EDITORIAL: Keep Ports Shipshape

2017-05-19 | The Columbian

May 19--The cost of labor strife at West Coast ports was made clear during a work slowdown in 2014 and 2015. With apples and Christmas trees and other agricultural products spoiling instead of being sent to overseas markets, the U.S. economy lost about $2 billion a day, according to the International Business Times.

These costs were particularly evident in Washington, the most trade-dependent state. Because of that, progress toward an agreement between the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents 29 ports from San Diego to Anacortes, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union is notable. The offer from the ports would extend until 2022 a contract that is scheduled to expire in 2019, and union officials have agreed to send the proposal to members.

An agreement to keep the ports running smoothly would be preferable to the slowdown that hampered the nation's economy from late 2014 through February 2015. The Port of Vancouver reported no slowdowns at that time, but other Pacific ports saw ships languishing at sea for weeks or even months. As Bob Stallman, then president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, noted, "The success of American agriculture is tied to our ability to dependably export our farm and ranch goods to overseas buyers."

An agreement also would be preferable to federal intervention. In 2015, Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Yakima, introduced legislation named Ensuring Continued Operations and No Other Major Incidents, Closures or Slowdowns -- ECONOMICS -- while stating, "We must take the lesson of the most recent ports slowdown to heart that two parties cannot hold hostage the nation's economy." The legislation, which would dictate federal action in the event of a work stoppage or slowdown, is languishing in committee but likely would see a revival if the events of 2014 are repeated.

In the past, The Columbian has editorially supported Newhouse's bill. But, ideally, that bill will not be necessary in the future. A more effective solution would be for port operators and workers to reach an agreement that will benefit the nation's economy.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the offer from the Pacific Maritime Association would provide an annual pay increase of 3.1 percent, an improved pension plan, and continuation of a health care plan that has no premiums and a $1 co-pay for prescription medications. Union president Robert McEllrath told the Times, "The rank-and-file membership always has the final say on any contract."

Meanwhile, the issue brings up important issues about labor negotiations and federal intervention into industries that can be deemed as essential to the national interest. In 2002, when ports closed as the result of a labor dispute, President George W. Bush invoked the Taft-Hartley Act to impose a cooling-off period and forbid work slowdowns. In 1952, President Truman nationalized the steel industry, an action later deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. During the port dispute of recent years, the Obama administration was slow to undertake federal intervention, but there is no telling how the Trump administration would react.

The bottom line is that what happens at the nation's ports does not happen in a vacuum. One example can be seen in large container carriers withdrawing from the Port of Portland because of the slowdown in 2015, increasing the number of large trucks on local roads and exacerbating the area's maddening traffic.

All of that helps to demonstrate the importance of ports while highlighting the need for operators and workers to agree upon a contract extension.

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