Our Voice: New PORTS Act crucial; needs federal approval

Freshman congressman and farmer Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, said he felt helpless when the state’s thriving agriculture industry was crippled at the docks because of a labor dispute at West Coast ports earlier this year.

The port slowdown, caused by nearly nine months of contract negotiations between longshoremen and the Pacific Maritime Association, cost the country billions in lost revenue. Perishable crops rotted before they could be shipped, and international customers found new suppliers because the U.S. couldn’t get its products to them in time.

There was nothing anyone could do to halt the economic disaster.

As Congress reconvenes today, one of Newhouse’s priorities is to help change that.

He is a cosponsor of the PORTS Act, which stands for Protecting Orderly and Responsible Transit and Shipment. The proposal would give the government more power so it can prevent another atrocious trade disruption from ever happening again.

This is a critical piece of legislation that needs to be approved. It has a companion measure in the Senate, so that is encouraging. But getting it through the political system may not be easy because powerful labor unions likely will lobby against it.

Our legislators need to look beyond the frustration of disgruntled workers and their bosses when the nation’s economic health is at stake.

West Coast ports handle goods that account for about 12.5 percent of the U.S. economy, and its slowdown wrecked havoc on the region’s agriculture industry.

The Washington State Potato Commission, for example, estimated that the missed opportunity for frozen food processors was about $48 million for November through January of this year. That’s a huge loss.

The PORTS Act would expand on the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which allows the president to appoint a board to study whether a threatened or actual strike or lockout affecting trade would imperil the health or safety of the country.

Depending on that board’s report, the president can direct the attorney general to petition a court to end the strike or lockout.

This new legislation would add work slowdowns as well.

It would allow governors whose states’ trade industry are affected by labor disputes to appoint boards of inquiry. If need be, those governors could then petition courts for injunctions if the president does not act within 10 days of receiving a request.

This could be a useful tool in the future. Exporters should not have to worry if their goods will make it to their destination every time a union contract is up for negotiation.

The PORTS Act would put the country’s economic well-being above labor quarrels, which is exactly what needs to happen.