Tri-City Herald: Stalled longshoresmen negotiation cripples many

“This is the quietest disaster that any of us have seen.”

— Jim Kleist, RailEx

The slowdown at the West Coast ports because of a labor dispute with longshoremen is only recently making mainstream news. But it has been crippling our state’s ag economy and devastating our neighbors’ livelihoods for months.

This is a big deal to all of us. The quote from RailEx’s Jim Kleist really said it all. A quiet disaster like this will take a long time to recover from once the dispute is settled and operations are restored.

Washington has spent big dollars to get help its producers to join the export market and the efforts have paid off. More than $15.1 billion in food and agricultural products were exported through Washington ports in 2013, the third largest total in the U.S, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

But thanks to the longshoremen’s antics to slowdown operations at West Coast ports, exports have fallen 50 percent.

Those selling hay are particularly hard hit. They are nearly 100 percent dependent on the export market for their livelihoods. Others run at about 25 percent in exports, equating to millions of dollars in lost revenue in recent months.

It seems ridiculous that Columbia Basin-grown potatoes processed into french fries and destined for the Japanese market may now have to be routed to Houston and the Panama Canal to get to their destination when we have container ports within a four-hour drive of here.

The problems started in November and have steadily gotten worse. Agriculture isn’t the only industry affected. The Port of Seattle alone had exports of $5.8 billion in non-ag exports in 2012, with the leading items being forest products, seafood and paper-related products. Businesses that rely on the export trade are contracting rather than expanding, opportunities have been missed and jobs lost.

The sad part is the businesses being crushed have zero control over the situation. Their economic well-being is in the hands of a union in the midst of a contract dispute. The International Longshoremen Workers Union blames the slowdown on operational changes while the Pacific Maritime Association says the workers are purposely causing the problem as a negotiating tactic for better wages and benefits.

The situation appears to finally be coming to a head, with the maritime association taking a stand to shut down West Coast operations for much of this holiday weekend, denying workers bonus pay.

While some have been paying attention to the port situation for months, most have only recently heard about it, if at all. No matter what happens, it may be too little too late for many producers.

News reports say an offer of $147,000 for an average salary, health care covered fully by the employer to the tune of $35,000 a year, and a pension that tops out at $88,000 a year, was not good enough. Oh, and a pay guarantee gets them 40 hours of pay per week, even if no work is available. Longshoremen are also apparently fighting for the right to fire any arbitrator who rules against them.

That hardly seems fair. But nothing in this situation is fair to those who depend on the ports to get their goods to overseas markets. Up to this point, the union has had full control of the situation, stifling the flow through the ports at will.

Not many politicians seem willing to take a stand against a powerful labor union, with U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., being the lone Washington exception in D.C. So unless a strike comes about and President Obama can invoke the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, it’s up to maritime association to take a stand once and for all.

But even when the dispute is resolved the adverse effects will last for years as those who came to rely on Washington exports are being forced to find more reliable suppliers. It will take years to regain that ground.