Few who witnessed the implosion of the wood products industry on Grays Harbor could have imagined a day when a diverse array of businesses would once again bring growth to the Port of Grays Harbor.
Yet in 2013, hours worked by longshore union members were at a 30-year high — 176,000 hours.
In total, 102 ships called at the Port. As recently as 2003, the number was eight.
Logs were once nearly the only cargo leaving Grays Harbor, but dried up almost completely. Last year, raw log exports from the port hit a 15-year high, with a combined total of 52.9 million board feet loaded.
Praise for Port staff abounded when the 2013 vessel numbers were announced last week.
“A small staff doing what they’ve done, it’s shocking. It’s absolutely shocking,” said Billy Swor, International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 24 secretary. “We’ve got nothing but accolades to share with the Port director and everyone under him. It’s an absolutely mind-boggling success story.”
“I’m not sure very many people in this room could have said … in 2000, we would have that mix of jobs out there on the waterfront,” Port Deputy Director Leonard Barnes said at Tuesday’s commission meeting.
Terminal 1 tenants Imperium Renewables and Westway Terminals brought a combined 337,828 metric tons of bulk liquid through their facilties, a 362 percent increase over 2012.
Imperium accounted for 286,723 metric tons of that, and Westway the remaining 51,105.
AGP saw more than 1.3 million metric tons of soybeans, beet pulp pellets and other agricultural products.
Pasha Automotive Services enjoyed a 23 percent increase over 2012, processing 87,000 Chrysler vehicles for export. Pasha Stevedoring handled 13,609 metric tons of other equipment.
Pasha now employs 120 people, Barnes said.
“If you went back four years, not one of those jobs was here at the marine terminals,” he said.
Barnes said Port staff meets with Local 24 at least monthly to talk about various issues and have discussed expanding local membership.
“We’re working very hard, we’re supporting it,” he said. “I would probably categorize it like this: We’re closer to seeing light at the end of that tunnel than we were a year ago.”
It’s not a quick or simple process to add ILWU jobs.
“When they take on a registered longshoreman, they’re taking him for life — full benefits, retirement,” Barnes said.
Asked about the delay, Swor cited “internal union politics” he expects to be sorted out within six months. At that point he said they will add at least 13 jobs, which would go to local people already trained for the work.
At one point, Swor said, the local had 225 members. Now they have 26 full-fledged members, and another 12 “B men” in some degree of training.
With the product volumes the Port has seen, Swor said the local should have about 90 people.
“We’re doing it with a third of that. There’s room for absolutely doubling in size, if not more. The Port here is growing,” he said.
To handle recent volumes, the union has been traveling in gangs from other ports to help out.
Moving around with the work is, to a certain degree, in the nature of a longshore job, and something Grays Harbor workers have done themselves.
“When work was slow here, during the transition from a busy port to a slow port, our members were allowed to go work in Seattle and Tacoma. You might look at it like a migrant farm worker. It’s a give and take situation,” Swor said.
But of the 176,000 hours worked last year, he estimated about two-thirds were by local longshoremen.
“It should be closer to 90 percent, and that would be local people,” Swor explained.
“I know we’d all like to see local jobs and not people coming in from elsewhere,” Port Commission Vice President Jack Thompson said.
Those jobs are coming, Swor said. Aside from the union jobs, he expects to add some as-needed backup positions.
To do that, they’ll need to use half union-referred people, with the other half open to anyone who puts their name in consideration. Postcards with names will be put into a lottery, then mixed with the union-referred names when extra help is needed.
Anyone can send in their names from any location, but Swor noted there’s a better chance for local people because whoever is picked has to be located here with no guarantee of regular work.
“It used to be we called the unemployment office and they sent people over,” Swor said, but this is the method the union uses now.
As longshore jobs begin their slow recovery, Swor said it’s comforting to him and other union members to see the way the Port has changed from more or less a single commodity.
“The diversity of the cargo in this port is very striking. You don’t see it in any other port on the West Coast,” he said. “It stikes a balance that you can rely on. You’re not dependant on any one commodity or any policy that might affect that.”
And Port officials say they aren’t done yet. With the acquisition of Satsop Business Park and the progress on dredging the Westport Marina, the diversity of uses available on Port properties is still on the rise.
“There is a lot of room for more growth. We’re not even close to our potential,” Barnes said. “I’m really excited for the future of Grays Harbor.”