Commentary: Into the Homestretch

The nights are cooler and the days are shorter. The long Labor Day weekend is behind us and the kids are back in school. You know what that means? The fourth quarter — the period so many of us count on to “make our year” — is upon us.

It’s the one quarter of the year that generates an outsized percentage of revenue and profit, especially within the consumer sector that accounts for some 70 percent of the U.S. economy. With the harvest season falling at the same time, the agriculture sector and its increasingly important export-generated earnings also count on the final quarter to be a major revenue-producing time of year.

The peaceful, lazy, hazy summertime that many of us remember from our earlier days is gone, replaced by hurricanes in the Gulf, tornadoes at the U.S. Tennis Open (in New York!), political conventions, wildly fluctuating markets, financial turmoil in Europe, uncertain growth in key Asian economies, and perhaps most worrisome of all to those who read the JOC, an increasingly uncertain waterfront labor environment on all three coasts.

This column marks the fifth of the past seven that I’ve written about our industry’s unsettled labor relations. I’d really like to write about other things, and you would, no doubt, like to be reading about other things, as well. But how can we ignore the elephant in the room that may well break all the china and the furniture before it can be brought under control?

That many of my fellow writers in the trade and transportation industry have been provided with lots of material for their publications goes without saying. However, that The Oregonian newspaper in Portland has been running articles about waterfront labor issues for weeks, in fact, since June, is astounding. What’s going on?

The negotiations on the East and Gulf coasts between the International Longshoremen’s Association and employers’ group United States Maritime Alliance are moving quickly to a conclusion. By the time you read this, we’ll either have a deal or the expiration of the current contract will be just a week away.

It’s clear the union has dug in its heels to protect what it sees as its jurisdiction over jobs in its region, especially over the matter of chassis. The public, which has pretty much lost most (or all) of its sympathy for unions, couldn’t care less about chassis. The public will react to learning that the average ILA worker earns $124,138 a year in wages and benefits and that one-third of longshore workers at the Port of New York and New Jersey top something like $208,000. Try explaining that to an unemployed office, construction, retail or any of dozens of other types of worker.

In the Pacific Northwest, there have been disruptions in Portland over two disputed jobs that have been held by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union for almost 40 years, but that the International Longshore and Warehouse Union wants for its very own. Angry about being defeated in court (although it’s not clear it’s accepted defeat), the ILWU is agitating about another upcoming contract, this one for the handling of bulk agricultural commodities that are shipped out of Pacific Northwest ports.

The issues here are complex and outside what most of us see on a daily basis, but the current contract for the grain handlers also expires on Sept. 30, and resolution is not yet clear.

For some perspective, Pacific Northwest ports handle nearly half of all U.S. wheat exports and about a quarter of all U.S. grain exports. More than a quarter of U.S. soybean exports pass through the region. The wheat exports alone are worth an estimated $10 billion. The approximately 2,300 longshore union members in the Pacific Northwest earn an average of about $98,000 a year — again, a figure that’s not likely to engender much sympathy beyond union members themselves.

So, stay tuned for an exciting last week of September and maybe beyond for the concluding chapters of this saga. Did someone say something about an election in November?

Barry Horowitz is the principal of CMS Consulting Services. Contact him at 503-208-2232 or at
barryh@cms-cs.com.
 

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