In Our View: Put Stop to Slowdown

Obama must act to end Longshore union’s tactics at West Coast ports

December 2, 2014, The Columbian

A labor dispute that has infected ports up and down the West Coast is a threat to the national economy and calls for intervention on the part of President Barack Obama.


An impasse between the International Longshore Workers Union and the Pacific Maritime Association has been growing since their contract expired July 1, and the situation serves as a lecture in Economics 101. Ports in Seattle, Tacoma, Los Angeles, and Long Beach, Calif., have reported work slowdowns from union members, sending out ripples that extend throughout the entire region.


Consider Washington’s apple industry. The state has enjoyed a bountiful crop this year that is about 35 percent larger than usual. That’s great news for apple growers and for the state’s economy — unless the product cannot be delivered to buyers. Apples are exported to about 60 countries, including many in which the fruit is a traditional part of the Christmas season. “In some markets, like Central America, 50 percent of our shipments occur before Christmas,” said Rebecca Lyons, international marketing director for the Washington Apple Commission. “Once you miss that Christmas window, it’s very difficult to catch up again.”


Or consider the state’s Christmas tree industry. The Pacific Northwest is the nation’s largest producer of holiday evergreens, but, as Peter Friedmann, executive director of the Agriculture Transportation Coalition, explained, “Maybe this season, they’re just about giving Christmas trees away because they can’t export them. You know what happens next year? That guy who was growing Christmas trees and had about three weeks to make all his money for the year is out of business. And then we’re buying our Christmas trees from British Columbia, where they’re not having problems.”


The problems became evident at the end of October, when workers began a slowdown at 29 West Coast ports. Officials at the Port of Vancouver have said that no slowdown has taken place there, but the issue can have a catastrophic effect on the entire region. Washington is the nation’s most trade-dependent state, with industries such as apples, Christmas trees, potatoes, and hay relying upon overseas markets. The worst-case scenario is that the slowdown will grow into a strike or a lockout, and one estimate suggests that such a shutdown could cost the economy as much as $2 billion a day.


Nearly one month ago, the National Retail Federation implored Obama to intervene. Last week, the Agriculture Transportation Coalition echoed that call, with Friedmann saying, “The consequences are being felt throughout the country. The railroads are unable to bring agriculture products from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest ports because of the labor slowdown at the ports.”


For their part, representatives of the ports and the union have declined to request third-party intervention — which probably points out the need for such assistance. Union leaders have disingenuously said that employees are merely working in a safe fashion; meanwhile, trucks are backing up the ports, waiting to off-load their supplies. With the dispute lingering over five months and escalating into a damaging slowdown, the necessity for intervention is clear.


In 2002, when ports closed as the result of a labor dispute, President George W. Bush invoked powers enumerated under the Taft-Hartley Act to impose a cooling-off period and forbid work slowdowns. Obama should employ the same tactic, bringing attention to — and urging a resolution for — a situation that is growing into a crisis.

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