By Marcy Nicholson
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The union representing U.S. dockworkers and the organization for shipping companies and ports agreed on Thursday to resume labor talks to avert a possible strike that would stop container movement at 36 ports along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
The International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) and the U.S. Maritime Alliance (USMX) will return to the bargaining table to try to hammer out a new labor deal less than two weeks before the September 30 expiration of the port workers' existing contract, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service said on Thursday.
Some 20,000 longshoremen who handle container cargos from Maine to Texas are represented by the ILA, while USMX is an alliance of container carriers, direct employers, and port associations along the U.S. East and Gulf Coasts.
Talks will restart in the week of September 17 after the previous round broke down in late August. The exact time and location have not been disclosed due to the sensitive nature of the dispute, the mediator said.
An ILA spokesman declined to comment on the possibility of industrial action saying the union's focus is on resuming talks.
Even so, the Port of Virginia said on Wednesday it plans to move as much cargo as possible ahead of the September 30 deadline in case of a work stoppage.
Importers are also taking measures to avoid disruption to supplies.
Some U.S. coffee roasters have been scrambling to buy beans stored in U.S. warehouses, for fear their crucial raw material may be held up by industrial action. Eastern ports are a major entry point for imported Brazilian and Colombian beans.
"People are scooping up on stuff (coffee) as insurance," said one U.S. coffee importer.
"The ones who have come forward, looking for spots for insurance, have been big roasters, just wanting to know what kind of coffees I have available on spot."
"Spots" refer to coffee that is either delivered immediately or at the time scheduled for the nearby futures contract.
Beans from Brazil and Colombia have been the most sought after. Stocks of ICE certified Central American coffee are plentiful in U.S. warehouses, dealers said.
"We have had several roasters asking us to try and anticipate shipments from those two origins if we can," another U.S. coffee importer said, referring to Brazil and Colombia.
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.
While items such as furniture, beverages, clothing accessories and machinery, including nuclear reactors, make up the bulk of volume, more than 36,000 Teus of coffee, tea, mate and spices were handled by the port last year, its data shows.
More than 31,600 Teus were filled with cocoa and cocoa preparations, and about 20,000 Teus of sugar and sugar confectionary.
A strike by the longshoremen on the Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico coasts would not impact oil imports or exports, shippers and refiners said.
(Additional reporting by Joan Gralla and Janet McGurty in New York; Editing by Josephine Mason)