Labor strife on the West Coast waterfront isn’t going to steal Christmas, but agriculture workers in Washington worry they will see the backlash for years to come.
With few exceptions, gifts and other holiday products made in Asia and shipped through U.S. sea ports already have made it to shelves — or are at distribution centers and ready to roll. Still, cargo is struggling to get through the nation’s largest ports, which handle billions of dollars of goods on an average day.
One issue has been the discord between dockworkers at 29 ports from San Diego to Seattle and their employers. Their contract expired in July, and negotiations over a new one turned tough this fall after employers accused dockworkers of slowing down to gain bargaining leverage.
Full negotiating teams from the Pacific Maritime Association and International Longshore and Warehouse Union were to meet Tuesday afternoon for the first time in nearly two weeks.
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Public pressure for an agreement has been mounting, though the White House has said it will not intervene.
The union and employers have a contentious history, including a lockout during 2002 contract negotiations that required federal action to resolve.
As was the case then, the maritime association accuses dockworkers of intentionally slowing work or not providing full crews. The union says its members have been working safely and that the bigger problem is a shortage of truck beds to carry containers from the docks to markets.
However, on a typical day in recent weeks, about six container ships have sat at anchor awaiting a berth in Seattle and Tacoma, said Captain John Veentjer, the executive director of the Marine Exchange of Puget Sound.
“Container ships don’t go to anchor; they usually go straight to the berth,” he said. “If they were ever to go to anchor before it would have only been for a short period of time — probably hours, at most a day.”
While both work pace and equipment shortages are a factor in the contract negotiations, retailers say most holiday goods are making it safely through the ports. At greatest risk would be the restocking of “must-have” toys or other surprise sellers.
In those cases, importers might opt for air delivery, which is about 10 times more expensive, said Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain at the National Retail Federation.
Those stores are “pretty much eating the cost at this point,” Gold said.
However, problems at the ports are rippling through the economy. Truckers aren’t getting paid as much because they are hauling fewer loads and exporters of Washington state agriculture say they’re losing tens of millions of dollars each week as shipments languish.
In the most recent letter to the president, the Washington Council on International Trade, along with 88 businesses and organizations across the state, urged the White House to ensure the ports are working at full capacity as soon as possible.
The disruptions created by the ongoing labor-contract negotiations between the ILWU and PMA affect jobs that are tied to international trade and “have already cost our family farms and small to large businesses significantly during this key holiday and harvest season,” the letter said.
Calaway Trading, which ships grains, forages and hay products through the Seattle and Tacoma ports destined for Asia mainly as animal feed, now has 200 containers, worth $2 million, loaded and waiting to be shipped. That is in addition to 1,000 contracted containers worth $10 million that the company is now unable to fulfill because of the slowdown, said Blaine Calaway vice president of sales.
“This time of year, we are moving a lot of volume as many of the ag shippers are,” Calaway said. “Our business is wholly dependent on exporting. If we don’t have the ability to have containers moving in and out of the ports fluidly, it is very impactful.”
With cargo moving slowly through West Coast ports, fees are adding up on the goods sitting in warehouses, on rail cars and at the terminals causing local businesses to lose thousands of dollars in addition to the value of the products.
But the longer the slowdown lasts, the agriculture community is worried it will have longer-last damages than just losing money this season — losing customers for good.
“There is nothing that we produce in this country in agriculture and forest products, that cannot be sourced somewhere else in the world,” said Peter Friedmann, executive director of the Agriculture Transportation Coalition.
Seattle Times business reporter Coral Garnick contributed to this report. Contact Justin Pritchard at http://twitter.com/lalanewsman