President George W. Bush used a court injunction to reopen West Coast ports in October, but the produce industry continued to brace for financial fallout from the labor standoff that pitted union longshoremen against an association of shipping companies. Organic produce shippers remained cautiously optimistic that their business would be unaffected.
"It's a tricky business," said Melody Myer with Source Organic in Soquel, Calif. "Once that flow stops, it backs up real quickly."
Twenty-nine ports were shut down for 11 days, and the lockout was estimated to have cost the economy more than $1 billion a day. "This dispute between management and labor cannot be allowed to further harm the economy," Bush said in seeking the injunction and invoking the Taft-Hartley Act.
That act, passed in 1947, allows presidents to seek injunctions against strikes and lockouts that imperil national safety. Government lawyers will seek an 80-day cooling-off period authorized by Taft-Hartley, and then mediators will help settle the dispute.
Affects on the produce industry could still be coming, though. The Pacific Maritime Association guessed it would take up to six weeks to return port traffic to normal. Produce exports passing through these ports have already been subject to extraordinary delays, and the fleet of trucks that brought cargo to the closed ports have had their return trips delayed as well.
The produce industry feared that if export markets were unreachable, procurement companies might sell to domestic wholesalers at below-market costs to avoid huge losses. On Oct. 9, when the ports were ordered to open, 200 cargo ships sat immobile, waiting to sail.
"It doesn't take a whole lot to make a big impact," said Gene Lauden, who heads the organic division of Dovex Marketing Co. in Wenatchee, Wash. "There has already been considerable damage done on the conventional side." Shipments of pears, apples and broccoli that were idle at ports were likely to face higher scrutiny from Pacific Rim customers.
But the organic export business with Pacific Rim countries is still small, Lauden said, so it's unlikely that the domestic supply of organic produce will be affected. Washington states' biggest organic exports—apples and pears—go to the United Kingdom and the European Union and thus are trucked to East Coast ports.
Organic produce imports into West Coast ports should be largely unaffected as well, Myers said, because the items that come that direction—summer produce from South America and New Zealand—haven't begun to ship yet.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 11/p. 7