IMAGINE a $1 billion industry in Washington being brought to a near standstill. Government and business leaders at all levels would pull out all the stops and seek solution.
Yet, just as Washington’s wheat harvest and export season move into full swing, Gov. Jay Inslee made a decision that effectively has shut down one of the most important export terminals on the West Coast and threatens the market share of the grain-growing industry from here to the Midwest.
Harvest begins next month, and the grain shipments must be resumed. Inslee needs to rethink that decision, pronto. If he won’t handle it, the feds need to take over.
Two weeks ago, Inslee canceled Washington State Patrol protection for grain inspectors who had been crossing a picket line at the busy terminal at the Port of Vancouver.The International Longshore and Warehouse Union has been locked out since early 2013, and the United Grain terminal, one of the largest ship-loading facilities on the West Coast, has found nonunion workers to fill its 44 positions. But without police protection, the state Department of Agriculture won’t send grain inspectors. And without grain inspectors, the wheat can’t get through.
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Agriculture Department officials say they fear for the inspectors’ safety. Over the last year, inspectors have been verbally abused, harassed and even had their car doors yanked open by protesters as they have crossed the line. Last October, when the Vancouver Police Department stood down, the State Patrol began escorting inspectors through the pickets. The $140,000 cost has been borne by fees on the grain industry.
Now shipping is at a standstill at the terminal, the biggest of nine in the Pacific Northwest. Rarely are exports permitted without inspections. Since the withdrawal, only one ship has left the dock.
Inslee says the State Patrol protection should not continue indefinitely, and the argument ought to be settled at the bargaining table. He is right about that. The dispute is about hiring practices — should the union decide who works, or should employers do the hiring? The outcome has big implications for union power at Pacific ports, but it is a battle management and labor should fight between themselves.
What matters is that the grain shipments get through. The shutdown imperils an industry that depends on clockwork-timed shipments from our ports to overseas destinations. Puget Sound and Portland-area terminals account for half the country’s wheat exports. Now the ability of Pacific Northwest farmers to reach overseas markets has been thrown into doubt, international buyers are looking to other markets and agricultural commodity groups are worried the disruption will reduce the prices farmers receive for their crops.
Glenn Squires, chief executive of the Washington Wheat Commission, notes that the United Grain terminal alone accounts for nearly 20 percent of wheat exports from the Pacific Northwest and 40 percent of exports to Japan. America’s market share is at stake; foreign buyers have other options. “We don’t want them going to Australia,” he says.
Here are three options:
• Inslee should change his mind. Allowing industry to pay for the State Patrol escorts is the neutral position.
• Failing that, the Department of Agriculture — which is under Inslee’s control — should accept the company’s offer to hire private security for the inspectors.
• And if state officials insist on their position, then Washington’s congressional delegation needs to step in and convince the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide the inspection service itself, as it does in every other grain-exporting state.
Wheat is to Eastern Washington what Boeing is in the West. Agriculture deserves the same level of respect from its state government.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).