Fairtrade Coffee and the Port of New Orleans

Coffee Organizing
containers stacked at the Port of New Orleans' Napoleon Avenue Wharf

New Orleans   This week for the first time I attended a meeting of the Port Commissioners of the Port of New Orleans.  Having written the head of the Port for help in getting more fairtrade coffee shipped through New Orleans and receiving no answer, it seemed I had little choice but to take a shot at the “public comment” portion of their meeting, so there I was.

I thought the problem was simple.  Fair Grinds Coffeehouse only sells fairtrade coffee.  When we took over we changed our buying pattern and instructed our roasters that we would only buy fairtrade coffee that came through the Port of New Orleans thereby not only supporting fairtrade and organic farmers in the Central American cooperatives where we source our beans, but also guaranteeing that the coffee was handled locally by union labor paid good, living wages.  Our coffeehouse supports organizing and our slogan is “great coffee for a change,” and we source everything we can locally, so this all seemed natural.  Furthermore, our coffeehouse isn’t in Iowa or west Texas, but in New Orleans which always ranks between number one and number two as the largest coffee handling port in the United States and also boasts Dupuy’s warehouse, which is the largest coffee storage facility in the world.  How hard could this really be?

Well, harder than we thought.  There was this Katrina problem.  Some coffee importers, including we learned the fairtrade coffee buying cooperative and its two dozen members which had always brought their coffee through New Orleans, lost some stock, and had not been back for seven years.  Furthermore, in Honduras and elsewhere we kept hearing about a tariff that favored the Port of New York/New Jersey.  At first I thought this was a tariff snuck in after Katrina, which turned out to not be the case.  All of this was counterintuitive.  Why, as I was now learning, would shippers bring the beans through the Port of NY/NJ and then truck or rail them back to New Orleans?  Our roasters finally told me that it took some weeks to fill our order, they were buying re-routed beans to roast rather than beans that had been directly shipped through the Port of New Orleans.  We can talk another time – and we will – about the fact that shipping currently is one of the single largest contributors to global warming, but there is no logic that would have coffee coming to the South, Midwest, Texas and other areas at greater expense and distance for shipping, rail, or trucking through New York rather than New Orleans.  What’s up with that?

The Port of New Orleans meetings are pro forma.  The business has been sliced and diced through the staff and the committees made up of the Commissioners, so the meeting is a stopwatch affair, where the chair calls on committee chairs to report, the chairs call on the professional staff to explain and present, motions are then moved, seconded, and unanimous.  Wham-bam!  I had called the brothers of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA Local 3000) before coming and their advice was pointed:  don’t waste time making a public comment, first we’ll introduce you around and see where to go.   Seemed like good advice, so with their help, before and after the meeting I met people from the marketing department, the international guy, and said hello to the one commissioner I knew from his time at Delgado where our union represented workers and my mother had worked until retirement.

Some of the experience was a little like a short visit to the Tower of Babel, where everyone suddenly spoke different languages.  Everyone knew about my letter and many had read it, but it seemed like a hot potato that had been passed from the CEO to the International guy to the marketing people, and still no one wanted to touch it.  In one conversation I was asked repeatedly if I had contacted coffee traders in New York about buying fairtrade coffee from them, while I had to continue to repeat that Fair Grinds was unwilling to buy coffee from any place other than the Port of New Orleans.  Was I talking to a Port of New Orleans employee or a Port of New York /New Jersey employee?  I was confused.  Yes, they wanted fairtrade to come back through New Orleans, but as we spoke our different languages past each other, it became clear that they really had no idea what I was talking about.  Even my ILA 3000 brothers were shaking their heads as they listened to these exchanges, so at least I knew I wasn’t crazy.  Yet!

Nonetheless we were learning something, especially about this tariff problem.  It seems in the 1970s (I’m still trying to track down specifics and an hour of Google searching got me nowhere yet), an international commodities group which sets tariffs or perhaps this is the International Tariff Commission (more to learn) saw an inequity in ocean going traffic and set a tariff to balance this problem so that it didn’t penalize the Port of NY/NJ.  Fair enough, if this is right.  But, that was over 40 years ago, and many decades ago all ocean going tariffs were equalized to all ports, so this tariff had become a legacy that now favored New York and not only hurt us in New Orleans, but in all of the Gulf Coast ports like Houston, Gulfport, and so forth.  This was all mystifying to me?  Who was on first?  What was on second?  Could it really be possible with all of the commercial and political strength of cities with great ports like New Orleans, Houston, and Miami that individually or collectively they had never been able to get this unfair advantage eliminated?  Seems like poppycock, but so they all maintained at the Port of New Orleans after the Commissioners meeting in the only thing that seemed like a collective refrain.

We’ll get to the heart of this, but we’re not there yet.

We’re having an open meeting as our Fair Grinds Dialogue on September 18th at 7 PM in the Fair Grinds Common Space on the 2nd Floor and we’re inviting everyone we know from our own community of customers and supporters, who love drinking fairtrade coffee, to our roasters and suppliers to our friends with the Archdiocese Fair Trade Committee to every politician, high and low we can find (Senator Ed Murray happened to run into me getting a cup during the week, and couldn’t believe we couldn’t do everything possible to get more coffee through the Port – I’m with him!), to Port representatives and my brothers at the ILA.

We may not always agree on the path forward for New Orleans when it comes to equity, race, and much needed social changes, but it will be interesting to see when it comes to economic development for New Orleans, more business at the port, and more jobs and work for New Orleans port workers and others, if we can all come together to do the right thing here, level the playing field, and bring more fairtrade coffee into the Port of New Orleans.

We’ll all be counting heads and taking names on September 18th!