Congress Must Pass PORTS Billsby Editorial Board
Capital Press, August 20, 2015
Congress needs to make sure we don't have a repeat of last winter's container port debacle every time a contract expires.
While most of the public has forgotten the months-long slowdown at West Coast container ports, farmers, ranchers, processors and agricultural exporters have not.
They are still paying the price for the foolishness inflicted on them by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association.
While the two sides were locked in a slow-motion Kabuki dance negotiating a new five-year contract, the ILWU choreographed a work slowdown that continued into the new year. Shipments were stopped or delayed and stacks of containers filled with agricultural goods piled up on the docks.
The Port of Portland lost its last major container carrier in part because of the nonsense. That means exporters who used that port have to pay extra to go through the ports of Seattle and Tacoma.
While the ILWU and management were hassling with one another, customers in Asia were buying meat, potatoes, hay, nuts and produce elsewhere.
Once the new port contract was signed, U.S. ag goods arrived overseas, but many of them sat in storage because their purchasers have already bought replacement goods from other countries.
Hay from the 2014 crop is still working its way through the system in Japan. Meat had to be frozen, lowering its value, to make it to overseas customers because port workers were so slow. A record apple crop was hung up as containers sat at West Coast ports. Potato products were stranded. Christmas trees were late.
But there's a bigger problem facing agriculture. In 4 1/2 years, when this ILWU contract expires, agricultural exporters will find themselves in precisely the same predicament -- losing massive amounts of money because of a broken system that puts them at risk while the port operators and ILWU engage in more brinksmanship.
We have previously called on Congress to do something to avoid a repeat of the port debacle. Bills introduced in the U.S. House and Senate could help.
H.R. 3398, introduced Aug. 5, is a companion measure to S. 1519. They are known as the Protecting Orderly and Responsible Transit of Shipments (PORTS) Act and would allow governors in West Coast states to put the spurs to port operators and longshore workers who impede the free flow of containers through the ports.
The governors would be authorized to appoint a board of inquiry under the Taft-Hartley Act and seek an injunction if the president doesn't act in 10 days to end a work slowdown or strike.
The House bill also tells the comptroller general to study what went wrong in the recent debacle and propose ways to avoid a repeat.
No doubt big labor will resist these efforts. Tough. Until the ILWU and the port operators write checks indemnifying their customers for the huge losses they suffered, we're not really interested in their opinions.
U.S. exporters and importers paid dearly for last winter's shenanigans. The slowdown cost the U.S. economy up to $2.5 billion per day, damaged the U.S. economy and cost American jobs.
We as a nation simply cannot afford to allow our businesses and our economy to be hijacked by another union squabble. Reps. Dan Newhouse and Dave Reichert, both of Washington, have already signed on as sponsors of the House bill. Every member of every West Coast congressional delegation should follow suit and sign on as sponsors of the PORTS Act and push hard for their passage.
If they don't, then we'll know for sure where their allegiances lie.
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