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Longshore agreement may be near, port officials say

Capital Press

A tentative agreement to resolve the West Coast longshoremen’s work slowdown may be reached before meetings between the union leaders begin on Dec. 15, representatives of the ports of Tacoma and Seattle told the Washington Apple Commission.

“We hope there is a tentative agreement in place today or tomorrow to be discussed at the caucus next week and some sort of vote the week after that. Our hope is productivity would get back to normal. This is speculation,” Dustin Stoker, director of operations for the Port of Tacoma, told commissioners during a conference call on Dec. 11.

A weeklong caucus of International Longshore and Warehouse Union representatives is to begin Dec. 15 in San Francisco. Among many commodities affected, the Washington apple industry estimates it is losing tens of millions of dollars worth of overseas apple shipments weekly due to the work slowdown. Apples are being diverted onto an already full domestic market, increasing downward pressure on prices. December and January normally are heavy shipment months for Washington apples to Asian countries in advance of the Chinese New Year in February.

Even if longshoremen are fully back to work the week of Dec. 22, it takes time to clean up facilities, moving empty containers and such, Stoker said. It also takes time to get container ships back on schedule, he said. It probably would be around Jan. 15 before operations would be fully back to normal at most ports, he said.

Steve Balaski, director of operations at the Port of Seattle, agreed with that assessment.

Todd Fryhover, Apple Commission president, asked if any priority would be given to higher-value refrigerated cargo like apples versus dry cargo like hay. Stoker said it’s a balancing act, that exports will be prioritized around vessel calls. Balaski said perishable commodities will be expedited as much as possible.

In response to a question about other ports from Commissioner Brian Sand, of Auvil Fruit Co., Stoker said crane activity in Los Angeles is not as low as in Seattle and Tacoma. But Los Angeles was fighting congestion long before the slowdown, as has Oakland, so it might take those ports longer to recover, he said.

Automation is the main sticking point in negotiations, Stoker said. “Automation leads to jurisdictional discussions. That’s the heart of the issue,” Stoker said.

“There is concern of displacement of jobs,” Balaski said.

The apple industry is increasing mechanization to stay competitive and “if they can’t make similar changes at docks we won’t be competitive in foreign markets in the longterm,” said Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, Yakima.

Agreement soon is not unexpected because once the Christmas season passes the union’s leverage declines, Schlect said.