If the Port of Tacoma is Pierce County’s economic engine, as local officials like to say, then a three-year extension of a crucial labor contract is like a well-timed spark plug replacement. Tacoma and other West Coast ports are now more likely to fire on all cylinders heading into the next decade.
The deal between the longshore union and shipping industry employers, ratified earlier this month, is a piece of preventive maintenance they were smart to take care of. The contract had been set to expire in 2019; it will now run until July 2022.
It was just three years ago that relations between the two sides blew up, as deep wage and labor disagreements caused the previous contract to expire. A months-long dockworker slowdown in 2014-15 crippled productivity, forcing the intervention of a federal mediator. West Coast ports staggered away with a black eye they could ill afford in the increasingly competitive freight world.
Ships full of cargo idled up and down the coast. Meat, fruit, Christmas trees and other perishable items went bad. Longshoremen wearing hard hats gathered in downtown Tacoma in a display of union solidarity. Dean McGrath, president of the International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) Local 23 in Tacoma, aptly summed up the mood: “This is a scary fight for everyone,” he said after the January 2015 rally.
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A year after the impasse ended, the Washington Council on International Trade released a 2016 report that estimated a $770 million hit to Washington businesses. Additional intangible costs, such as damaged trust between shippers and clients, were impossible to measure.
Kudos to the ILWU and Pacific Maritime Association for putting any petty grievances behind them, while holding the disastrous memories close enough to motivate an early contract extension.
U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, an Auburn Republican who led a bipartisan lawmaker group calling for long-term labor peace on the waterfront, was not overstating things when he said: “This news will bring greater confidence to the countless farmers, workers and businesses across our region who rely on our strong ports and who suffered millions in losses during the 2014-2015 disruption.”
Make no mistake, Tacoma, Seattle and more than two dozen other West Coast ports still face serious challenges. The expansion of the Panama Canal last year was a sweetener for big shippers looking to move goods directly from Asia to the East Coast. Canadian ports also enjoy an advantage over us, as trans-Pacific shippers are happy to bypass taxes the U.S. government imposes on its ports.
Meanwhile, President Trump’s hardline trade stance with China casts a shadow over port-dependent economies across the country, nowhere more than Washington state.
The ports of Tacoma and Seattle, having merged their considerable resources under the banner of the Northwest Seaport Alliance, have millions of dollars in import and export cargo at stake.
But for the moment at least, forward-thinking West Coast port stakeholders have controlled the factors within their power to control. That’s reason to celebrate. The rest will have to wait.