Speakers tell of hardship caused by port dispute


Issue Date: February 18, 2015
By Ching Lee
California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger speaks at a state Capitol news conference, during which he and other speakers urged action to end a labor dispute at West Coast ports.
Photo/Ching Lee

Emphasizing the hardship that the slowdown at West Coast ports is having on California agriculture, several members of the state Legislature called on President Obama to intervene in the ongoing labor dispute between dockworkers and shippers that has crippled the movement of goods.

In a news conference on the steps of the state Capitol last week, the lawmakers urged the president—who was in Silicon Valley for a cybersecurity summit that day—to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, if necessary, to help the two sides reach an agreement in their nine-month-long contract negotiation. The Taft-Hartley Act is an emergency injunction used in labor disputes involving unions.

"Mr. President, you're right here where you can get up front and personal," said state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber. "Invoke your big powers of moral persuasion. Invoke your authorities—the Taft-Hartley Act, which was expressly for such situations that have severe impact on America's economy."

The lawmakers' message came after the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping lines and terminal operators, announced that it was temporarily suspending vessel operations for four days through the President's Day holiday. The suspension came just days after the PMA shut down vessel loading and unloading operations the weekend before, saying it would no longer continue to pay International Longshore and Warehouse Union workers premium pay for diminished productivity.

During the news conference, California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said the state's agricultural exporters are perhaps more severely impacted by the port gridlock because the fresh fruits and vegetables that must be shipped are perishable and cannot wait. He noted how citrus is in peak season right now and there's huge demand in China for its Chinese New Year celebration, but that market is not being met because citrus exporters are not able to send their products overseas in time.

"We have folks who are finally getting them onto ships over to China, only to have China put holds on them because a good part of their shipment has now deteriorated and it's no longer marketable," Wenger said.

Markets around the world that want California agricultural products, he continued, will not depend on California or its ports anymore if they cannot get their products when they want them. And those markets will look to other countries to get the same products, perhaps at higher prices, "but dependability sometimes outweighs price," he said.

Wenger also pointed out that while the longshoremen and their employer will eventually come to an agreement and go back to work, many farmers harvest only once a year and won't have another opportunity to market their crop for another year by the time ports resume their normal operations.

For this reason, many growers and processors in the state are laying off workers—and trucking companies that haul agricultural products are doing the same, Wenger said.

The state's organic dairy farmers, who depend on imports of organic feed to retain their organic certification, could also be affected by the port dispute. Wenger said some of them are concerned that lack of organic feed could ultimately force them to return to conventional production. Once those dairies go back to conventional production, it would take them three years to become certified organic again, he noted.

In addition to Nielsen, the legislators who participated in the news conference were largely from districts with agricultural interests, including Assemblywoman Kristen Olsen, R-Modesto; state Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar; Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City; Assemblyman Devon Mathis, R-Visalia; Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield; and state Sen. Isadore Hall, D-South Bay.

Gallagher spoke about several agricultural businesses from his district that are struggling because they are unable to ship their products. One walnut farm, he noted, exports 85 percent of its crop to more than 30 countries and was forced to furlough 30 employees because of the port slowdown.

"These are good-paying jobs that people depend on for their families," he said. "These are real-life job creators and these are real-life employees that are suffering from this gridlock."

In Washington, D.C., meanwhile, Reps. Dave Reichert, R-Wash.; Kurt Schrader, D-Ore.; Dan Newhouse, R-Wash.; and Jim Costa, D-Fresno, introduced a House resolution calling on the ILWU and PMA to conclude their negotiations. The resolution also calls on the president to use "all tools at his disposal" if a shutdown occurs.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.