Citrus, nut groups call for resolution of port labor dispute.

The Pacific Maritime Association shut down vessel unloading and loading on the weekend of Feb. 6, creating even more uncertainty for California's citrus and nut industries. Operations were to resume the following Monday, but the work slowdown was expected to resume.

The Almond Hullers and Processors Association (AHPA), representing the interests of almond growers, hullers/shellers, and processors, has issued an urgent plea to state and federal legislators to find a solution to an ongoing labor dispute that has severely impacted almond shipments in and out of West Coast ports.

The labor dispute between the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) has created a slowdown in loading and unloading cargo ships at West Coast ports, causing severe economic hardship to the multi-billion dollar California almond industry, said APHA President Kelly Covello.

“Approximately 70 percent of California almonds are exported and nearly 80 percent of bulk almond exports by value are exported from the Port of Oakland,” she noted. “Bulk almonds alone accounted for nearly 16 percent of the $20.1 billion in goods exported from the Port of Oakland in 2013.”

On Friday, Feb. 6, the Pacific Maritime Association announced that it was temporarily suspending vessel loading and unloading operations for the weekend, with yard, rail and gate operations continuing at terminal operators’ discretion.

“After three months of union slowdowns, it makes no sense to pay extra for less work,” said PMA spokesman Wade Gates, “especially if there is no end in sight to the union’s actions which needlessly brought West Coast ports to the brink of gridlock.”

Vessel operations were scheduled to resume Monday, Feb. 9, but delays are expected to continue. Yard operations, moving processed containers for truck and rail delivery to customers  — will continue at terminal operators’ discretion, according to a PMA release.

The slowdown and temporary closing “further jeopardizes California citrus exports as the industry reaches what would normally be peak demand for California fruit,” said California Citrus Mutual President Joel Nelsen. “Last October, we began warning those in government about impacts to our $2.4 billion industry that historically exports 25 percent of its fresh tonnage; that warning manifested into little action."

 Traditionally California navel oranges and lemons begin a major push into China, Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia and other smaller countries in late December. The “export season” runs well into April. “But already we have quantified losing 25 percent of our opportunity year to date,” Nelson said. “Fruit is rotting on the docks, sales are being canceled by the customer and our industry has slowed its harvesting so as not to place matured fruit into the market place. All this damage is created by two entities that seek to maximize their economic well-being while sacrificing others.”

In  2012-13, the industry exported approximately 28 million cartons of navel oranges with an estimated value of $385 million. Lemons rank second with six million cartons exported at a $109 million value.

The California almond industry provides nearly $22 billion in economic output and supports over 100,000 jobs directly and indirectly, of which 97,000 jobs are located in the Central Valley, according to a UC Davis economic study released in December 2014.

The ongoing slowdown in loading and unloading vessels has resulted in almond handlers and shippers reporting hundreds of containers delayed, dozens of cancelled orders, several rerouted orders at considerably greater expense, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in congestion and other charges, according to Covello.

“Of even more concern is the loss of trust between shippers and buyers resulting from these delays and cancellations. Importers and buyers expect a certain level of reliability and predictability and that trust is being eroded by this ongoing slowdown.”

AHPA has joined the West Coast Port Labor Negotiations Coalition which recently sent a letter urging the PMA and ILWU to take into account how the slowdown is affecting the economic future of a vast array of industries, and called on the federal government to consider all available remedies to bring a rapid end to the dispute.

The Almond Board has sent letters to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office and is drafting letters to the Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman pointing out that almonds are the United States’ largest specialty crop export, reaching over $4 billion in 2013. The Almond Board is engaged in an extensive fact gathering effort to document the impact on California’s 6,500 almond growers and 105 handlers.

“This continuing slowdown is having extensive negative consequences for not only almonds but a wide range of products that rely on the free flow of global commerce,” said Covello. “We call on all parties to come to the table and resolve this dispute quickly.”

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