WASHINGTON, Feb. 21, 2015 – West Coast ports are resuming full operation after settlement of a labor dispute that snarled Asia-bound traffic for weeks, hitting meat and produce exports especially hard.

The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents operators of the 29 ports, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, reached agreement on a contract Friday night.

The terms of the deal were not released, and they still must be approved by the groups’ membership. But the agreement, which came after Labor Secretary Thomas Perez became personally involved in the dispute this week, cleared the way for the ports to resume operations.

The White House released a statement saying that the ports and workers were being urged to clear out the backlogs of traffic around the ports while the agreement is being finalized.

A spokesman for the Port of Long Beach, Calif., confirmed that it was fully operating Saturday.

The port slowdown had not affected commodities that were shipped in bulk, such as corn and soybeans, but had become a serious problem for companies trying to move red meat and fresh fruit, which are transported aboard container ships to Pacific Rim destinations.

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“With nearly 80 percent or our waterborne red meat exports utilizing West Coast ports, this situation had become very damaging not only for exporters, but also for farmers, ranchers, processors and everyone in the supply chain,” said Philip Seng, president and CEO of the U.S. Meat Export Federation.

Some other commodities shipped on container vessels also would have been affected. About 10 percent of soybean and grain exports, primarily distillers dried grains and soybeans, are shipped via containers, according to the Soy Transportation Coalition.

Mike Steenhoek, the coalition’s executive director, said the labor dispute still raises questions about “whether it is in the best interest of U.S. agriculture and the overall economy for 13,600 highly compensated dockworkers on the West Coast to have such a pivotal role in our country’s ability to export to the global marketplace."

“The U.S. is fortunate to have a highly efficient, dynamic agricultural sector and international customers with a growing desire and appetite for these products,” Steenhoek said. “However, if we truly want to be the world’s preeminent exporter of agricultural and other products, we need to have a system of ports, including those dockworkers who service them, committed to this goal as well.”

The presidents of the PMA and the ILWU said in a joint statement that the agreement “is good for workers and for the industry.”

Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., told Agri-Pulse that the port slowdown threatened the reliability of West Coast ports at a time when the Panama Canal was being widened to accommodate larger vessels that could be shipped through southern ports.
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