TAMPA — Just about everything imported onto the shelves of the nation's major retailers arrived in this country in a big corrugated steel box.
The flow of those containers is worth billions to Florida, an economic artery that Gov. Rick Scott fears is threatened by the long-simmering dispute between the companies that ship the containers and the longshoremen who unload them.
The directors of Florida's ports joined the governor Thursday as Scott renewed his call for President Obama to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, which gives the president the power to keep the International Longshoremen's Association on the job if the ILA fails to strike a bargain with the United States Maritime Alliance before their agreement expires Saturday at midnight.
If the ILA strikes, nearly 15,000 workers at 15 ports from Boston to Houston will stop unloading the millions of cargo containers that help keep the economy going. No state has more ports affected than Florida: Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville and Tampa.
"A shut down of Florida ports is simply not an option for Florida families," Scott said.
The stakes are high: Containerized cargo generates $66 billion in economic activity and more than 500,000 jobs a year in Florida alone, according to the governor's office. The Port of Miami, the state's busiest cargo port, handled 900,000 containers in 2011.
The container companies and port associations that make up the Maritime Alliance have been far apart from the ILA over the terms of a new six-year contract. The sticking point: "Container Royalty." Those payments were offered decades ago as automation started to reduce jobs. Now they can make up to half of the typical longshoreman's salary, about $50,000 a year.
It's a non-negotiable issue to the union, which said it has offered to compromise on other matters. But the alliance says the payments are a form of overcompensation accruing to a dwindling number of workers. The alliance wants to cut, or kill the payments, altogether.
If there is a strike, the Port of Tampa will face one of its first tests on Sunday, when the Liberian-flagged container ship North Sea is due. According to local union leaders, the ship will remain anchored outside the Sunshine Skyway bridge, near the mouth of Tampa Bay, until the strike is resolved. Port officials said they're not aware of those plans.
The stakes in Tampa are more personal than economic. Tampa's port handled just 40,000 containers in 2011. Only four workers will be financially impacted.
Jimmy Westbrook, the 46-year-old single father of two teenage boys, will be one of them.
"We've all been saving up, trying to get ready for this," he said. "We all hope that at the last hour they settle on something or extend (the current contract.)
"That's what our hopes are. But at this point in time it doesn't look promising."
Westbrook is the president of ILA Local 1691, a small union of just 30 clerical members. They process the paperwork used to bring cargo ashore.
Four members, including Westbrook, focus solely on cargo containers. Getting them unloaded, getting them on the right trucks and sending them to the right destination. In Tampa, that's often shipments of furniture, olive oil and electronics. Though the union will try to find the four men part-time work elsewhere at the port, they cannot shift to other assignments.
The 300 longshoremen that make up Local 1402 have more flexibility. It takes about 27 members to operate the towering gantry cranes, forklifts and other equipment used to unload the container ship that arrives weekly at the Port of Tampa.
But those members will be able to shift to other assignments at the port during the strike, said James Harrell Sr., the 74-year-old president of Local 1402, who has spent half a century with the union.
They plan to walk the picket line outside the port's main entrance at 2002 Maritime Blvd. as a sign of solidarity, but they will not suffer financially during the strike.
"If the strike happens, it's going to happen," Harrell said, "and we'll be a part of it."
They'll still be able to work because, under the terms of the strike, longshoremen will unload military cargo, vehicles, perishable items, mail and cruise ship cargo. Containers are the only cargo they won't unload during the strike.
But, of course, those containers affect every facet of our lives, said Jim Kruse, the director for the Center for Ports and Waterways at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute in Houston.
"Most everything you see at Walmart, Home Depot, Lowe's; if it came from outside the country, it came in a container," Kruse said. "It affects everyone one way or another because we import stuff from all over the place."
Gov. Scott said that the impact of this strike could exceed the $1 billion a day that the 11-day dock strike in 2002 reportedly cost, a strike that led President Bush to invoke Taft-Hartly. The act allows the president to delay a strike for 80 days and impose federal mediation if the strike endangers the nation's wellbeing.
Scott said he has not heard back from President Obama about his request. The ILA, a member of the AFL-CIO, opposes federal intervention. Both sides are meeting with a federal mediator this week but there has been no word on how the talks are going — or if the two sides have even met.
Kruse said it would take up to two weeks for this strike to have any real impact. That's because everyone up and down the supply chain has been speeding up shipments and hoarding goods to prepare for a potential strike.
"If it goes beyond two weeks, then it becomes a major issue," Kruse said. "Your major importers of containers, Walmart, Lowe's, Target: those are the places where everybody shops. A long-term stoppage would affect their ability to get stuff on the shelves.
"Prices will go up. It will definitely raise the cost of business for anybody who uses containers."
Information from the Miami Herald and Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.