Congress Pressures Both Sides in Ports Dispute

WASHINGTON (McClatchy Washington Bureau/TNS) —

Congressional Republicans and Democrats are working together to reach a rapid resolution of a labor dispute that’s clogging West Coast ports.

With crop exports from regions like the Pacific Northwest and California’s Central Valley particularly at risk, more than a dozen lawmakers united Thursday in support of port peace. If nothing else, the rare show of bipartisanship underscored the enduring importance of maritime trade.

“Nobody wins by the current situation, but everyone loses in this country by what’s going on,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

Technically, Congress has little direct role in the long-running contractual dispute pitting the Pacific Maritime Association against the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. The San Francisco-based association represents marine terminals and shipping companies. The union, also based in San Francisco, represents roughly 20,000 workers at 29 West Coast ports.

Politically, though, McCarthy and the 14 other lawmakers who joined him Thursday at a Capitol Hill news conference can command the bully pulpit, as well as the power of the spotlight.

“This is no longer a California problem. This is no longer a West Coast problem,” said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif. “This is a national problem.”

The twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach alone handle about 40 percent of all imports coming into the United States. Starting last fall, for multiple reasons, some ships have had to wait offshore for days before they could reach the docks.

The congestion has been aggravated by the failure of the shipping companies and the longshoremen to settle a new labor contract to replace the last six-year agreement, which expired last July. The combined impacts have been growing in magnitude.

On Thursday, citing the higher costs entailed by holiday and weekend wage rates, the Pacific Maritime Association said it would suspend vessel operations through Monday. The association’s leaders contend longshoremen have been engaged in deliberate work slowdowns.

“We’ve seen in full glory the choke point that these ports have become for our economy,” said Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif.

By some estimates, U.S. agricultural exports through the West Coast ports have fallen by some 50 percent as a result of the ports’ slowdown. Fruit and vegetable producers are paying more for cold storage while awaiting shipment, and U.S. meat and poultry industry representatives estimate they’re losing at least $40 million a week.

Individual export-dependent companies, including the Turlock, Calif.-based Alpine Pacific Nut Co., and Hilltop Ranch, based in Merced County, have been raising alarms with local lawmakers.

“These dollars we’re missing out on have a real impact on our economy,” said Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif. “The little guys are the ones suffering the most.”

Republicans dominated the news conference Thursday, but for the most part, they did not explicitly take sides in the labor dispute. Lawmakers, including Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., subsequently introduced a nonbinding resolution similarly urging both sides to reach an agreement so the ports can resume normal operations.

A federal mediator already has been brought in, and a bipartisan letter signed by more than 80 House members has previously been sent, with no visible effect, to the union and maritime association’s leadership. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sought to assure a House panel this week that the Obama administration has likewise been reaching out to both sides.

Several lawmakers Thursday raised the possibility of the president invoking his powers under the Taft-Hartley Act to prevent strikes or lockouts that affect an entire industry or substantial portions of one.

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