Occupied Ports

Anyone working for U.S. ports, or even generally associated with moving goods in and out of the United States, owes a very large thank you to the Occupy movement.

Last week’s attempt to shut down operations at terminals on the West Coast was aimed at pumping new life into a movement that had been gasping for life and seeking some new direction after targeting, without much real impact, the banks and financial institutions that were a driving force in the meltdown of the U.S. housing market.

It may have been audacious and ambitious, but the accomplishment seen on Dec. 12 was in drawing attention to the ports and freight sites as engines of the economy and jobs. That is, in a single day, what seemed to be barely more than 1,000 protesters got out the message that port directors, commissioners, farmers, distribution center operators, the trucking industry and manufacturers have been trying to communicate for years: the businesses and facilities that support the movement of goods are essential to the economic prosperity of the nation and of their communities.

That network of businesses, workers and government employees operates with remarkable precision every day, providing jobs and the benefits of commerce, yet remains largely invisible to the community.

This seamless supply chain wasn’t invisible on Dec. 12, however, and in the days leading up to the debacle.

In fact, from organized labor to the leadership at the West Coast ports, the operators, workers and companies that move goods behaved with admirable calm, unity and good sense amid what at times appeared to be something of a circus. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union came out quickly and repeatedly with statements supporting the general goals of the Occupy movement, but noting the ports were the wrong targets and that the union would not sanction a shutdown.

And port officials, rather than decrying the protests, focused on the positive story they have to tell about the impact their operations have on local and national economies.

According to the American Association of Port Authorities, West Coast seaports generate some $704 million in economic activity and account for “up to 260,000 person hours of employment and more than $9 million in wages” in a single day. Port services and activities generate $3 million in taxes — and that’s just the West Coast ports, and the economics of a single day.

The disconnect between the stated aims of the movement and the impact of the protests was especially evident in Oakland, the port hardest hit by the Occupy actions. Protesters there blocked gates used by independent owner-operator truck drivers trying to serve a port that is a major export center for California farmers.

Shutting down ports, the AAPA said, affects “all Americans, including those who must work to support themselves and their families, small businesses … and all levels of government.”

That’s an important story to tell on any day, but it resonated around the country and on the West Coast on Dec. 12. Some good may come from that day if it gives ports and the shipping supply chain the momentum to keep telling that story, and bring the operations that facilitate trade the attention and the investment the country deserves.

Paul Page is executive director of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 202-355-1170, or at ppage@joc.com. Follow Paul Page on Twitter, www.twitter.com/paulpage.

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