By Aaron Corvin, April 25, 2013, The Columbian
There’s a chance your job exists because of Washington state’s strong links to international trade — built on road, river and rail connections. And if you think moving goods and services regionally and around the world just adds to the traffic jam during your morning commute, think again.
Roughly 40 percent of all jobs in Washington state are “tied to trade,” said Eric Schinfeld, president of the Washington Council on International Trade. Unfortunately, said Aaron Hegeman, director of public and private partnerships for BNSF Railway, “a lot of people see transportation” — which brackets regional and global trade — “as a burden or cost.”
In reality, Hegeman added, the United States’ supply chain is reliable and cheap compared to Europe and China, and it remains one of the country’s greatest economic advantages. But that advantage may slip away, Hegeman and Schinfeld said, if the nation fails to further invest in public infrastructure and neglects to produce a national freight-mobility plan.
The two men were among several state and local business and government leaders who spoke Thursday as part of the Port of Vancouver’s annual “Port Report” breakfast, attended by more than 300 people at the Red Lion Hotel Vancouver at the Quay. The theme of the event — which featured panelists Schinfeld, Hegeman and Washington State University Vancouver Chancellor Mel Netzhammer — centered on why transportation, academic and other connections matter in generating economic growth.
However, not everyone was feeling connected to those gains. Before and during the event, union dockworkers sought to bring attention to their contract dispute with United Grain Corp., which operates a grain-export terminal at the Port of Vancouver.
About 50 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union attempted to hand out fliers at the port’s early-morning event but were “kicked out” of the Red Lion Hotel, according to Jennifer Sargent, a union spokeswoman.
Instead, ILWU members passed out their literature along the street and inside the hotel’s parking lot. The fliers say, in part, that United Grain benefits from investments by taxpayers in public works projects while freezing out local workers.
The company and the ILWU are at odds over a new labor contract as part of a larger conflict between grain-terminal operators and union dockworkers in the Pacific Northwest. The brouhaha intensified on Feb. 27, when United Grain locked out 44 dockworkers at the port after it alleged a union official sabotaged equipment. The union has denied any wrongdoing, and the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney is weighing whether to file criminal charges.
A spokesman for United Grain and other terminal operators has said the companies have offered dockworkers a generous compensation package. But they need more flexibility in workplace rules to compete on a level playing field with other grain exporters, according to the spokesman.
Inside the Red Lion Hotel, as the port took questions and comments from the audience, Cager Clabaugh, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 4 in Vancouver, rose to speak at one of several microphones.
When he hears talk of competitive advantages, Clabaugh said, he suspects it means cutting workers’ wages and health benefits to fatten corporate bottom lines. That “makes it hard for us to send (our) kids” to WSUV, Clabaugh said, and to buy goods and services.
Port of Vancouver Executive Director Todd Coleman said both the ILWU and United Grain have respected the port’s desire to maintain safety, protect its property and to stay open for business.
Coleman said the port “whole-heartedly believes” the parties’ contract dispute will be resolved soon.
Hegeman, director of public and private partnerships for BNSF Railway, said the Port of Vancouver is a model for how to leverage public-private partnerships to get things done.
Port officials said they’re working hard to generate jobs, including advancing the port’s $275 million West Vancouver Freight Access project, a rail expansion to speed freight and to attract more private investment and jobs. The freight-rail project is 50 percent complete.
Port Commissioner Jerry Oliver said the port expects BHP Billiton, the Australian mining giant, to sign a final lease deal by the end of this year, enabling the company to export potash at the port’s Terminal 5. And work is well under way to install infrastructure at a portion of the port’s Centennial Industrial Park, Oliver said, aimed at attracting 500 jobs. He said the port hopes to have employers secured at the site “by this time next year.” He added: “We’re making every effort to generate family-wage jobs.”