Moving the bountiful harvest through ports of call to overseas markets is a key part of the nation's agricultural infrastructure. But this week, a labor dispute froze shipments of all cargo from U.S. ports on the West Coast.
Indeed, from the field to the loading dock, labor unrest on the West Coast is rippling through the nation's agribusiness sector.
After being locked-out for most of the week, representatives of the Longshore and Warehouse Union met with leaders of the Pacific Maritime Association under the watchful eye of a federal mediator.
At issue in this battle between the shipping line and sea terminal operators and union members are 16-hundred clerical jobs tasked with tracking cargo movement. The marine clerk positions, though held by ILWU members, are currently NOT covered by the union contract. ILWU officials are concerned new technologies like bar-code scanners and GPS tracking devices will put 400 people out of work. Union leaders are further afraid this is the top of a slippery slope that will lead to the elimination of other union jobs in the future. For their part, management has pledged no layoffs will occur as the high-tech changes are implemented.
The impact has touched everyone from retailers gearing up for the December holiday season to farmers trying to move perishable goods. The total impact of the lockout is estimated at $1 billion per day.
Not far away, a different union received a boost. California Democratic Governor Gray Davis signed legislation this week giving farm laborers one more tool to use when bargaining with growers. The new law amends the 1975 California Labor Relations Act by allowing a state panel to settle contract negotiation disputes through binding arbitration.
Davis' signature ends a bitter disagreement between farm laborers, many earning less than 10-thousand dollars per year, and growers who believe the measure is potentially punitive and could put them out of business.
It is too early to tell what effect the legislation will have on the states' $27 billion dollar a year agriculture industry and the estimated 600-thousand laborers that keep it running.