TAMPA — Union leader Jimmy Westbrook got the good news via text from Washington, D.C., at 10 a.m. Friday. By that afternoon, it was official.
The strike that threatened to cripple international shipping at 15 East and Gulf Coast ports was averted when the International Longshoremen's Association and the United States Maritime Alliance struck a deal on a key sticking point before a scheduled walkout at midnight today.
Had the strike taken place, nearly 15,000 ILA members from Boston to Houston would have stopped unloading the millions of cargo containers that carry the lifeblood of American consumerism: clothes, electronics, nearly everything major retailers import from overseas and sell on store shelves here.
Florida would have paid a high price: The ports of Tampa, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville were all on the list. The state says those containers are worth $66 billion and more than 500,000 jobs a year to the Florida economy.
Westbrook, 46, a father of two boys, would have also paid a price. He was one of four clerical workers at the Port of Tampa who would have been out of work had the strike taken place. They've been saving money for months, just in case.
"None of us can rest easy here until there's a cut and signed document," Westbook said. "But we are in a better position right now."
Federal mediator George Cohen helped both sides agree on a key point during Thursday's negotiating session. While negotiations continue, the ILA agreed to keep working for another 40 days until the new deadline: Feb. 6.
That key issue is "Container Royalty," something the longshoremen once vowed to never compromise on in their dispute with the container and shipping companies of the Maritime Alliance.
Container royalties were offered as extra compensation to the ILA decades ago as automation reduced longshoremen jobs. Now those royalties can make up half of a typical longshoreman's salary, around $50,000. But port and shipping companies wanted to see the royalties end. They see it as adding to their bottom line while giving a dwindling number of workers an expensive salary boost.
While details of the compromise were not officially disclosed on Friday, Westbrook said he heard that the ILA agreed to cap the amount of money each longshoremen can get from royalties. As president of the 30-member clerical union of ILA Local 1691, Westbrook has participated in negotiating sessions.
"From what I've heard from other people, they're all happy about that," he said. "They're just worried about what we're going to have to give up to get that."
In exchange for keeping the royalties, Westbrook heard the ILA may concede the minimum hours each longshoremen is paid to work each day. In the ILA's south Atlantic and Gulf Coast district, workers are paid eight hours minimum, regardless of how much time they actually spend unloading containers. That may go down to four hours, with another four added if necessary.
Jim Kruse, director for the Center for Ports and Waterways at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute in Houston, said that trade-off makes sense.
"Originally (the union) resisted any cap, period," Kruse said. "Neither side is going to get everything they want. And I know the companies really wanted to change the work rules. So it makes sense to me that they got the work rules changed in exchange for not cracking down on the royalty payments."
"We are hopeful these two organizations will quickly reach a final agreement to permanently remove the threat of a port shut down that would devastate families all across our state," said Gov. Rick Scott in a prepared statement.
Florida's governor, however, continued to press President Barack Obama to consider federal action if there's a strike. The Taft-Hartley Act would allow the president to keep workers at their jobs for up to 80 days.
"I am pleased to announce that the ILA made major gains on the container royalty issue that will protect our ILA members," said national union president Harold Daggett.
"While a contract extension does not provide the level of certainty that retailers and other industries were looking for," said National Retail Federation president and CEO Matthew Shay, "it is a much better result than an East and Gulf Coast port strike that would have shut down . . . ports from Maine to Texas."
There's a lot at stake for Westbrook and the three other clerical workers with families here who could still be affected, but that's not the case for the rest of the Port of Tampa. The port itself only handled 40,000 containers last year. Also, most of the 330 members of the two ILA unions at the port would keep working during a strike. That's because the only cargo affected by the strike comes in containers. Mail, perishables, military cargo and bulk cargo including fuel would be unloaded as usual.
Still, everyone wants to know what the final deal will look like, said James Harrell Sr., the 74-year-old president of the other Tampa union, Local 1402.
"The big boys are going to have to figure that out," he said.
Jamal Thalji can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3404.