COLUMN: PORTS Act a Tool to Keep West Coast Ports Open and Our Economy Moving

August 24, 2015
Weekly Column and Op-Ed
By Rep. Dan Newhouse

Many local families, farmers, and businesses in Central Washington are still dealing with the ripple effects and devastating economic impact caused by the months-long slowdown at 29 West Coast ports during contract negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA). Congress must now take action to approve legislative reforms to address future slowdowns to reduce the crippling threat they pose to our economy.

I have heard directly from affected manufacturers and agriculture producers in Central Washington who are engaged in international trade and the slowdown cost them dearly. The backlog in the supply chain meant that finished products and raw materials could not reach buyers in a timely manner. The slowdown drastically reduced the capacity to ship products to international customers, and meant that some businesses lost international customers altogether.  The lost market share and trust of trading partners will take time to restore. I visited agriculture producers in Yakima and saw firsthand the boxes of fresh apples ready to be shipped that were stacked to the ceiling. I heard from manufacturers in Moses Lake who faced expensive delays. According to the Federal Reserve, exports from West Coast ports dropped by 20.5% in the first quarter of 2015. The disruption in trade adds up to lost opportunity and lost capital for local businesses and families.

During the slowdown, I urged President Obama to take swift action, using his authority under the Taft-Hartley Act, to bring the standoff between the ILWU and the PMA to a conclusion. But the settlement process took much too long and caused too much damage to our economy. It became clear that Congress must find a way to reduce the threat of an extended slowdown from occurring again.

While the economic effects of the slowdown were severe, the National Association of Manufacturers estimated that a total shutdown could cost as much as $2 billion per day. Our export economy – both in Central Washington and the nation – simply cannot afford this magnitude of loss.

This month, I joined my colleagues in Congress, including Representative Dave Reichert, to introduce H.R. 3433, the Protecting Orderly and Responsible Transit of Shipment (PORTS) Act. The PORTS Act creates additional tools to reduce the threat of economic disruption in the event of a labor slowdown.

The Taft-Hartley Act currently allows the president to intervene when there is a “threatened or actual strike or lockout affecting an entire industry…[which] will, if permitted to occur or to continue, imperil the national health or safety.” The PORTS Act defines the president’s authority under Taft-Harley to intervene to protect the economy in the case of a slowdown. The bill would also allow state governors to appoint boards of inquiry under Taft-Hartley as well as petition a court of jurisdiction to intervene in the case of a slowdown, strike, or lockout. Finally, a provision in the legislation calls for a study on the most recent ports slowdown to measure its full economic impact and prevent such damage in the future.

For businesses, growers, manufacturers, and producers in Washington and across the nation, the PORTS Act will help protect the free flow of trade by reducing the threat of future slowdowns.