Businesses complain of delays at West Coast ports

Jim Camden, January 15, 2015, Spokesman Review

Shipping delays at West Coast ports are hurting a wide range of Washington businesses, a pair of Senate committees was told Wednesday.


Apples aren’t getting to Asia for the Chinese New Year and are being dumped in central Washington canyons. A Seattle snowshoe maker couldn’t ship its products out for Christmas sales. Exports of Washington milk products are losing out to New Zealand.


The blame was laid on a wide array of problems, including inadequate roads and railways, slow development of new terminals, shortages of storage and equipment, and a labor dispute between the longshoremen unions and shippers.


What the Legislature can do about those problems in the short term, however, appears limited.


The Republicans on the two committees – Commerce and Labor and Trade and Economic Development – hoped to highlight the ongoing labor dispute that has resulted in a slowdown in the largest ports between Seattle and Los Angeles, and to come up with possible solutions. That was difficult because the Pacific Maritime Association, the management side of the dispute, canceled Tuesday night on its previous commitment to attend the hearing.


A spokesman for the association in San Francisco said he could find no record of the organization getting a formal invitation to the hearing. “Our priority remains on the ongoing negotiations currently underway in San Francisco,” Wade Gates said.


But Commerce and Labor Chairman Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, said the maritime association definitely got an invitation and showed email communications he had with the association’s lobbyist canceling their appearance.


Representatives of the longshoremen unions, who did appear, laid blame on management, saying hours for workers have been cut and the ports are so crowded that trucks are backed up.


Dan McKisson, a representative of the Puget Sound Council of the union, said the main problem is congestion.


“It’s like you’ve got a five gallon bucket and you’re trying to put in 10 gallons of manure… You’re going to have a mess,” he said. “When we were working full shifts, there wasn’t a mess.”


Mark Spears of Chelan Fruit Marketing said apple growers are seeing the effects of that mess. The state had a record apple crop, and November through January is the height of their sales season because apples are popular in China for that country’s new year celebration. Some shippers are only able to move half their normal amounts or are facing nearly double the time to get a perishable product to market.


“The clock is ticking on shelf life,” Spears said. Some farmers are diverting Red Delicious apples to processors or dumping them in canyons.


David Burroughs of Cascade Designs said his Seattle-based company couldn’t get parts in from Ireland for its new snowshoe design and couldn’t get the finished products out to foreign markets or to the East Coast in time for Christmas sales.


Democrats on the committee focused on other problems causing delays, such as a possible shortage of rail cars because of oil and coal shipments, and a shortage of chassis for truckers to haul containers that come off the ships. When Jeff Calaway of Calaway Trading said he was told one day the ports were closed because of a slowdown by the unions, Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, objected to blaming one side of the issue.


Representatives of the ports of Seattle and Tacoma and the Council on International Trade seemed reluctant to weigh in on the labor dispute, which is before a federal mediator. Instead they talked about the importance of trade to the state, improvements their facilities have made and big projects the Legislature should consider, such as major improvements of highways leading into the ports to improve traffic.


Baumgartner kept trying to steer witnesses back to possible action the state could take to address effects of the labor dispute, with limited success.


“I want to emphasize that the primary thing the state of Washington can do to help us is on the capital investment side,” Eric Johnson of the Public Ports Association said.


“Yeah, we get that,” Baumgartner broke in. “This is not an opportunity for everybody to stand up and talk about the transportation package.”


Baumgartner, who called for the hearing, later said the session was made difficult by a law that forbids state officials from taking sides in a labor dispute. But the Legislature will have to watch problems at the ports closely because continued reductions in shipping could reduce state tax revenue, which will make tough budget decisions even tougher, he said.

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