The dispute between West Coast dockworkers and their employers turned into a dangerous cargo slowdown a full month ago. It’s now become a national economic emergency, and President Obama must intervene.
The International Longshore Workers Union and the Pacific Maritime Association have been arguing over a new labor contract for many months; the last contract expired July 1. The public can only guess at what the real sticking points are. Since Halloween weekend, when longshoremen in Tacoma and Seattle began slowing the handling of imports and exports, the impasse has wrought immense damage on a multitude of trade-connected industries.
For any who doubted Washington’s dependence on maritime commerce, this is Northwest Economics 101.
This state grows most of the nation’s apples. A third of those apples are exports, and the bulk of those exports move through the ports of Tacoma and Seattle. Orchardists in Central and Eastern Washington this year have grown a record-breaking crop – but millions of boxes are now languishing in storage, in danger of rotting or missing the period of peak sales in Asian markets.
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The glut threatens to drive down prices across the United States, hurting farmers as far away as the East Coast.
It’s a similar story for the state’s potato, hay, Christmas tree and other agricultural industries. Growers are watching their expected earnings evaporate, and potato- and fruit-processing companies have had to cut workers’ hours and shifts. The slowdown has cost truckers dearly, especially at the Port of Tacoma. Many thousands of workers are staring at a bleak Christmas.
The problems have spilled over Washington’s border. From Tacoma and Seattle, the dockworker action has spread up and down the West Coast, where the ILWU provides labor at 29 ports.
The impact extends far beyond agriculture. Importers are struggling to get Christmas goods on store shelves. Manufacturing supplies aren’t reaching factories on time. Freight trains are running on restricted schedules between the West Coast and Chicago.
The worst case here is a complete shutdown of the ports, either a strike by the dockworkers or a lockout by the PMA’s terminal operators and shipping lines. That could cost the U.S. economy perhaps $2 billion a day.
But the slowdown itself is catastrophic enough for the many workers and employers who’ve lost income or profits.
The country’s retailers pleaded for intervention from President Obama three weeks ago. Obama has other issues on his plate, but he ought to be able to spare some attention for this fast-metastasizing crisis. Lord knows it would be easier than dealing with John Boehner.
The fact that the dispute has escalated into this slowdown is proof that the PMA and ILWU need the services of a federal mediator. When two parties are at impasse this long, they need an honest broker to help them reach a settlement that serves both sides.
Unfortunately, the dockworkers and employers haven’t asked for third-party assistance. It would be helpful at this point if the president were to make a few phone calls and perhaps dispatch a personal envoy to break the jam.
The nation’s chief executive has a unique power to command attention and appeal to the national interest. This standoff needs some presidential meddling, the sooner the better.