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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Congress Must Act On Ports

The Columbian
Published: November 13, 2015, 6:01am

Along with its immediate impacts, last year’s slowdown at West Coast ports demonstrated the intertwined nature of the economy.

From May 2014 through February of this year, workers at 29 ports engaged in a work slowdown surrounding the handling of container cargo. Ships were left waiting for weeks or even months to offload their cargo; items such as apples and Christmas trees and other products essential to the Washington economy faced delayed shipment to overseas markets. And while the labor dispute that led to the slowdown was settled nine months ago, its influence is felt every day on the roads of the metro area. In the wake of the dispute, the Port of Portland’s two major container shipping companies pulled their business from the port, which has placed more highway-clogging trucks on the roads.

All of this serves as a roundabout introduction to a discussion that is underway in Congress, as Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Yakima, has brought about legislation that would trigger federal involvement in port disputes. In introducing the bill named Ensuring Continued Operations and No Other Major Incidents, Closures or Slowdowns — ECONOMICS — Newhouse said, “We must take the lesson of the most recent ports slowdown to heart that two parties cannot hold hostage the nation’s economy.” Among the co-sponsors are Republican Washington lawmakers Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dave Reichert.

The bill would require a board of inquiry to be convened when four or more ports are involved, when 6,000 or more port workers are impacted, or when U.S. exports or imports drop 20 percent or more in a single month. It is designed to complement proposed legislation that would allow governors of seaport states to order dockworkers to work when such a slowdown or a strike occurs.

According to estimates by GovTrack.us, the odds are slim that any of the port-related legislation will be passed by Congress and signed into law. The Obama administration was reluctant to get involved during the port slowdown, and the prospect of interjecting themselves into labor relations often is anathema to lawmakers.

In addition, a provision that would expand the definition of “strike” to include slowdowns, lockouts and threatened strikes is certain to be met with skepticism from labor groups. But as bill supporter Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, distilled the issue: “The success of American agriculture is tied to our ability to dependably export our farm and ranch goods to overseas buyers.”

In February, the International Business Times reported that the slowdown was costing the U.S. economy about $2 billion a day, and others have asserted that it contributed to anemic national economic growth at the end of 2014 and through the early months of 2015. That impact was particularly strong in Washington, the nation’s most trade-dependent state, a fact that makes legislative action especially pertinent to the region and calls for the rest of the area’s congressional delegation to support the proposed bills.

All of which brings us back to the premise of the issue — last year’s disagreement between port operators and workers extended far beyond the docks; it negatively affected businesses and consumers and, in this case, motorists throughout the Vancouver-Portland area. Because labor disputes do not occur in a vacuum, Congress would be wise to address the issue.