California state officials are unusually bold in their approach to major problems. For instance, Gov. Gavin Newsom and his progressive allies believe our state can pass labor laws that revamp the economy, provide affordable healthcare for all residents and even change the trajectory of the Earth's climate by shifting the economy toward a carbon-free future.
In his 2019 State of the State address, Newsom boasted that there's virtually nothing that our state can't accomplish—from meeting the needs of devalued workers to providing quality housing for everyone to restoring fragile ecosystems—provided we are willing to "think bigger." The challenges "are as hard as they come," he intoned, "but I truly believe we have the tools to solve them."
Yet, for some reason, Newsom doesn't possess the tools to tackle a totally surmountable obstacle that is threatening the economy. I'm referring, of course, to the bottleneck at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which handle 40 percent of the cargo shipped into the United States. Container ships usually pull into ports, quickly unload their goods, and head to sea.
At the beginning of the pandemic, however, shipping companies scaled back as factories curtailed production, but demand has unexpectedly spiked. "Warehouses struggled to hire enough workers to keep up with the demand and they started getting backed up," according to a recent CalMatters report.
Currently, 111 container ships are idling off the coast of Los Angeles—far surpassing the historically worst backlog of 17. In addition to disrupting world commerce and driving inflation, the chaos is causing environmental damage—something that should concern an environmentally focused governor.
"The ships are pumping out pollutants as they idle, clogging the air with smoke," The New York Times reported. "Plus, one of their anchors may have caused the recent oil spill off the Orange County coast." Where is Newsom?
Actually, that's been a titillating news story for the past two weeks after he disappeared from public view without explanation—something that led to wild social-media speculation when he canceled his trip to an international climate summit in Scotland. After re-emerging, the governor pointed to his need to spend more time with his kids at Halloween.
That's fine, as governors have family obligations (although he should have announced his hiatus at the outset). But where is his administration? The Southern California News Group met recently with representatives from the business, warehousing, retailing and agricultural industries. They expressed extreme frustration at the governor's non-responsiveness.
They believe economic and agricultural issues appear to be at the bottom of Newsom's priority list, which is a recurring theme in his governorship. Because of the governor's sensitivity to labor issues, "he's not rushing into it," said Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable. Well, maybe it's time for Newsom to convene one of his rapid-response teams, because there are immediate actions he can take.
Nearly a month ago, business organizations called on the governor to, among other things, declare a state of emergency at the ports, delay implementation of a law that bans labor quotas at warehouses (Assembly Bill 701), and suspend the controversial labor law (Assembly Bill 5) that requires truck drivers to be employees of trucking firms rather than owner operators.
The port logjam centers on backlogs at warehouses and shortages of truckers, but these union-backed measures are throwing a wrench in the industries' ability to process the cargo. And as early as Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider a California Trucking Association lawsuit challenging AB 5 on interstate-commerce grounds.
If the high court rebukes the truckers and suspends the injunction that is halting implementation of AB 5 in the trucking industry, it will mean at least 80 percent of the drivers who are unloading containers no longer may operate in California. If you think we have a port crisis now, just wait.
Newsom will claim he's already taken action. In October, he signed an executive order "to ease supply chain issues by engaging the diverse network of stakeholders." That's sorely lacking in substance. His decision to allow higher stacks of containers and to seek out additional state properties to store them is a nothing burger, also.
The business letter explains that the supply chain crisis is caused in part by "state, regional and local mandates forced upon every aspect of the goods movement economy." The government could suspend or evaluate many rules—if it wants to do so.
Meanwhile, six union-allied legislators sent a letter to Newsom slamming the business groups' proposals. Instead, the lawmakers say, "we should be addressing existing issues in the supply chain and matching those problems with solutions from our next surplus." What does that even mean?
A state government that believes it can achieve virtually anything apparently now is powerless to do anything. Perhaps Newsom doesn't want to do anything because the real solutions will anger his union and environmental allies.
This column was first published in The Orange County Register.