Flickr/Bernard Spragg. NZ

Labor Middleman

Dock-to-disaster? Remember that one time last fall, when we covered the 66 “ghost ships,”  carrying $14 billion worth of cargo, that were left stranded in United States waters after Hanjin, South Korea’s largest container shipper and the world’s sixth biggest agricultural export handler, went bankrupt? Not so much? It’s cool. Here’s the link.

Nobody (except perhaps the lagging maritime shipping industry) really loves to ponder logistics. They’re not the sexiest part of the supply chain—until, that is, they’re under threat of, ahem, going off the rails. Then they start to seem kinda critical.

And in the case of the recent International Longshoremen Association’s (ILA AFL-CIO) dispute with the Port of Charleston, South Carolina and the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor over regulations ILA says interfere with its collective bargaining rights, the term “under threat” could mean our food supply gets seriously fucked. Here’s what you should know.

We import as much as 19 percent of the food we consume, or in volume, 123 billion pounds.

The ILA last week proposed a one-day work stoppage at ports on the U.S. East and Gulf Coasts. According to estimates provided by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to the Hellenic Shipping News (which covers, yes, port news), “the total value of cargo imported and exported through the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey alone exceeded $200 billion in 2014.” It can be tricky nailing down numbers specific to imports and exports of food, but USDA data from 2013 indicate we import as much as 19 percent of the food we consume, or in volume, 123 billion pounds. As of 2015, that translated to about $119 billion, a number USDA says shows that imports are growing at 2 percent.

In a piece about the goods the U.S. trades with foreign countries, personal finance site The Balance cited data from the 2016 census that indicate our export industry, on the other hand, may suffer less from a work stoppage because “just 9 percent of exported goods are foods, feeds and beverages ($131 billion). The big three are soybeans ($24 billion), meat and poultry ($17 billion) and corn ($11 billion). Food exports are falling since many countries don’t like U.S. food processing standards.”

So, what’s really at stake here? Well, during a particularly slippery time for U.S. trade relations, a work stoppage that halts imports and exports along the East Coast could disrupt commerce for U.S. companies (and if shipping runs aground in the busiest port on the Eastern seaboard, the ripple effect on our trucking and rail industries could end up feeling more tsunami-like). For dockworkers, it comes down to regulations workers say lead to job losses.

According to Maritime Executive (which covers, yes, issues maritime executives care about), the Waterfront Commission was founded in 1953 as an industry watchdog to fight organized crime and corruption. As such, Congress authorized the commission to conduct criminal background checks and protect against discriminatory hiring practices—regulations the ILA says are beyond its authority. And in South Carolina, the dispute is over use of non-union employees, which union reps say promotes unskilled and unsafe dock labor.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, ILA president Harold Daggett announced the union will seek emergency meetings with members of Congress and asked workers to walk back plans for a work stoppage: “I strongly urge all ILA members not to engage in any work stoppage or any other violations of our current Master Contract,” he said in a statement on the union’s website. “Let the leadership of the ILA meet with Congress in Washington. I am confident Congress will understand the urgency of our issues and help us resolve any and all problems.”

For his part, ILA vice president Kenneth Riley on Tuesday told the Charleston Post and Courier that legislators “… are already setting up meetings. They’re really moving it along. That tells me they are taking it very seriously.”

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Kate Cox

Kate Cox covers the secret life of the supply chain as editor for The New Food Economy. In her former life, she was a freelance health reporter for radio and text. Follow her @thekatecox