Two years later, port strife still hurting Washington farms, businesses

We all value dependability, and not just in friends and Oldsmobiles. Buyers of Washington’s exports value local firms’ supply chain consistency, but that reputation took a hit during the port slowdown of 2014-15. Trucks and barges backed up, product rotted, and overseas customers had to look elsewhere for goods that before had been reliably supplied by Washington businesses.

Unfortunately, our exporting businesses, including our farms, are still feeling the effects of that port strife. Their customers buy not just on price but on quality of product and reliability of supply. Through its work slowdown to show “solidarity” with California port workers, Seattle’s ILWU-represented port workers caused great collateral damage to hard-working people.

“Hands-off” approach
Our public ports belong to all of us, but you wouldn’t know it from the Obama administration’s response to the port problems. Loath to do anything that would upset labor, it chose to avoid confronting the problem for far too long.

Seattle Port Commissioner John Creighton, a Democrat, said this week, “When you look at the port slowdown, the Obama administration was very hands-off. They didn’t want to get involved in what they saw as a private industry dispute for many many weeks. And I think that was the wrong thing to do.”

That hands-off approach showed little regard for the greater good. America’s exports took a huge hit, but the Obama administration’s biggest concern was in being seen not intervening in a labor dispute. There was little apparent concern for other interests, or in keeping our public ports open and fully operating.

What can be done?
The Port of Seattle, according to Creighton, is doing what it can to avoid these problems in the future. By extending contracts, the port is hoping for labor peace and smooth operations. “What we’ve been trying to do is press upon the longshoremen what hurt they’ve caused to the state and to themselves, because at the end of the day we’re a discretionary port. Shippers can use any port up and down the coast,” he said.

Early attention to contract negotiations is a useful step, but a more robust federal solution is still needed to avoid crippling stoppages and slowdowns. Our public ports are too important to our economy (especially here in trade-dependent Washington) to allow any group – whether it’s a business, a labor union, or an activist organization – to hold port operations hostage.

Rep. Dan Newhouse and Rep. Dave Reichert have been working on port performance issues, and that’s to our state’s benefit. Newhouse’s ECONOMICS bill from 2015 outlined a smarter way forward for port management. It or similar legislation is needed.

We have a Republican House, a Republican Senate, and a Republican White House. It’s time to get this done.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.