Import cargo volume at the nation’s major retail container ports is expected to increase 2.3 percent in January over the same month last year as retailers continue to urge labor and management to avoid a strike at East Coast and Gulf Coast docks, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released last week by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

The latest extension of contract talks between the International Longshoremen’s Association and the U.S. Maritime Alliance runs through February 6 and comes after previous strike deadlines in September and October. The union and management are scheduled to meet this week under the supervision of federal mediators, but the ILA walked away from local talks affecting the Ports of New York and New Jersey early last week. A strike would close 14 ports from Maine to Texas where nearly 15,000 dockworkers handle 40 percent of the nation’s ocean cargo.

“The threat of closing down nearly half our nation’s port capacity has only been postponed, not eliminated,” said NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold. “The uncertainty of what will happen in February has retailers implementing expensive contingency plans yet again and is a burden our economy cannot afford.”

U.S. ports followed by Global Port Tracker handled 1.25 million Twenty-foot Equivalent Units in November, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. With most holiday merchandise already in the country, that was down 8.6 percent from October, and down 2.8 percent from November 2011. One TEU is one 20-foot cargo container or its equivalent.

December was estimated at 1.3 million TEU, up 6.5 percent from last year. January is forecast at 1.31 million TEU, up 2.3 percent from January 2012; February at 1.15 million TEU, up 6 percent; March at 1.25 million TEU, up 0.5 percent, April at 1.33 million TEU, up 1.7 percent, and May at 1.42 million TEU, up 3.4 percent.

The first half of 2012 totaled 7.7 million TEU, up 3 percent from the same period last year. For the full year, 2012 was estimated at 15.8 million TEU, up 2.9 percent from 2011.

Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said there were signs that retailers brought merchandise into the country early as the ILA’s December 29 strike deadline approached.

“We have seen a rise in the level of the retail inventory-to-sales ratio,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said. “This may be a reflection of importers stocking up ahead of the East Coast/Gulf coast port strike that was expected, though the run-up came well ahead of that.”