Potato industry impacted by labor disputes at ports

By Richard Byrd, November 26, 2014, Columbia Basin Herald

The potato industry is feeling the effects of an ongoing labor dispute at Seattle and Tacoma ports.

The Pacific Maritime Association’s (PMA) employee union, and the International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union (ILWU), are embroiled in labor negotiations.

The labor dispute is affecting numerous ports along the West Coast, with the ILWU even initiating an orchestrated slowdown at the Seattle and Tacoma ports, according to the PMA.

Negotiations began in May, with the previous labor contract expiring on July 1.

Current negations are tabled and will not resume until next week.

“Despite a request from the Pacific Maritime Association to continue bargaining, the ILWU has decided to curtail “big table” negotiations starting today (Nov. 20) through the end of the Thanksgiving weekend, a 12-day break,” according to a release from the PMA.

Washington State Potato Commission Director of Government Affairs Matt Harris said local potato farmers have already felt the effects of the negotiations.

Grant County is a leader in the potato industry with the state being a significant presence in the potato industry. In 2012, Grant County produced 1,266,250 tons of potatoes, 26.4 percent of Washington’s total production, according the USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service.

Harris said he heard reports of a potato grower who was exporting about 40 to 50 containers of potatoes a week, mostly going to the Pacific Rim, to shipping about a “handful” of potatoes.

“It has been very difficult with the lack of container availability,” Harris said. “So when container ships are not really coming into the ports, coming in and off-loading, it’s really hard to then grab any available container.”

Harris said the potato industry is entering its peak shipping season. When contracts with buyers overseas go unfulfilled, the buyers will go to another source.

He said the U.S. competes against potato producers in Europe, China, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. That prompts the question: if the matter is resolved, can a business relationship be re-established with overseas buyers?

Harris noted in 2013, the state exported nearly a billion dollars worth of potato products.

“For 2013, what we understand as potato products that are originally from Washington state that pass through all Washington ports, so that includes Seattle/Tacoma, all Washington ports,” Harris said. “It was $927.1 million dollars, so I mean it’s a substantial amount of what we do in this industry is export.”

The potato industry isn’t the only industry that has been feeling the effects of the labor dispute. The apple industry also stands to lose revenue if the matter is not resolved in the near future.

According to a report from the Associated Press, this year’s apple crop yielded about 155 million, 40-pound boxes of apples, which is a 35 percent increase in crop yields, a record number.

The biggest importers of Washington’s apples are Mexico and Canada, but apples are also sent via ships to about 60 other countries worldwide, according to the Associated Press.

Apples would have to leave ports by the end of November to reach Central American countries in time for the holiday season, which is not currently a feasible possibility. That’s because the ILWU tabled negotiations until the end of November.

Thirteenth Legislative District Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, recently said in a prepared statement local businesses and employers have already felt the effects.

“The timing of this cannot be worse. The holiday season is approaching and there is a significant trickle-down effect,” Manweller said. “To address their potential losses, producers and employers in my district have started laying off employees. It may be a very bleak Christmas and holiday season for many unless we start to see some urgency in the negotiations.”

Manweller said about 850,000 jobs in the state involve the production of goods, which in turn need a location to export their goods from.

He also said employers have stopped shipping their products until the labor dispute is fully settled.

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