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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

September 15, 2011 at 10:20 AM

Wrong battle on the waterfront

It wouldn’t be Seattle without protests. So this week’s meeting of the American Association of Port Authorities here has seen rallies by activists over disputes with the Port of Seattle. Calling it the “Port of Poverty and Pollution,” the protesters have especially targeted Port CEO Tay Yoshitani and a raise that has made him “one of the highest paid port officials in the nation.”

One of the issues behind the acrimony is a complex and long-running dispute between the port and the Teamsters over short-distance (drayage) trucking. The Teamsters would naturally like to see all these drivers organized. Right now, most are independent contractors. On some days these drivers might make minimum wage or less.

Bearing in mind that some readers consider me the Seattle Times‘ in-house socialist, my view is this fight picks the wrong target and does it in such a personal way as to alienate support for its legitimate goals.

The biggest reason that Seattle still has a prosperous blue-collar middle class compared with most American cities is the port. The average annual wage for a port-generated job is $59,000. To be sure, some port-related jobs pay less, but the port itself can’t regulate that. In addition, the Puget Sound “airshed” is in attainment with Environmental Protection Agency guidelines on clean air, where, for example, San Pedro harbor in California is not. The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, — which regulates the port — partnered with it on parts of the clean truck program and has voiced support for it.

So the “Port of Poverty and Pollution”? No. The port is one of the region’s major economic engines and its efforts to reduce pollution are not greenwash.

The Port of Los Angeles voted in a program required drayage truckers to be employees of terminal operators or trucking companies, thus easier to organize. (Currently, most truck drivers are owner/operators or independent contractors and they contract with terminal operators or shippers to handle cargo.) Immediately, the American Trucking Association took the port to court. It has been tied up since and both sides have indicated that they will take it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Cities can lose seaports. The wider Panama and Suez canals, as well as Prince Rupert, B.C., present significant competitive challenges. We shouldn’t take our ports for granted any more than we should give them a free ride. But the Puget Sound ports make a difference that keeps the region from being a barbell economy with the very rich on one end and everybody else in Wal-Mart-level jobs on the other.

Comments | More in Labor unions, Ports of Seattle and Tacoma

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