In just a few days, a walkout by thousands of dock workers could bring commerce to a near standstill at every major port from Boston to Houston, including the Port of New York and New Jersey, potentially delivering a blow to retailers and manufacturers still struggling to find their footing in a weak economy.
More than 14,000 longshoremen are threatening to go on strike Sunday -- a wide-ranging work stoppage that could close cargo ports on the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico to container ships.
The 15 ports involved in the labor dispute move more than 100 million tons of goods each year, or about 40 percent of the nation's containerized cargo traffic. Losing them to a long-term shutdown could cost the economy billions of dollars.
"If the port shuts down, nothing moves in or out," said Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation.
Shipments of such varied products as flat-screen TVs, sneakers and snow shovels would either sit idle at sea or get rerouted, at great time and expense. U.S. factories also rely on container ships for parts and raw materials, meaning supply lines for all sorts of products could be squeezed.
But Eduardo Martinez, a senior economist at Moody's Analytics, said Thursday a short strike of a week or a few weeks would be unlikely to have much impact on the economy.
"There's never a good time to have a strike, but if you're going to have a strike, this is a pretty good time to have it because you're in a post-holiday/Christmas shopping season," Martinez said.
The strike would hurt businesses and communities that are dependent on port activity, but goods can be shipped across the country by truck or rail, he said. "The ability for Long Island consumers to get . . . products probably isn't going to be impacted, at least in the short term."
The master contract between the International Longshoremen's Association and the U.S. Maritime Alliance, a group representing shipping lines, terminal operators and port associations, expired in September. The two sides already agreed to extend it once, for 90 days.
The union said its members would agree to another extension only if the Maritime Alliance dropped a proposal to freeze the royalties workers get for every container they unload. The Alliance has argued that the longshoremen, who it said earn an average $124,138 per year in wages and benefits, are compensated well enough already.
If it happens, the walkout could be the biggest national port disruption since 2002, when unionized dockworkers were locked out of 29 West Coast ports for 10 days because of a contract dispute.
The ports reopened after President George W. Bush, invoking powers given to him by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, ordered an 80-day cooling-off period. With Ted Phillips