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Outlook murky for port productivity proposals

Doubts have been cast on the outlook of federal legislation intended to prevent port work slowdowns.
Mateusz Perkowski

Capital Press

Published on July 29, 2015 10:09AM

Loaded container trucks line-up at a gate at the Port of Seattle in this file photo from Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015. Port productivity language was removed from legislation pending before Congress, casting doubt on the outlook for other bills intended to prevent shipping slowdowns.

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Loaded container trucks line-up at a gate at the Port of Seattle in this file photo from Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015. Port productivity language was removed from legislation pending before Congress, casting doubt on the outlook for other bills intended to prevent shipping slowdowns.

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Key port productivity language was removed from legislation pending before Congress, casting doubt on the outlook for other bills intended to prevent shipping slowdowns.

Initially proposed as the standalone “Port Transparency Bill” — S. 1298 — the legislation was recently folded into a broader transportation funding package the Senate is expected to vote on imminently.

Under the original language, the bill would have required ports to submit monthly productivity reports during labor negotiations between terminal operators and the longshoremen’s union.

The goal was to document whether longshoremen were engaging in work slowdowns, as they were accused of doing during recent labor talks on the West Coast.

Agricultural shippers reported sustaining millions of dollars in losses due to port congestion, which they blamed in part on the longshoremen’s alleged tactics.

While other aspects of the Port Transparency Bill were included in the latest version of the transportation funding legislation, provisions requiring monthly reports during labor negotiations were left out.

Two more stringent bills geared toward preventing port slowdowns have also been proposed in Congress, but the failure of the productivity tracking proposal raises questions about their chances of success.

“If the most modest of the three bills encountered such opposition, can these bills pass?” asked Peter Friedmann, executive director of the Agricultural Transportation Coalition, which represents farm exporters.

Another bill introduced in the Senate, the Preventing Labor Union Slowdowns Act — S. 1630 — would prohibit slowdowns under the National Labor Relations Act.

The third bill, the Protecting Orderly and Responsible Transit Shipments Act — S. 1519 — would give state governors the authority under the Taft-Hartley Act to order unions back to work in the event of a slowdown or strike, if the U.S. President doesn’t take action.

These proposals face a tough road ahead, but the National Retail Federation and other groups that depend on ports will continue pushing for reform, said Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy for the organization.

“We think something needs to change when it comes to these labor negotiations,” he said. “These issues are not going away on the congestion.”

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union pointed out that it was joined by the U.S. Maritime Alliance, which represents East Coast terminal operators, and U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez in objecting to the proposals.

“The diverse opposition to these proposals — coming from employer representatives, port managers, unions and senior administration officials — all strongly suggest that Congress would be wise to heed the advice from such a wide range of industry experts,” ILWU said in a statement.

While the longshoremen’s union ultimately resolved its dispute with the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents West Coast terminal operators, the contract is set to expire in 2019 and exporters don’t want a repeat of recent disruptions, said Friedmann of the Agricultural Transportation Coalition.

“People are already nervous,” he said.

Preventing congestion at the West Coast ports without federal legislation is “the ideal course,” so the Agricultural Transportation Coalition intends to work with ILWU to implement voluntary measures that ensure smooth port function, he said.

Labor, shippers and terminal operators on the East Coast have been able to cooperate to increase their market share, and the West Coast should try to emulate that model, Friedmann said.

“Those are the results of a shared vision,” he said. “The West Coast, we need to get a shared vision.”



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