THE "game" being played out between the International Longshoremen & Warehouse Union (ILWU), which represents West Coast dockworkers, and the Pacific Maritime Assn. (PMA), which is negotiating on behalf of the 29 ports on the West Coast, needs to end now to put a stop to the devastating impact on the agricultural economy as well as the market share and reliable relationship the U.S. is losing with world trading partners.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack likened the situation to being on the five-yard line, where the game plan is to try to get a deal across the goal line. But as anyone may recall from the last Super Bowl, that isn't always easy to do.
After nine months of contract talks, PMA recently made a comprehensive contract offer that would raise ILWU wages by 14% over five years, on top of the current average full-time wage of $147,000 per year. It would maintain fully employer-paid health care — worth $35,000 per year — and would increase the ILWU pension to as much as $88,800 per year.
Vilsack said 95% of the dispute has been settled, but the remaining "issue is over one 64-year-old arbitrator." The arbitrator is on call on a daily basis and arbitrates disputes from time to time over the operation of the ports.
Vilsack explained that one of the current arbitrators is a former union member but also has close business relationships with members of the board of directors for the companies.
"There is a perception that his decisions have not been as fair as they should be, and folks want to change that system," Vilsack said.
Despite appointing a federal mediator in early January and dispatching U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez to further facilitate an agreement, the wishes of 13,600 workers are having a devastating impact on the U.S. economy.
The disruption on the West Coast is costing U.S. agricultural product exporters $1.75 billion each month. The American Meat Institute and the National Pork Producers Council claim that the delays are costing each industry $40 million per week.
One Iowa hog producer said lower prices as a result of the West Coast situation have caused a $1.8 million drop in the value of his hogs.
A study reported by the Puget Sound Business Journal showed that if the ports shut down entirely for 10 days, it could cost the country $2.1 billion per day, and the total two-year impact could be as much as $37 billion. When the ports shut down in 2002, it cost the nation more than $1 billion a day.
Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, said these 13,600 individuals are largely precipitating billions of dollars of harm.
"I think a good question to our national leaders is whether it is in the best interest of U.S. agriculture and the U.S. economy for 13,600 highly compensated individuals to have such a pivotal role in our country's ability to export," he said.
A bipartisan resolution was introduced in the House calling for ILWU and PMA to conclude their negotiations and for the President to use "all tools at his disposal" if a shutdown occurs.
U.S. farmers need to make their voices heard by Congress and the Administration. It seems clear that the game isn't going to end until someone makes both parties agree. For the sake of the U.S. economy, it needs to happen quickly.