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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Washington Lawmakers Get Earful On Fallout From West Coast Ports Dispute

Ayda D

A popular gift now for Chinese New Year is a box of red apples from Washington. But Northwest shippers say a labor dispute at West Coast ports is jeopardizing that lucrative overseas market.

Marc Spears with Chelan Fresh Marketing represents 400 Washington fruit growers. He said they expected to ship 120 containers of Washington fruit per week through this month. Instead a labor dispute and resulting slowdown at the ports has cut that volume in half.

Spears told a panel of Washington lawmakers it’s jeopardizing the peak season for Northwest apple exports.

“Chinese New Year is a big draw for our apples, it’s the 19th of February,” he said. “Currently, we’re probably going to miss a lot of that business and these guys are going to find apples from Europe, from South Africa, from someplace to fill these shelves.”

Spears said his company alone is losing over $1 million a week. And as inventory stacks up apples are being dumped. The crisis comes in the midst of a banner apple production year in Washington.

Representatives of the longshoreman’s union say they’re not responsible for the ongoing disruptions. Dan McKisson, president of the Puget Sound Longshore Union, told lawmakers that containers are piling up at Pacific Northwest ports because of a reduction in night shifts.

“We had five days in early November where we were only working four hours a day, okay? That’s when the congestion started,” Mckesson said. “It started to clear up and then when the night shifts got cut off the congestion started again.”

The Longshore union is locked in a contract dispute with the Pacific Maritime Association. In written testimony, the PMA said the port congestion is the result of a union-led work slowdown that started in late October.

A mediator is now involved. By law, Washington lawmakers are prohibited from intervening in private labor disputes.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."