Apple industry interested in changing labor law

Dan Wheat/Capital Press Chris Schlect, president of Northwest Horticultural Council, Oct. 11, 2011.

YAKIMA, Wash. — The Washington apple industry appears willing to work with other groups to change federal law so that longshoremen couldn’t disrupt billions of dollars in commerce during future contract negotiations.

Several members of the Washington Apple Commission reacted favorably when Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, raised that prospect at a Dec. 11 commission meeting.

Schlect passed out copies of a Dec. 7 Wall Street Journal opinion column written by Douglas Holtz-Eakin, director of the Congressional Budget Office from 2003 to 2005, calling for placing longshoremen under the Railway Labor Act to prevent future disruptions. The act keeps railroads and airlines moving during labor disputes. Longshoremen currently fall under the National Labor Relations Act.

President George W. Bush invoked the Taft-Hartley Act to order longshoremen back to work during a 2002 slowdown, which was estimated to cost $1 billion daily, the article states.

This year’s slowdown is costing roughly $2 billion a day, according to an assessment commissioned by the National Association of Manufacturers and National Retail Federation. The column notes longshoremen can make up to $200,000 per year with generous benefits.

Schlect said such a column would not have been written if someone weren’t contemplating an effort to change the law.

“It would be a huge battle, but unless someone comes up with a better idea, it’s something we should pursue with our colleagues in California,” Schlect said, noting he’s been in contact on the issue with Western Growers Inc. in Irvine, Calif.

Unions would fight it but they don’t have the clout they did in the 1940s and ’50s. However, they do have the ear of the Obama administration but might not with the next administration, Schlect said.

The stage can be set for such legislation with the Republican Congress in the next two years and passed under a new administration, he said.

“I agree 100 percent. This is the second time in my short tenure in the industry this (longshoremen work slowdowns) has happened,” said David Douglas, president of Douglas Fruit Co. in Pasco, Wash.

“We will try to find out who the big guys are pushing this and try to tap into the effort and be part of it,” Schlect said. “The union on the West Coast has been very, very disruptive over the past 100 years and takes great pride in being aggressive.”

The Washington apple industry estimates it is losing tens of millions of dollars worth of overseas apple shipments weekly due to the current longshoremen’s work slowdown.

With a record crop of 150 million, 40-pound boxes of apples, the Washington industry needs every market it can get this year.

Exports were 60 percent ahead of the same point last year at the end of October and needed to be 65 to 70 percent higher, said Todd Fryhover, Apple Commission president. At the end of November they were only 29 percent ahead of last November, largely because of the longshoremen slowdown, Fryhover said.

There’s no support to get ports reopened from President Barack Obama or Gov. Jay Inslee, he said.

On a panel discussion at the industry’s annual meeting the prior week, Robert Kershaw, president of Domex Superfresh Growers, one of the state’s largest apple shippers, said Inslee had been no help.

“I could editorialize but there’s probably press in the room,” he said.

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