Sen. Baumgartner targets cargo crunch at ports

State Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane.

State Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane.

OLYMPIA…  A memorial introduced Wednesday by state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, seeks federal assistance in resolving a long-running labor dispute that appears to have slowed traffic at Pacific-coast ports and snarled international trade for Washington importers and exporters.

Senate Joint Memorial 8009 asks the feds to help longshoremen and shippers reach agreement on a master contract covering 29 western ports from Canada to Mexico. Fourteen senators have signed on as cosponsors. “We need to do everything we can to encourage labor and management to come together, because the vitality of our state’s international trade is at stake,” said Baumgartner, chairman of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee.

The memorial is addressed to President Barack Obama, Congress, the U.S. attorney general and the Department of Commerce. It doesn’t name any specific remedies. Baumgartner said it is intended mainly to demonstrate the high level of interest in this state in seeing that an agreement is reached between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping interests.

It is a case where a dispute involving 20,000 workers affects millions of people, Baumgartner explained. In this state, it has been estimated that 40 percent of all jobs are dependent to some degree on international trade. “Washington businesses and their workers have been caught in the middle while the two sides have been dickering,” Baumgartner said. “Our interest is in seeing that an agreement is reached.”

Dockworkers have been working without a contract since their last six-year agreement expired June 30. Though no strike has been called and work continues at the docks, some trade groups report that traffic has slowed by as much as half since the end of October. Causes of the congestion are a matter of dispute, but the effect has been clear enough to Washington businesses that depend on international trade. Many testified before the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee Jan. 14 about millions of dollars in scheduled deliveries that could not be made.

The memorial notes, “Washington state’s agriculture industry has been hard hit by the congestion at the ports, which has caused apples to rot and Christmas trees to wither, while sitting in containers waiting to be shipped to overseas customers.”

The memorial also points out that Washington manufacturers depend on a steady supply of parts from all over the world, and says unreliable shipping puts exporters at risk of losing customers.

The memorial must be approved by the Commerce and Labor Committee before it advances to the Senate floor; House approval also is required.