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COLUMN: Keep West Coast Ports Open - Our Economy Depends On It

February 19, 2015
Weekly Column and Op-Ed
By Rep. Dan Newhouse

Listening to local families, businesses, and farmers in the Mid-Columbia region, I’ve heard firsthand how the slowdown and partial shutdowns at our 29 ports along the West Coast have had a devastating economic impact on Central Washington’s economy.

Every day I hear countless stories about the heavy price Washingtonians are paying, such as workers who are being laid off and farmers facing bankruptcy – because they simply cannot get their products to market due to the port standoff. Growers and producers have told me they are gravely concerned about the impact of unsold stocks on the 2015 growing season.

This year’s record apple harvest should have meant a busy season for businesses exporting fresh Washington produce to Asian and Latin American markets. Producers should have been able to take advantage of the Chinese New Year celebration, which is a key window for producers to profit from fresh exports. Instead, I have seen boxes of apples stacked to the ceiling, waiting to be shipped, at fruit processing facilities in Yakima.

According to the Tri-City Herald, last year’s agricultural exports from Washington State stood at $8.9 billion. As a farmer, I understand the extent to which Central Washington depends on a steady supply chain to export those goods. The full impact of the port slowdown on future business has yet to be felt, and it will come at a high cost.

And it’s not just agricultural producers that are feeling the pain, either: manufacturers in Moses Lake told me about the crippling problems they are having receiving raw materials on time and shipping their finished product overseas.

The conflict between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) stems from stalled contract negotiations. In 2002, a port shutdown due to a similar conflict between ILWU and PMA cost the national economy as much as $1 billion per day. President George W. Bush used his authority under the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act to end the 2002 dispute.

This year, the National Association of Manufacturers estimated that the costs of a total shutdown could come in at $2 billion per day.

The labor dispute at the ports is about more than numbers and spreadsheets—it’s about the impact on people’s lives. The human cost of not being sure if your job will be there tomorrow is harder to tabulate than additional cold storage fees for produce that cannot be shipped.

This month, I joined colleagues on both sides of the aisle to introduce a bipartisan House resolution to urge a swift conclusion to this damaging labor dispute. I continue to advocate for increased involvement from the Obama administration and, in the event of a strike or shutdown, for President Obama to invoke his authority to end the dispute.

The sobering fact is that even if the labor dispute were settled in the short term, the backlog of container vessels at congested ports could take months to clear. The United States has always been seen as a reliable and consistent trading partner, but this dispute has damaged that reputation. The loss of market share to our competitors overseas will be hard to get back, and our producers and industry will feel the long-term impact.

I am committed to keeping the pressure on the negotiating parties and the Administration to reach a swift solution. We need to keep our ports open – because our families, businesses, and farmers are already paying a heavy price.