NEW YORK - 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, potentially delivering a big 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 would immediately 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 shutdown, even for a few days, could cost the economy billions of dollars.
A small group of clerical workers picket at the Maersk cargo terminal, where container-handling cranes are in the up and idle position, background, at the Port of Los Angeles Thursday.
"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. And when the workers do return, "it's going to take time to clear out that backlog, and we don't know how long that it's going to take."
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.
Joseph Ahlstrom, a professor at the State University of New York's Maritime College and a former cargo ship captain, called container ships the "lifeblood of the country."
"We don't fly in a lot of products. It's just too expensive," Ahlstrom said. "The bulk of the products we import come in inside containers."
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 agreed to extend it once already, for 90 days, but they have so far balked at extending it again when it expires at 12:01 a.m. Sunday.