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Ag shippers seek service quality improvements

By Richard Knee

The West Coast labor contract impasse is four months gone and cargo volumes are again rising, but a bitter aftertaste persists for shippers, at least those in the agricultural sector.

That became clear at an annual conference that the Agriculture Transportation Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization for farm and forest product exporters and importers, held in San Francisco in late June.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents West Coast dockworkers, marine clerks and foremen, drew perhaps the heaviest fire during the two-day gathering. But shippers also stressed they were less interested in pointing fingers than in seeing their goods hauled to port, loaded onto vessels and delivered to customers in timely, reliable fashion.

And, in fact, the animosity toward the ILWU seemed to dissipate over the course of the conference, especially when union officials took the dais and appeared to take to heart what the shippers had to say.

Ray Familathe, the union’s mainland vice president, said he was "quite moved" when Nina Solari, vice president of food safety and quality control for Avanti Nut Co., told of steep losses that port service delays caused to her company and to Washington state apple exporters. Avanti Nut is a family-owned and operated walnut producer in Stockton, Calif.

"Nina got to me. You’re a small farmer. You want to get your goods to market. Agriculture is not secondary to the ILWU," Familathe said.

"I don’t really care who shot the sheriff," said Perry

Bourne, director of international transportation and rail operations for Tyson Foods, a poultry and meat products shipper based in Springdale, Ark. "We’re tired of diverting cargo. But we had to keep shipping, because we didn’t want to lose our customers."

Moreover, the newest member of the Federal Maritime Commission, William Doyle, noted that port congestion stretched from "long before the end of 2014 and into the first quarter of this year," and was attributable to such factors as chassis shortages, terminal closures and long truck lines.

He also took aim at shipping lines, saying their tariffs lacked clarity and shippers and truckers should not have to pay for cargo demurrage or detention not of their own doing. He drew applause when he called such surcharges "flat wrong."

Whether shippers get the service improvements they want, especially at the ports, is a long-term question. Just how long remains to be seen. As some speakers at the gathering noted, there are factors such as demographics, weather, politics, currency exchange fluctuations and even mainstream-press coverage that affect ports, terminal operators, dockworkers, carriers and others in the supply chain.