MANATEE -- Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday warned that the livelihood of thousands of Florida families could hang in the balance if negotiators fail to win an extension of a longshoremen's association contract set to expire Saturday.
But Manatee County likely would not be affected, should there be a port work stoppage, since it does not yet handle containerized cargo -- a primary sticking point in contract talks, according to Port Manatee Executive Director Carlos Buqueras.
The governor said Florida's largest ports could be shut down, affecting 550,000 jobs. Florida seaports contribute $66 billion annually in economic value to the state's economy, he said.
Negotiations are continuing between the International Longshoremen's Association and the U.S. Maritime Alliance, representing container carriers and port operators.
The deadline is quickly approaching, the governor said, adding, "We must help the Florida families whose livelihoods depend upon our ports," should negotiators fail to reach an agreement.
The state "cannot afford the devastation" that a strike would cause, he told reporters from across the nation during the press conference call.
Among the conference participants were port directors from across Florida, including Buqueras.
Port Manatee likely would escape effects of a work stoppage because the longshoremen's association has exempted non-containerized cargo, Buqueras said.
"The only company at the port with ILA laborers is Del Monte, and they informed us they do not expect any work disruption at all because they fall within the exclusion" outlined by union negotiators, said Buqueras. "Fruit coming into Manatee at this point is not containerized."
A strike would not affect passenger cruise ships, U.S. mail, military cargo or perishable cargo with a limited shelf life, union officials have said. It also would not affect non-container, or break bulk, cargo such as steel, wood products and cars.
Last week, Scott sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act to prevent a possible work stoppage if no agreement is reached before Saturday.
The White House said it is urging dockworkers and shipping companies to reach agreement "as quickly as possible" on a contract extension.
Obama spokesman Matt Lehrich says the White House is monitoring the situation closely and urges the parties to "continue their work at the negotiating table to get a deal done as quickly as possible."
The longshoremen's union represents 14,500 workers at the 15 ports, which extend south from Boston and handle 95 percent of all containerized shipments from Maine to Texas, about 110 million tons' worth.
The New York-New Jersey ports handle the most cargo on the East Coast, valued at $208 billion in 2011. The other ports that would be affected by a strike are Boston; Delaware River; Baltimore; Hampton Roads, Va.; Wilmington, N.C.; Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Port Everglades, Fla., Miami; Tampa; Mobile, Ala.; New Orleans; and Houston.
-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.com.