Skip to main content

You make this possible. Support our independent, nonprofit newsroom today.

Give Now

Can Seattle's Port Problems Really Be Solved With A 'Simple Fix'?

caption: Port of Seattle cranes loom overhead. After a port slowdown last year, retailers and growers are trying to repair the damage of lost business.
Enlarge Icon
Port of Seattle cranes loom overhead. After a port slowdown last year, retailers and growers are trying to repair the damage of lost business.
Flickr Photo/Dennis Hamilton (CC BY 2.0)/

The port slowdown may have ended last year, but it has raised the question: How can we prevent this from happening again?

The answer, say national retailers, is to negotiate the port workers' contracts sooner.

The slowdown started around last Halloween, and sent retailers into panic mode trying to stock their shelves for the holiday market. It also prevented Washington state Christmas trees and apples from getting to Asian markets.

So retailers grasped at alternatives.

“They were able to shift cargo to alternate gateways,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain at the National Retail Federation in Washington, D.C. “East Coast, Gulf Coast, Canada. Some used air freight, which is almost 10 times more expensive than ocean freight.

“We can never go through this again,” Gold said.

It’s a view shared here in Washington state among those affected by the slowdown.

“There were a lot of growers who were very angry, obviously,” said Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.

DeVaney said farmers are used to uncertainty. “But something that was so obviously discretionary, that was the result of intentional decisions by human actors, was really frustrating,” he said.

The port slowdown was the result of a labor negotiation gone awry. The Pacific Maritime Association and the port workers hadn’t settled their contract by its expiration date. The slowdown started in October, and a federal mediator wasn’t dispatched until four months later.

Everyone with goods to ship suffered during the slowdown. But the container statistics for the ports of Seattle and Tacoma indicate that exporters had it worse than importers.

A sudden surge of imported goods landed in the weeks just before Christmas. But there was never a surge for Washington state exporters.

DeVaney said some growers tried to move their products out through the Port of Metro Vancouver in Canada, which was untouched by the lockout. But that didn’t work out.

“Just because a port exists, doesn’t mean that there are ships there going to the destination you’re seeking,” he said.

Failure to deliver meant some growers lost multi-year contracts.

So what can be done?

This fall, U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert tried to get the U.S. Government Accountability Office to study the economic impact of the dispute “and suggest what tools might be used to prevent future slowdowns.”

But the House didn’t give him the votes needed.

Gold said others are toying with the idea of using back-to-work legislation should this happen again, a suggestion he called “kind of a nuclear option."

He said the fix is something simple: Just get to the table sooner.

“The talks need to start earlier than they have been,” he said. “You can’t wait until a couple of months before the contract expires to begin the conversations.”

Gold said the East Coast ports have already figured this out. They have a contract that expires in almost three years, he said, “and they are already underway with a discussion of a contract extension.”

The Pacific Maritime Association, which employs the port workers, would not comment on the retailers' suggestion for a simple fix.

Why you can trust KUOW