Obama Dilemma: Anger Union Allies or Aggravate Cliff’s Recession

Photograph by Rich Clement/Bloomberg

The Port of Baltimore in Maryland, which could be part of the strike on Dec. 29.

If faced with a choice between invoking a law union leaders once called the “slave-labor bill,” or aggravating a recession by allowing shipments of clothing, auto parts and other goods to stop at ports from Maine to Texas at the same time the nation is about to fall off the fiscal cliff, which way would President Barack Obama go?

It’s a dilemma the president may not be able to avoid, or postpone for long, if federal mediators can’t help port operators and the union representing 15,000 longshoremen work out a deal before their contract expires at midnight Dec. 29.

Federal mediators said Dec. 24 they’ll make one more effort to bring the sides together before the deadline, which comes three days before the tax increases and government budget cuts known as the fiscal cliff would begin without a deal between Obama and Congress.

A walkout would be the first at East Coast and Gulf Coast ports since 1977.

The White House hasn’t tipped its hand on whether it would invoke the Taft Hartley Act, a 1947 law passed over President Harry S. Truman’s veto that allows the president to seek a court injunction to delay strikes deemed a threat to national interests.

The last two presidents to win injunctions — George W. Bush and Richard Nixon — were Republicans who used the law to end port disputes. A Democrat last invoked the law in 1978, when Jimmy Carter tried to order striking coal miners back to work.

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