Puget Sound Business Journal: Region must prevent another port dispute


Every single time I meet with people in Central or Eastern Washington, someone asks me "how we can prevent another port dispute?" They aren’t curious – they want reassurance that what happened during the 2014-15 protracted contract negotiations between terminal operators, ocean carriers and longshoremen will not happen again.

During those extended negotiations, freight movement slowed through our ports, products languished on docks or in warehouses, and overseas customers were left waiting with unfilled orders. That hurt Washington. The Washington Council on International Trade estimates our state’s economy lost $700 million during the 2014-15 dispute. That mindboggling number represents the scale of economic losses inflicted on businesses and families and export dependent communities all across Washington.

Recently, both longshore and the terminal operator representatives expressed a willingness to consider extending the current contract before it expires in 2019, or at least agree to continue operating under the existing contract until a new one is negotiated.

I am hopeful they will, that all sides will collectively and publicly reassure Washington’s exporters and their foreign customers that there won’t be a similar dispute when this contract expires in three years.

Failure to do that will leave a specter looming over our state, one that will weaken our export economy and possibly cost us jobs. That’s because, during the dispute, when foreign customers couldn’t receive Washington’s products on time or at all, they found alternative suppliers in other countries.

Even now, a year after the settlement, I am frequently told not all foreign customers are willing to rely on Washington exporters as long as the possibility of another disruption exists. Many of Washington’s customers want certainty and reliability before they commit to buying our products again. If we’re going to keep export-related jobs here, our exporters need to be able to give their foreign customers that reassurance.

If Washington’s agricultural and manufacturing exporters are to win back lost markets, and if we are to keep maritime export related jobs in our ports, it’s essential that waterfront players let our overseas customers know Washington’s ports are open for business long term.I’m encouraging both sides to make that commitment soon.   

Bill Bryant is the chairman and founder of Bryant Christie Inc., a consulting company that helps businesses improve international sales. He is also a candidate for governor.

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Mike Foster