Of strikes and storms: A potentially disastrous political season

Beware of the Ides of August! With most of this year’s primary elections settled, except for 13 states that hold primaries in August and September, political pundits are turning their attention to public opinion polling about issues confronting our nation. In the background, a potential confluence of events is building to what could become a “perfect storm” that reshapes the sentiments of voters nationwide.

In a recent Pew Research Center survey, only 20 percent of Democrats and 5 percent of Republicans rated the conditions of the U.S. economy as “excellent/good,” and of those surveyed, 75 percent said they are “very concerned” about rising prices for food, gasoline and other goods.

Exposed only over the past two years, our supply chains for decades have been a fragile network of just-in-time delivery. Persistent disruptions of supply chains are a key component driving concerns about the economy and, to an extent, inflation.

As summer winds down and we look toward November’s midterm elections, it’s important to step back to consider what poses incredible risk to our supply chain. We are in the midst of two stalled labor negotiations in the transportation sector and about to enter the peak of hurricane season. The convergence of these events could wreak havoc on our economy and the elections.

On July 1, the contract expired for more than 22,000 West Coast dockworkers who continue to handle nearly 40 percent of U.S. imports, and talks linger on with the Pacific Maritime Association. Simultaneously, 115,000 railroad workers nationwide, who move over 20 billion tons of goods per year, await a new contract after more than two years of failed negotiations.

While those close to the contract talks for dockworkers remain positive and committed to keeping cargo flowing, many U.S. industries are worried and cite the 2002 lockout and 2015 eight-day strike as examples that set the U.S. economy back billions of dollars and required intervention from presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively. The outlook is not as bright for rail workers. Despite President Biden’s appointment of a Presidential Emergency Board to help resolve the contract dispute, some close to the talks believe a resolution will remain evasive and simply delay a strike.

With these labor disputes serving as the backdrop, NOAA’s outlook for the 2022 Atlantic hurricane season predicts above-average hurricane activity, including the potential for three to six major storms. Even though the season has remained relatively quiet, with only three named storms that were relatively weak and short-lived, peak hurricane season is not until mid-August and runs through late October. During this window we should expect intensification of the quantity and strength of storms.

Hurricanes disrupt community lifelines — what the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) describes as the “seven enablers” of continuous operation of critical government and business functions that are essential to human health, public safety or economic security. My tenure with the National Security Council as senior director for resilience policy included the record-setting 2020 Atlantic hurricane season with its 30 named storms; 12 storms making landfall in the contiguous U.S.; and 10 of those storms forming in September alone. In this role, I recognized that rapid restoration of these lifelines requires resilient supply chains, and that accountability and public perception of disaster response easily can translate into a political context.

A Fox News survey released on July 17 found an astounding 93 percent of American voters are “concerned” about inflation. Any minor disruption to supply chains will have a cascading effect, impacting prices and consumer confidence and requiring decisive leadership to mitigate. Strikes by critical transportation workers or a hurricane affecting the United States could bring about a knee-jerk reaction in the economy. And there is a very real possibility that strikes and storms could converge in the coming weeks.

Striking dockworkers and railroad workers — even for only a few days — in the run-up to a major hurricane would send reverberations across the country and bring surging costs on commodities. That could jeopardize the ability of responders to send supplies quickly to where they are needed. Emergency managers for years have educated communities on what it means to be prepared, suggesting they include a three- to seven-day supply of water and nonperishable food. This year, being prepared may require having supplies that exceed seven days given the state of supply chains.

We must ask ourselves if elected officials at all levels of government are taking the steps necessary to minimize the impacts of potential disruptions. Are state and local governments preparing hurricane-prone communities for the instability in supply chains? Has the federal government, which has widely integrated the private sector into its domestic response plans, accounted for supply chain challenges? Especially during election season, a crisis can have far-reaching implications.

The road to this year’s midterms already has had twists and turns. From pessimism about the economy to polarizing views on ideological issues, the winds of this fall are hardly settled. A domestic disaster, such as a damaging hurricane, compounded by two labor strikes in critical industries, if negotiations fail, could further alter the political landscape in 2023 and beyond. 

Brian J. Cavanaugh is a senior vice president at American Global Strategies LLC. He served as special assistant to the president and senior director for resilience policy at the U.S. National Security Council from 2018 to 2021.

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