West Coast port slowdown hitting home and Congress

OAKLAND, Calif. (KTVU) -- The nagging port slowdown has mostly impacted exports, causing U.S. exporters and their employees months of economic pain. Now, the slowdown involves Congress, and increasingly, U.S. consumers.

At some point, when you get there, the shelves could be bare.

Tuesday, the U.S. Senate Commerce Subcommittee heard loud and clear that the West Coast port slowdown is becoming unbearable says food mega conglomerate Cargill, a major exporter of U.S. produced fruits, vegetables and meats.

"When ports don't operate, the supply chain backs up causing problems for us, our industry, our farmer and rancher suppliers, our customers and our employees," said Norman Bessac of Cargill Industries Exports.

Rail giant BNSF services West Coast ports.

"In this period of the year, we would be moving somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 off of out docks in Southern California. That number has been reduced to 30 trains per week," says Katie Farmer of BNSF.

A letter to the ILWU and PMA from California Senators Feinstein and Boxer read in part, "Clearly the ramifications of this slowdown are hurting the California economy and our households, small businesses and communities. This is unacceptable. This is an especially grave concern as it could potentially undermine long term demand for American products."

While the slowdown has become a major issue for U.S. farmers who export, it's now becoming a major issue for U.S. consumers who import a lot of their perishables.

"Now we're seeing some severe shortages, we're seeing some quality problems. Prices starting to go up," said Steve Del Masso, vice-president of Family owned Bay Cities Produce.

This time of year, Bay Cities imports Central and South American honeydews, pineapples, cantaloupes, grapes and exotic fruits. Some of Bay Cities' imports have been diverted to Texas to be trucked to the Bay Area.

"That mango can be a month old before I get it up here and some of them are beginning to become black," said Mr. Del Masso.

Many legislators are raising a key question: how can it be that either the Longshoremen or the Pacific Maritime Association can individually or jointly close down a huge percentage of the U.S. economy?

The answer: because they can, for now.