West Coast port crisis needs president’s intervention

When a labor dispute threatens the nation’s vital interests, the buck ultimately stops on the president’s desk. It’s time Barack Obama personally intervened to help settle the 9-month-old impasse that has crippled ports up and down the West Coast.

The contract deadlock pits the Pacific Maritime Association – which represents shippers and terminal operators – against dockworkers. On Halloween weekend, it escalated into what might be called a half-strike. Beginning in Tacoma and Seattle, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union slowed down the handling of freight containers in all major Western ports.

As a result, imports and exports have been squeezed for the last 31/2 months. The first major victims were farmers and agricultural workers; in Washington, apples and other fruit have rotted while awaiting shipment. Companies that produce and process potatoes, vegetables, hay, Christmas trees, beef, pork and other commodities have lost billions of dollars, and thousands of employees have lost jobs or hours.

The pain has since rippled through the economy. Many manufacturers can’t get components on time and can’t make scheduled deliveries to overseas customers. Retailers are struggling to get goods from Asian suppliers.

This weekend, the dispute brings the nation perilously close to an outright shutdown of West Coast shipping. The Pacific Maritime Association will all but halt containership operations through Monday, saying it would otherwise be forced to pay holiday wages to longshoremen who are doing too little.

We’re not privy to the negotiations, and we don’t know which side deserves more blame. What we do know is that this showdown now poses a serious threat to the nation’s economy.

Consider just the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach: Between them, they normally account for 40 percent of the nation’s incoming cargo containers – $400 billion worth of merchandise. But a small fleet of idle containerships now floats offshore, waiting to be unloaded.

So far, Obama’s response to all this has been benign neglect. On Thursday, White House spokesman Eric Schultz emphasized the president’s hands-off stance: “We believe it should be resolved at the negotiating table.”

Perhaps the president thinks that intervention will put the union at a disadvantage. But other Democrats have figured out that the stakes are far greater than one side’s bargaining position. In the U.S. House and Senate, large numbers of both Republicans and Democrats – including Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell – are pushing for a settlement.

If our famously divided Congress agrees that this is a national threat, why isn’t Obama doing more?

Other Democratic presidents have stepped forcefully into labor disputes. Franklin Roosevelt, for example, moved heaven and earth to avert and settle union-management conflicts in critical war industries. Harry Truman – a devout Democrat – cracked down on wave of strikes that threatened the nation’s welfare.

Obama doesn’t have to crack down on anyone. But he should invoke his authority as the nation’s chief executive and appeal to – if nothing else – the larger good.

The longshoremen and the PMA have unique leverage over the American economy and Pacific Rim commerce. As the nation’s leader, the president should remind them that such leverage carries heavy responsibility. Millions of Americans need this deadlock broken.