Settlement reportedly close for West Coast ports negotiations – slowdown underscores importance of transportation

UPDATE: Maybe not so close.

Troubles on the West Coast waterfront are getting worse.

Amid an increasingly damaging labor dispute, 29 West Coast seaports which handle about $1 trillion of goods annually will be mostly closed four of the next five days.

A deal appears close

Negotiations toward a contract for dockworkers at 29 West Coast ports are within days of a resolution, hanging on whether their union can fire arbitrators, the top executive at the Port of Long Beach said.

After hammering out terms for salaries, benefits and retraining workers displaced by automation, port employers and the 20,000-member dockworker union are in the final phase of talks toward a five-year agreement that would end a stalemate that’s left cargo stranded and ships waiting in the harbor, said Jon Slangerup, chief executive of the second-busiest U.S. port.

The slowdown has taken a toll on the state economy. Seattle Times editorial writer Blanca Torres explains some of the ramifications here (published 2/9/15). She points out, 

Even if the contract dispute is resolved soon, the ports’ reputations are tarnished as difficult places to do business and unreliable for customers. And this is all happening as the trade industry gears up for the expansion of the Panama Canal next year which would allow ships to bypass the West Coast all together.

Members of the Association of Washington Business testified last month on the effects of the slowdown on their operations.

Washington potatoes are sitting on the docks. Parts needed to manufacture snowshoes in Seattle are stalled in Ireland. And an Ellensburg hay exporter has been forced to cut production by 50 percent.

The Puget Sound Business Journal details some consequences.

Slowdowns at West Coast ports will hammer Washington state’s economy for the next decade. Even worse: it will be worse here than elsewhere.

That’s according to Peter Friedmann, executive director of the Agriculture Transportation Coalition, a federal lobbying group.

There’s more – read the whole thing – much of it familiar to Opportunity Washington readers: we’re more trade dependent than other states, port activity is responsible for 60 percent of gross state product, 40 percent of state employment is tied to trade, reliability is critical. 

Without specific reference to the ongoing dispute, which we hope will be behind us soon, in our research report we urge policymakers to take action to assure safe, reliable freight mobility. 

Priority II.B: Improve freight mobility and connections between roads, rail, and ports.

Why This Matters: Washington’s economy is highly dependent on global trade. The state ranks second in the nation in exports per capita. According to the Washington Council on International Trade, 40 percent of the jobs in the state are related to trade in some way.

Given its many trade advantages, the state is well-positioned to continue to be a leader in international trade for years to come. These advantages include deep-water ports that are well-equipped to handle commodities and efficient container handling, a major international air traffic hub for passengers and cargo, smaller regional airports, and geographic proximity to key U.S. trading markets, including both Canada and the Pacific Rim.

Washington’s many existing trade-dependent jobs, as well as the ones that can be created in the future, depend on an efficient, intermodal transportation system sending goods to and from our state.

…Without strategic improvements to both roads and rail, travel times for freight movement threaten to put our ports at a disadvantage compared to West Coast competitors.

The long-awaited settlement will put our ports back in play. But additional investment will be required to preserve our enviable trade position.