Op-ed by Rep. Terry Nealey: President called upon to bring sides together to end West Coast port dispute

Rep. Terry NealeyA couple of weeks before Christmas, my legislative aide stopped in to browse at a kitchen supply store in Walla Walla. She noticed the shelves were not fully supplied as previous years before Christmas. She struck up a conversation with the owner who told her he had made a large order some weeks before to prepare for Christmas sales. However, he discovered from his supplier that slowdowns at the West Coast ports due to a labor dispute would likely result in his Christmas supply being delivered as late as February.

For him, it meant that he could not deliver on his customers’ needs for Christmas. And now, he has an oversupply of goods that he likely won’t be able to sell until next Christmas.

He’s not alone. Thousands of businesses, growers of agricultural commodities and shippers across Washington and the West Coast are losing millions of dollars and being forced to lay off their own workers as shipping containers of their goods, including chilled beef and pork, poultry, apples, frozen vegetables, hay, forest products and more sit idle on the docks.

At issue is the discord among dockworkers at 29 ports from Seattle to San Diego. Their contract expired in July. Negotiations have been rocky after their employer, the Pacific Maritime Association, accused union dockworkers of slowing down to gain bargaining leverage. Although federal mediators have been called in, there’s rumor a complete shutdown could soon take place if progress isn’t made.

At issue is the dockworkers’ jobs. As ports become modernized, jobs are being replaced with automation. Yet, the irony is the dockworkers’ argument against replacing them with automation becomes weakened if it is them standing in the way of free movement of exports and imports.

Washington is one of the most trade-dependent states in the nation. We export $15.1 billion annually in food and agriculture products through Puget Sound ports, the third largest total in the United States. Our apple crop alone supports 61,000 jobs.

It’s not just the big industries that are suffering. Mom and Pop businesses in our local communities are hurting, as I noted with the kitchen supply store in Walla Walla.

As a state lawmaker, I’m as frustrated as others. We do not have the jurisdiction to affect the labor dispute, as it is a federal issue. However, I have met with port officials and other state lawmakers to see what can be done. We realize immediate action is needed if we are to salvage what remains of our market share for trade around the globe and protect our state’s economy.

So we are turning to those who would have the most influence to bring this slowdown to an end – President Obama and the United States Congress.

I have joined with 34 fellow state legislators to sponsor House Joint Memorial 4005, calling upon the president, the federal government and the Secretary of Agriculture to “do everything in its ability to minimize the impacts of recent changes in port operations.” It’s our hope this unified, bipartisan measure helps convince President Obama that action is needed now to stop the economic devastation of this slowdown.

I understand the longshoremen’s concerns. No one wants to lose their jobs. But far more people beyond the docks will if this labor dispute remains unresolved. And no single group or union should be allowed the power to take the entire state’s economy down with it. It is time to resolve this now and get Washington’s economy moving again.

Editor’s note: Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton, serves the 16th Legislative District and is a member of the House Technology and Economic Development Committee.

State Representative Terry Nealey, 16th Legislative District
404 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
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