Port problems, local waves

Labor dispute 150 miles away affects local agriculture economy

Earlier this month, Jake Cecil was forced to send 46 North State employees home from their jobs because of a labor dispute occurring more than 150 miles away.

The Chico resident, who manages the processing plant at Orland’s Omega Walnut, ceased operations there due to the impacts of longstanding contract negotiations between the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

The contract for the 20,000 members of the ILWU at 29 West Coast ports expired in July. Though the dockworkers have yet to officially strike, and the ports technically remain open, the labor dispute has greatly slowed port operations, including those at the Port of Oakland, the main shipping hub for Northern California. PMA blames the slowdown on the ILWU, claiming workers are doing so deliberately to leverage negotiations, while the union claims it is due to poor management. Ships are reported to be stacking up outside California’s ports, while cargo clogs the docks, with little movement on land or sea.

For Omega Walnut, this means shipments to international customers have been halted indefinitely. With a plant filled to the brim with processed walnuts that have already been sold but cannot reach their destination, Omega is at a standstill, held hostage by the impasse. There is no room to shell, sort and pack walnuts, and no reason, as some of their containers delivered to the Oakland port in December are still sitting, waiting to go out.

Omega is charged for each day that the dockworkers fail to move the cargo out of the port. Cecil said buyers are backing out of contracts, and with 90 percent of Omega’s business in foreign markets, this crisis could devastate future business.

The story is the same for many other North State businesses. This region relies heavily on agriculture—it is the No. 1 industry in Butte, as well as Glenn County, where Omega is headquartered—and Butte County’s top three crops last year were walnuts, rice and almonds, all heavily exported and required to go through ports to reach buyers worldwide.

The situation could be catastrophic to our local and state economy if a solution is not reached quickly. Our main economic driver is being idled and it is intolerable for a ransom so high to be placed on the backs of California’s agricultural employees, who often earn hourly wages, compared to the longshoremen who continue to make what the PMA states is an average salary of $147,000 a year.

At this point, fault is irrelevant. Consensus must be demanded by citizens, and must come swiftly.

As Tim Johnson, president and CEO of the California Rice Commission—which represents 2,500 rice producers, many here in Butte County—said so succinctly in a phone interview, pushing the limits on negotiations is only causing suffering for our region’s ag industry.

“This is a game of brinkmanship between labor and PMA, and really, it is coming at the expense of agriculture.”