The effect of disruptions to West Coast port operations extends beyond grower-shippers in the coastal states.
In Idaho, for one, potato and tree fruit exporters felt the pinch as New Year’s marked six months without a contract between management at 29 ports and the International Longshore & Warehouse Union. The dispute showed no sign of ending quickly, as the Pacific Maritime Association on Dec. 29 again called for federal mediation.
Increased congestion and slowdowns since the start of November have hurt the local fresh produce industry as well as processors and meat packers.
The state’s biggest fruit exporter, Caldwell, Idaho-based Symms Fruit Ranch Inc., reported export volumes were down more than 20%. Moreover, out of some 90,000 cartons destined for overseas — mostly apples — 70,000 were delayed.
“A lot of their product spent a week or two at the docks waiting for a vessel,” Laura Johnson, bureau chief of the Idaho Department of Agriculture’s market development division, said Dec. 29. “It’s cost them $200 to more than $1,000 per load in added expenses for storage and waiting to load. Because of the extra time, they are concerned about the quality some of their product will arrive in, and some Christmas orders were canceled.”
Fruit exporters such as Henggeler Packing Co., Fruitland, Idaho, were also affected.
Idaho fresh potato exporters reported lost loads and canceled orders.
Slowdowns at the ports are wreaking havoc on price negotiations with new and current clients, said Frank Muir, president and chief executive officer of the Idaho Potato Commission.
“It’s been difficult to get prices quoted for Asia because of the uncertainty of shipments, the costs and delays,” Muir said Dec. 30. “We’ve lost some customers and just can’t get supply there in a consistent manner. We began shipping fresh potatoes to Asia and Central America about 10 years ago. It’s a growing and important business.”
Numbers were not available, but some lost business has turned to Europe or Australia as an alternative, Muir said. Containers do continue to ship, but often do not arrive on time.
One potato shipper, Johnson said, had product sitting at a California port for a week and a half — then decided to truck it back home.
“They ended up returning it to Idaho, repacking it and sending it somewhere else,” she said.
While Washington’s apple industry has pegged the dollar losses for its exports at $19 million per week during the port disruptions, various Idaho industries have not set an estimate.
Renewed call for mediation
Just before New Year’s, the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association broke negotiating silence — as they had a few times in the final months of 2014 – to trade accusations.
Robert McEllrath, ILWU president, said in a Dec. 29 statement that none of PMA’s 11 board members had participated directly in negotiations. Such participation, he said, was needed for “the few issues that remain unresolved.”
Management, in turn, disputed that the finish line is near, and renewed its call for federal mediation.
“The only major coast-wide issue on which we’ve reached tentative agreement is the health care plan — already one of the most generous in America,” the PMA said in a statement. “Significant issues remain unresolved, including wages, pensions, jurisdiction and work rules.”
Board members, who represent carriers and terminal operators, have been “intimately involved” in negotiations, according to the management group.
“Given the lack of progress at the table, the ILWU’s continuation of debilitating work slowdowns and the impact those actions are having on businesses throughout America, it’s clear that mediation is required to resolve the many issues that remain at the bargaining table,” the PMA statement said.