Congress must act to avoid future port disaster

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

Here’s a headline from the year 2020: “Longshore workers, port operators at impasse.” And here’s what the story will say: “A months-long work slowdown at West Coast container ports has backed up traffic, costing agricultural exporters billions of dollars in delayed and lost business, as the longshore workers union and the port operators delay negotiating a new contract.”

For that matter, you can take any of the headlines the Capital Press has run during the past nine months about problems at West Coast container ports and recycle them. When the new five-year contract expires, exporters and their customers will have a sense of deja vu. All they will have to do is look at the stacks of outgoing containers and their profit-and-loss statements to see the damage done.

During the past year, both the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents 13,000 West Coast dock workers, and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents port operators and shipping lines, have amply demonstrated their inability to negotiate a new contract in a timely manner.

The financial damage to all shippers — but especially agricultural exporters — has been in the billions of dollars and put companies at risk of losing their overseas customers.

The problem at the docks was not a strike; rather it was a convoluted ILWU-choreographed Kabuki dance in which both sides knew they had to reach an agreement, but not before putting the screws to all of their customers. Only after President Barack Obama belatedly sent his labor secretary to take part in the talks did the sides magically reach an agreement.

That’s nonsense. The minute the old contract expired last year, both sides knew they would have to negotiate a new agreement. They knew an agreement would require give-and-take on the part of both sides. But they dawdled for months as union members slowed port traffic to a near-standstill.

Such drama may be OK for backwater operations, but for West Coast container ports, which handle hundreds of thousands of incoming and outgoing containers a year, it is unacceptable. The financial damage is unacceptable, and the child-like behavior is unacceptable.

Only Congress can make sure this never happens again. It can place the ports under the Railway Labor Act and prevent the union from taking any labor action detrimental to the timely and efficient flow of containers through the ports.

Railroad workers and airline employees are already included in the law. It’s time to add the port workers.

This nation cannot afford any more needless and costly drama at the ports. Congress needs to do the right thing and fix this threat to the U.S. economy.

Another disaster awaits inaction. Even a dysfunctional Congress would have to agree.

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