it after negotiations broke down this week.

Joe Bonney is an editor for the Journal of Commerce, and he's covered the dockworkers' union, called the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA), for about three decades.

"If there is a strike, it would be the first coast-wide strike the ILA has had in East and Gulf Coast ports since 1977," Bonney said.

He said it would shut down all the major container ports, which handle goods ranging from clothing to electronics to auto parts.

If those things aren't getting moved on or off ships, it'll set off a chain reaction that affects businesses and consumers much farther inland.   

Trucking From Charlotte To The Coast

Bridge Terminal Transport in Charlotte has an expansive trucking terminal and inland port with dozens of huge shipping containers and 18-wheelers. A safety specialist closed the large, heavy door of one of the empty 40-foot containers as Terminal Manager Tom Zervos stood by.

"That (container) came in from China," Zervos said.

It was full of sandals, and one of Bridge Terminal's truckers picked it up from the Port of Charleston, delivered the sandals to Adidas in Spartanburg, and then brought the empty container here.

"Everything we do is to and from the ports," Zervos said.

Zervos said the company's Charlotte terminal has 57 drivers. Almost all of them truck to and from the Charleston and Savannah ports, which are two of the biggest on the East Coast. Zervos says Charlotte is the perfect distance – truckers can make it there and back daily.

The terminal here brings in roughly $150,000 dollars of revenue a week. But Zervos said if a strike shuts down the ports, his business basically comes to a standstill.

"I guess everyone's just hoping it doesn't happen, but it's not looking that way," Zervos said. "A week or two, we could survive that, no problem, I would think. But, I mean, anything longer than that? It could get ugly."

A Massive Inland Industry Reliant On Ports

There are hundreds of other Charlotte companies that are also directly connected to the ports, whether through interstates, railroads or airlines.

"Economically, it's a big, big part of Charlotte," said Erin Watkins, the Charlotte Chamber's senior director of research.

She said distribution and warehousing is one of the top industries in Mecklenburg County.

Think about it this way: there are 629 distribution companies in the county with $1 million or more in annual sales. Compare that to the finance industry, which has about half as many companies here that meet that $1-million benchmark.

Simply put, Watkins said a strike at the ports could have a huge impact on this part of the state.

The dockworkers and ocean liners could still come to an agreement before their contract expires December 29. But as of now, there are no further negotiations scheduled.