WASHINGTON — Retailers and apparel brands that suffered financial losses from West Coast ports’ slowdown this year lauded a new bill introduced in the Senate Friday that aims to give governors more power in seeking quick resolutions to slowdowns, strikes and lockouts.
Sens. Cory Gardner (R., Col.) and Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) introduced the Protecting Orderly and Responsible Transit of Shipments Act on Friday, stemming in large part from a 10-month contract dispute on the West Coast that stymied commerce from Asia and impacted thousands of companies.
“This year’s slowdown at West Coast ports demonstrated the disastrous consequences that labor disputes at our ports can have on businesses, consumers and the entire economy,” Gardner said. “This act would empower local leaders who are most affected by these port disruptions to apply pressure to their state governments to bring these damaging disputes to an end.”
The International Longshore & Warehouse Union, representing nearly 20,000 dockworkers, and the Pacific Maritime Association, representing 72 cargo carriers and terminal operators, were unable to reach a deal on a contract for several months, which led to severe congestion and delays at 29 West Coast ports.
After 10 months of negotiations, the breakthrough finally came on Feb. 20, when the ILWU and PMA reached a tentative agreement on a five-year contract. Last month, ILWU members ratified a five-year contract that expires in 2019 and is retroactive to July 1, 2014.
U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez helped broker the deal in the final hours, but industry trade groups have argued that the federal Taft-Hartley Act needs to be expanded because the process for intervention is too slow. The new legislation seeks to strengthen and expand on Taft-Hartley.
Under current statute, Taft-Hartley powers are only given to the President, who can only intervene in a port dispute if a strike or lockout occurs. If either of those actions happen, the President can invoke his authority under Taft-Hartley, which would lead to a string of actions, including a request in federal court for an injunction prohibiting a strike for 80 days and federal mediation with binding arbitration to settle the dispute.
The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service can enter a dispute and try to help broker a deal, but only if both sides submit a joint request and not under the mandate of binding arbitration.
The new bill would grant state governors Taft-Hartley powers and give them the ability to “convene a board of inquiry and start the Taft-Hartley process whenever a port labor dispute is causing economic harm.”
The senators said once the board reviews the matter and reports, governors would be able to petition the federal courts for an injunction to stop slowdowns, strikes or lockouts in their states.
“The PORTS Act would explicitly include slowdowns as a trigger for Taft-Hartley powers,” they said.
“The port-labor system needs reform,” said Juanita Duggan, president and chief executive officer of the American Apparel & Footwear Association. “As an industry deeply impacted by the port slowdown on the West Coast, we support legislation like PORTS — legislation that puts forth a solution to make sure another West Coast ports crisis never happens again. Slowdowns were a major contributor to the backlog created during the nine-month labor dispute on the West Coast. While we are glad to see an end to the most-recent port crisis, the issue at the ports is not over until policymakers address systemic issues, a major one being how labor negotiations are resolved.”
Kelly Kolb, vice president of government affairs at the Retail Industry Leaders Association, said, “In coming years, freight volumes are expected to double. Stability and efficiency within our nation’s ports and overall supply chain will be more critical than ever. The impact of the recent excruciating slowdown on the West Coast was challenging to overcome, but the impact of potential slowdowns or shutdowns and the resulting backups, delays, higher costs and lost productivity in the future could be even more devastating….Now is the time to address the challenges that could disrupt that growth and prepare ourselves for a future that gives American workers the opportunity to reap the benefits of an expanding global economy.”
David French, senior vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation, said: “The nation’s ports and the cargo that flows through them are the lifeblood of our economy. Our ports need to function and operate before, during and after any port labor contract negotiation, and this bill would make it easier to be sure that remains the case. The supply chain needs predictability to work and should remain free from any man-made disasters — be it delays, disruptions, slowdowns, shutdown or strikes.”
A coalition of more than 100 business and trade associations sent a letter to Gardner in support of the legislation.