During a House Agriculture Committee hearing on the rural economy, several members questioned Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on what the administration can do to help alleviate the ongoing West Coast port issues.
Port slowdowns on the West Coast because of labor disputes between dock workers and port and shipping companies have become a pressing issue facing the U.S. agriculture industry. One estimate has the U.S. meat and poultry industries losing more than $30 million a week.
Rep. Bob Gibbs (R., Ohio) questioned if the administration would be willing to impose the Taft-Hartley Act to bring a resolution to the impasse.
Under the Taft-Hartley Act, the president can get involved once a strike or lockout affects an entire industry, or a substantial part of it. At that point, the president must appoint a board of inquiry to report on the factual elements of the dispute. After that, the president can petition a federal court to prevent any strike or lockout the president has deemed a threat to national health or safety.
The last time it was used was in 2002 under President George W. Bush when more than 220 ships were parked in the Pacific Ocean waiting to unload as an employer-led lockout left ships waiting at sea for more than 10 days.
Vilsack personally wrote a letter to the President advising of the situation and said the administration has reached out to both parties and daily meetings are held on the issue. . Vilsack said the preferred option is for parties to get this resolved. He said although just a couple of issues remain, the impact of the situation is quite significant.
“When you take a look at how this could ripple through all of agriculture, as well as other parts of our economy at a time when it’s beginning to pick up, it seems to me parties ought to be doing everything they possibly can to get it resolved,” Vilsack said.
If the disputes aren’t resolved soon, meat companies may be forced to shut or slow processing lines, which could have catastrophic consequences for livestock producers, with animals ready for market taking space on farms.
In addition, global customers are upset by the failure of U.S. companies to satisfy orders, which House members also said puts the U.S. in a position with its foreign markets of becoming unreliable.
More than 16,000 metric tons of U.S. pork and 10,000 metric tons of U.S. beef get exported to Asia each month. The short shelf life of meat and poultry make timely delivery critical, explained the National Pork Producers Council. Last year, more than $6 billion worth of U.S. pork was exported, with about half of that going to markets in the Pacific Rim, making the West Coast port system a crucial part of the supply chain.
Exports of agricultural products have grown to $144 billion in 2013 from $46 million in 1994, with much of the growth in Asian markets, which are most directly affected by the ports slowdowns.