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Originally published August 13, 2014 at 4:45 PM | Page modified August 13, 2014 at 4:46 PM

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Editorial: Close call on grain exports offers a lesson

Wheat shipments resume as grain-terminal operators settle with longshore union, averting a serious threat to sales and market share, in which the state played an unwise role.

Seattle Times Editorial

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WHEAT farmers across the Pacific Northwest can breathe a little easier this week as a labor agreement reopened a vital grain terminal at the Port of Vancouver and avoids major disruption to U.S. exports.

What is troubling, though, is Gov. Jay Inslee was willing to imperil sales and world market share for an industry worth billions to this state and the inland West. It shouldn’t happen again.

The United Grain terminal, responsible for nearly 20 percent of the grain exports from the West Coast, came to a near-standstill July 6 when Inslee withdrew Washington State Patrol protection for his own state grain inspectors. They were crossing a rowdy picket line maintained by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union since members were locked out last year.

Inspections stopped at the terminal in Vancouver. So did most shipping. The supply chain backed up. As harvest began, Montana elevator operators heaped excess wheat in huge mounds outdoors. Farmers worried about prices. Overseas buyers wondered about the reliability of U.S. producers.

Now it appears the worst has been averted. All that remains is a union vote on a contract covering multiple terminals from Portland to Seattle. At Vancouver, where strife was worst, inspections have resumed, ships can be loaded and United Grain figures it can make up for lost time. Inslee issued a statement celebrating an agreement that “will allow our growers to ship their world-class grain products in time for peak harvest.”

But the matter should never have gotten to that point. Inslee’s choice was far from neutral — it gave leverage to a union that fills 44 positions at the terminal, and it used the farm economy as a bargaining chip. Stakes are even higher in another current labor negotiation, as the same union bargains with the Pacific Maritime Association for a master agreement covering container shipping on the West Coast.

As talks proceed, elected leaders need to remember the public interest lies not in supporting one side or the other, but in maintaining the free flow of trade.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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