During ports slowdown, fiddling as Long Beach burns
© Getty Images

Politicians are an odd lot. They show up opportunistically and often disappear when you need them the most. The West Coast port issue is about to crash America's economic engine, and yet the politicians are filling the airwaves with banalities about coercing decisive resolution. The ports handle about 43 percent of U.S. containerized cargo and one needs to realize that whatever price is used to settle the ongoing labor dispute, it will be far less than the actual cost that the American business community will suffer, as staggering losses are already mounting in America's manufacturing, agricultural, import, export and retail communities. How can a dispute between a (mostly) non-American owned consortium of 72 shipping companies against 20,000 West Coast workers be allowed to cause such pain and suffering to the economic well-being of 319 million Americans? Isn't it time for our government to say something?

Make no mistake; this logjam at the West Coast ports is being orchestrated by two very seasoned professionals who both want to win the battle. On one side, we have International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) President Robert McEllrath and, on the other side, Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) Chairman and CEO Jim McKenna. These are fierce combatants and the stakes are high. However, at the same time, the aerial view off our West Coast is now sadly reminiscent of our naval ships gathering before the invasion of Normandy. Can you imagine telling Gen. Dwight Eisenhower that he can't offload the troops because of a dispute on the dock? Have we reached a point where no person is in charge of this fiasco?

Here are some direct government quotes:

Obama White House: Over a year ago, after negotiations at the East Coast and Southern ports, the "two sides were able to resolve their differences through the time-tested process of collective bargaining" and "we're confident that management and labor at the West Coast ports can do the same."

ADVERTISEMENT

Sens. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinLawmakers in both parties to launch new push on Violence Against Women Act Domestic travel vaccine mandate back in spotlight Biden, lawmakers mourn Harry Reid MORE (D-Calif.) and Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerHarry Reid, political pugilist and longtime Senate majority leader, dies Congress can prevent another Jan. 6 by updating a key elections law First senator formally endorses Bass in LA mayoral bid MORE (D-Calif.): "We urge you both [the ILWU and PMA] to recognize that the current impasse has serious and troubling ramifications for our state and for our nation."

What we are missing is a quote from Eisenhower — perhaps a predictive warning to be careful, because a group "that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both."

As we watch the media reports, it just seems like the PMA, the ILWU and our politicians have picked up a verse from Simon and Garfunkel's classic "Sounds of Silence": "People talking without speaking/People hearing without listening."

The U.S. Senate Transportation Committee held a meeting in Washington this week to discuss potential effects that a port shutdown would cause. The outlook is dim and a probable strike would wreak havoc on the economy. This current "slowdown" is already costing millions and predictions from the retail, agricultural and manufacturing communities are talking about losses in the billions.

The impasse to finalize the issues remains unclear. Both groups state publically that they want to agree. McEllrath said recently of the PMA's tactics: "Intensifying the rhetoric at this stage of the bargaining, when we are just a few issues from reaching an agreement, is totally unnecessary and counterproductive." McKenna has said: "It is time to conclude these negotiations and get our ports working again." Wow, seems like both parties are trying hard to agree, but is that really true? Folks, get real — this is a battle, plain and simple, with each side working to get an upper hand. Both want to win, and there is no definitive right or wrong, but there truly is a problem with a small negotiating group holding the rest of the country hostage, and that's why the U.S. government needs to involve itself to achieve a quicker solution.

The problem is that we all read the headlines and don't really understand the substance. What we have is a long-term labor contract being negotiated against a powerful group of shipping companies. The labor folks want a better deal than they have, and the shippers want more action and productivity for their dollar. Somewhere in there lies the solution, but the language surrounding the talks is getting quite ugly and people are starting to take sides, when neither group is wrong (just unfulfilled). However, at the same time, the business communities who are working daily to export or import in a timely manner are the ones that end up suffering during this exercise. The fire continues to burn on the West Coast and we need some top-down pressure from Washington to put it out.

Thamsanqa Jantjie was the man who erroneously delivered sign language during President Obama's eulogy for former South African President Nelson Mandela. It would be great if we could get Jantjie to stand beside Messrs. McEllrath and McKenna when they verbalize their thoughts about the port situation, or perhaps he could stand by the politicians when they respond to the barbs. Whatever the case, Jantjie now has a job promoting a live-stream video app and might not be available at this critical time when we really need him to explain how we could possibly have arrived at this chaotic state of affairs.

Every global supply chain officer using the West Coast port facilities is watching this daily life-changing event. Two seasoned captains of industry, McEllrath and McKenna, are about to drive the Titanic right into an iceberg with the complete endorsement of our political leaders, who are afraid to touch this highly sensitive situation.

Nancy Reagan was probably right: Somebody has to stand up and "just say no."

The sound of silence is deafening.

Helfenbein is chairman of the board of the American Apparel and Footwear Association. He is a strong advocate for a robust U.S. trade agenda and lectures frequently on the subjects of supply chain and international trade. Follow him on Twitter @rhelfen.