Jurisdiction Battle Unplugs Portland

How many longshoremen does it take to plug in a refrigerator?

As a takeoff on an old lightbulb joke, I think it has potential. But for producers and exporters of food products from Oregon and Idaho, none of the possible answers could be considered funny.

One sobering answer is that it takes a great number of growers, packers, ranchers and exporters to fill a reefer box and only one longshore union to drain the flow of farm goods from Portland.

Starting in June, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union began slowing container operations at the Port of Portland. The catalyst for the work action: The ILWU was demanding the right to plug in and unplug refrigerated boxes at Terminal 6, a job that had been the domain of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers for four decades.

The work slowdown all but shut down container operations at the river port. Two carriers skipped some scheduled calls from Portland because the longshoremen refused to end the work slowdown, even after being ordered to do so by the National Labor Relations Board.

After intervention from a federal court judge and big concessions by the electrical workers, the port and the container terminal operator, ILWU members started to pick up the pace and do their jobs, at least for the time being. But for exporters in the region, the damage may already have been done.

When Hanjin and Hapag-Lloyd skipped some port calls, companies with export orders had to truck their loads to Seattle or Tacoma — no small expense for refrigerated loads. But that’s merely the short-term price tag. In the long term, it could cost some growers in the region competitive access to lucrative markets in Japan and other parts of Asia.

The highest-value horticultural exports are perishable fruits and vegetables. The highest-value protein exports are fresh, chilled pork and beef. Those products require speedy delivery, and picky buyers of high-value goods definitely prefer direct service.

About a decade ago, Portland boasted direct sailings to Japanese ports. Those direct connections are gone, replaced by slower service and cargo transshipments. To meet the delivery timetables, growers of some products had to truck them to the Puget Sound ports, lowering their profits because of higher drayage costs. For other would-be exporters, the loss of direct service took them out of the market as increasing transportation rates meant they couldn’t compete in a global marketplace where margins are notoriously thin.

For Portland, getting any of the major carriers to sail up the river to call at Terminal 6 has required painstaking effort. The port has hired consultants and executives whose sole job it is to relentlessly woo, court and cajole the carriers to provide service.

No doubt, the ILWU is fighting for two well-paying jobs. According to the Pacific Maritime Association, there are 400 registered longshoremen at Portland who earn an average of $99,333 each year, 86 clerks who pull in an average of $141,085 and 63 foremen earning an average of $175,683 annually. On top of those paychecks are benefit packages that cost employers more than $83,000 per longshore worker in 2011.

The ILWU is making a short-sided mistake that could cost it many more jobs than the two it has claimed. If vessels don’t call at Portland, there will be far fewer longshoremen pulling in top wages. Worse, longshoremen have jeopardized the livelihoods of growers, ranchers, exporters and others that simply had no voice.

The union should be doing everything it can to build the reputation and image of the port: More exports mean more hours at high pay rates for them, more exports and jobs for the region and a better balance of trade for the country. There’s a lot at stake: In 2009, fruit exports from Oregon generated $229 million for the state’s economy; vegetables another $152 million; tree nuts, $58 million; Christmas trees, $17.7 million; live animals and red meat, $16.1 million; and poultry, $3.2 million.

That’s too much business for the ILWU to jeopardize because it wants to grab two jobs from another union.

Stephanie Nall covers the refrigerated supply chain for The Journal of Commerce. Contact her at stephnalljoc@gmail.com.

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