When labor strife at Tacoma and Seattle ports turned the waters of Seattle’s Elliott Bay and Tacoma’s Commencement Bay into a container-ship parking lot, fruit was left to rot and Christmas trees turned brown. The state as a whole lost an estimated $770 million, and the Washington apple industry alone took a $100 million loss. Retailers couldn’t stock Xboxes at Christmas, and Timothy hay growers from Ellensburg suffered.
The West Coast port slowdown from late 2014 to early 2015 was an economic disaster across industries and states.
There are encouraging signs that such a slowdown won’t be repeated. The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shippers at 29 ports from San Diego to Anacortes, has put an offer on the table for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union to extend its contract, which expires in 2019, through 2022.
Last month the ILWU agreed to send the proposal to its members. A vote should be scheduled this summer, including ILWU Local 19 in Seattle and Local 23 in Tacoma.
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The shippers and the union should do anything necessary to avoid another debacle, especially in Washington, the nation’s most trade-dependent state. Washington’s $10.7 billion agriculture industry — the nation’s leading producer of apples, hops, blueberries and numerous other crops — wilts without reliable access to markets through container ports.
Customer perception of reliability proved to be a lasting negative legacy of the West Coast port slowdown.
Both sides of the West Coast port slowdown understand the consequences of the bare-knuckled battle in 2014 and 2015. The Obama administration was slow to step in, and Gov. Jay Inslee was too hands-off.
Re-litigating the mess doesn’t bring certainty to customers of Washington’s abundant harvest or its manufacturing goods. But an extension of the contract would.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the offer supplements the longshoreman’s enviable compensation: annual 3.1 percent wage increases, boosting the base wage to $46.23 an hour; a bump in pension contributions; and preservation of longshoremen’s no-premium health care plan, with $1 copays for prescriptions.
The potential contract extension comes at a critical moment for Puget Sound ports. An alliance between the ports of Seattle and Tacoma strengthened their combined negotiating position with shippers who otherwise may drift toward British Columbia. Even with structural shifts in the shipping business, the Northwest Seaport Alliance in the first quarter of 2017 posted its largest volume of container traffic since 2005.
Washington’s workers, farms and businesses thrive when the ports are humming. Long-term labor peace is key to their combined success. The longshoremen should say yes this summer.