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Dock worker strike looms despite cooling-off period request

By Chris Reese

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Dock workers on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts moved closer to a potential strike next week even though Florida's governor asked President Barack Obama to order a cooling-off period if the nearly 15,000 longshoremen walk off the job.

The International Longshoremen's Association, the union representing the dock workers, and the U.S. Maritime Alliance, the group of shippers and port operators, have been bargaining since March, but reportedly remain far from a deal covering cargo handling at 15 ports on the U.S. Gulf and eastern coasts.

The employment contract between the two groups expired at the end of September, but the sides agreed to a 90-day extension of terms that runs out on December 29. The union has said if the contract expires without a resolution it could call a strike a day later.

In a letter this week, Florida's Republican Governor Rick Scott asked President Obama to invoke federal law and order a cooling-off period if the longshoremen go on strike.

Despite Scott's request, the International Longshoremen's Association was continuing to operate with the December 29 deadline in mind, Jim McNamara, a spokesman for the longshoremen's union, said on Sunday.

"We have the deadline and we are waiting to hear from the federal mediator," McNamara said, adding that the union expects to "continue negotiations until the end of (December) 29, so that is where we are at right now."

Spokesmen for the U.S. Maritime Alliance were not immediately available for comment.

A White House spokesman was also not immediately available to comment on whether President Obama would consider the request for a cooling-off period.

Scott said in a letter to Obama, dated Thursday, that the president had the power under 1947's Taft-Hartley Act to prevent or interrupt a work stoppage at the ports. Presidents Richard Nixon and George W. Bush both used Taft-Hartley, which calls for 80-day cooling-off periods and mediation, Scott said.

Florida ports in Miami and Fort Lauderdale would be directly hit by a strike or lockout, but a stoppage would also rattle overall transport and trade, which accounts for 550,000 jobs in the state and $66 billion in economic activity, Scott told Obama.

The December 29 deadline looms as nearly 3,000 union dock workers at four Pacific Northwest ports voted on Friday and Saturday on a "final" contract offer presented by grain shippers. Union leaders had urged a rejection of the proposal, although results of the vote were not yet available on Sunday.

(Editing by Jan Paschal)

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