A trade group representing the transport interests of the country's agricultural and forest products exporters said a three-year contract extension about to be ratified by West Coast dock workers should be seen only as a starting point toward achieving operational stability at the 29 ports used by most of its members.
In a statement issued last night, the Agriculture Transportation Coalition said the contract extension would not, by itself, make West Coast ports more productive and efficient. More steps must be taken to increase U.S. ports' competitiveness in the face of moves by foreign competitors to improve their infrastructures in support of greater production and export efforts, wrote Peter Friedmann, the group's executive director.
Friedmann said he remains concerned that foreign buyers who began sourcing from producers in other countries during the contentious 2014-15 dispute between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and waterfront management represented by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) will continue to do so unless the U.S. gets serious about strengthening is export supply chain operations.
"Some issues will be difficult, but failure to address them now will lead to more losses for all those with a stake in West Coast marine terminals, including those who ship through them," he said.
Friedmann called for wholesale improvements to the nation's marine terminal, rail, and truck networks, reserving his sharpest criticism for what he said are the low weight limits placed on trucks operating on most of the interstate highway system. The current 80,000-pound ceiling, which has been in place since 1982, is "absurdly inconsistent with world standards," Friedmann wrote, adding that it was lower than Canadian, Mexican, Asian, and European standards. The result, he said, is that for every two trucks used by foreign competitors to move their exports to inland or marine terminals, U.S. exporters must use three.
U.S. agricultural exporters were badly hurt during the labor dispute, as perishable goods were left to languish, and often to rot, in warehouses. After the two sides tentatively agreed to a five-year contract in February 2015, Friedmann was vocal in expressing concern that the agreement didn't call for specific productivity improvements at the ports and terminals.
Late Friday, ILWU said about two-thirds of its 20,000 members were prepared to ratify a three-year extension of the current contract, which is set to expire on July 1, 2019. The action seems to be unprecedented in maritime labor history, as no one can recall when a contract was extended with so much time remaining on the existing accord.