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Effort to change law governing port labor fails to gain steam

Trade groups talk privately about changing law to prevent future port slow downs but don't appear to be getting any effort started.
Dan Wheat

Capital Press

Published on February 19, 2015 10:14AM

Associated Press file photo

Terminal 18 at the Port of Seattle is shown in this file photo. Northwest ag interests are calling f

Associated Press file photo

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YAKIMA, Wash. — As the work slow down at West Coast ports continues and receives more attention, the president of the Northwest Horticultural Council hopes interest grows in changing federal law so longshoremen can’t disrupt billions of dollars in commerce in future contract negotiations.

“No one wants to be first and get hammered down by the pro-union side. We haven’t given up but it hasn’t gone very far,” said Chris Schlect, president of the council which works on national and international policy issues affecting Pacific Northwest tree fruit growers and shippers.

Schlect first raised the idea at a Washington Apple Commission meeting, Dec. 11, citing a Dec. 7 Wall Street Journal op-ed piece written by Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office, calling for placing longshoremen under the Railway Labor Act. The act keeps railroads and airlines moving during labor disputes. Longshoremen currently fall under the National Labor Relations Act.

Other trade groups, including United Fresh Produce and Western Growers Association have discussed the idea, Schlect said.

It’s a longterm solution because President Obama would not sign such legislation, he said. But the effort could be started, he said.

“Solutions like this will be looked at and we will try to encourage them,” Schlect said. “A small number of well-paid people shutting down commerce on the West Coast is not acceptable.”

Trade groups have been discussing the idea since Schlect brought it up but no one has moved beyond that, said Andy Anderson, executive director of the Western United States Agricultural Trade Association in Vancouver, Wash.

“It will have to be a coalition because it definitely would be all out war. Unions would oppose it,” Anderson said.

“It’s a good idea. Something has to be done because this is devastating to agriculture. Portland has lost its biggest shipper now. The Christmas tree guys were killed and anyone wanting to ship overseas. There needs to be some check or balance because this is totally ridiculous.”

His association uses $10.7 million in federal Market Access Program money annually to help 3,000 to 4,000 small food processors develop export markets. Departments of agriculture in 13 Western states make up his board of directors.

A spokesman for the National Retail Association said the idea has been discussed.

The National Retail Association and the National Association of Manufacturers issued a study last June saying 12.5 percent of the nation’s GDP passes through West Coast ports. The study noted a 10-day West Coast port shut down in 2002 cost the U.S. economy $1 billion a day and a five-day stoppage in 2014 would cost $1.9 billion per day. It would increase to $2.5 billion per day with a 20-day stoppage.

A total of 507 California agriculture and forest products companies and organizations Feb. 19 sent a letter to the California congressional delegation seeking action, according to the Agricultural Transportation Coalition. The previous week, about 600 in Oregon and Washington sent letters to their delegations.


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