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Jon Talton

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

April 2, 2013 at 10:29 AM

Injustice on the waterfront

Short-haul truckers at Terminal 30 are expected to use port-a-potties, right, instead of a dockside restroom. Officials say it’s for safety reasons. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

Short-haul truckers at Terminal 30 are expected to use port-a-potties, right, instead of a dockside restroom. Officials say it’s for safety reasons. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

Officials at the Port of Seattle continue to show a strange tone-deafness about the working conditions of short-haul truckers. As the Seattle Times’ Mike Lindblom reports, these drivers are barred from using the restrooms at the Terminal 30 office building. Instead, they must use two portable toilets near the terminal exit. The Port, International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 19 and terminal operator SSA Marine maintain that it’s a safety issue. The truckers can’t be stopping and walking to the regular restrooms. They might be run over. But they’re already being run over by this nightmare of an American Dream. Two porta potties to serve dozens of drivers, without even a place to wash their hands? That these drivers are mostly African immigrants adds an unfortunate racial dimension to a dispute in this supposedly liberal city.

The controversy is not new. It was one of the issues, along with pay, safety, working conditions and liability that prompted a walkout by 400 of these drayage truckers last year. In both cases, Port officials say, essentially, “not our problem.” If they speak at all. Considering that the protest happened during sensitive negotiations with the Grand Alliance container lines — which ended up moving from Seattle to the Port of Tacoma, ultimately taking about 20 percent of the container business — I’d suggest it is the Port’s problem just from a business standpoint. The walkout was not an inevitable outcome because of those mean old Teamsters, who want to organize the drayage drivers. It was a result of the Port’s inert response to a long-standing problem, always with an excuse that the drivers are “independent contractors” (only technically), or it has no control over the trucking companies and terminal operators.

How’d that work out for you? In fact, for a port with little dockside rail service, these drivers hauling containers to rail terminals are actually a highly important component of the Port’s competitiveness. The response: Two plastic outhouses. There’s not enough resources to invest in a real restroom facility near the gate? Shameful. And stupid. You can’t blame Chris Hansen and the proposed Sodo arena for this one.

The Port of Seattle aspires to be the “greenest” seaport in the world as a competitive advantage. This is not a hippy-dippy silliness, for participants all along the supply chain are pricing in the costs of environmental damage, higher energy prices and climate change. And the port is always under pressure to live within its means and show a decent rate of return on public investments. Why not work toward being a port known for strong social justice, too? The Port is not helpless in dealing with terminal operators, truck companies or vendors.

Unfortunately, a “social rate of return” is not part of most business plans, certainly not for workers at the bottom. A social rate of return accumulates when someone gets a good, affordable education and can move up. It comes when businesses pay good wages, so workers are not only motivated but can move ahead and play a constructive part in a “consumer-based” economy.” Environmental protection brings a social rate of return in better health and sound ecosystems. In the 19th century, the land-grant college program of Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans produced a social rate of return that helped build an advanced nation.

The advocacy group Puget Sound Sage recently put out a report on working conditions for lower-paid service workers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, comparing them to Los Angeles International, San Francisco International, Oakland International and Mineta San José International. Sea-Tac comes in last in minimum compensation, health insurance, worker retention and paid time off. The other airports, “have set minimum workforce standards to address the adverse effects of low-wage jobs and outsourcing. These airports’ policies are setting standards that create economic success for workers, local economies, airports and their airlines.”

The press release for the report contains a telling remark from Bruce Herbert of Newground Social Investment, a Seattle money management firm: “An economically secure workforce is a motivated, productive workforce – which pays dividends in terms of retention, output, safety, and long-term reputation. Treating workers fairly creates win-win outcomes not just for workers, but for investors and the community alike.” That’s social rate of return.

Remember the values we once considered essential to “American exceptionalism”: decency, justice and fair play? Now the ball is passed from hand to hand and excuses are plentiful, often using economics. But focusing on the economics, too much of a race to the bottom is bad business for the Port. It’s bad for America, too. As inequality grows and economic mobility stagnates or falls for most, the diminishing social rate of return will loom ever larger.

And Don’t Miss: The world economy’s winners and losers in 2013 | Nouriel Roubini

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Such a rich city

Last steward to disengage

Turn off the fireworks

0 Comments | More in Income/living standards, Port of Seattle drivers shutdown, Ports of Seattle and Tacoma

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