New Senate Bill Takes Aim at Port Labor Disruptions

Date: Friday, June 23, 2023
Source: Sourcing Journal

The West Coast port disruption that dominated June got Washington’s attention.

In the wake of a six-year tentative contract agreement between the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho) introduced a bill aimed at deterring future labor slowdowns and stopping unions from blocking port modernization efforts.

The proposed bill would amend both the National Labor Relations Act and the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947. It would label labor slowdowns instigated by maritime workers, like this month’s disruption at some West Coast port terminals, as an “unfair labor practice.”

Senators Ted Budd (R-N.C.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) co-sponsored the bill, known as the “Preventing Labor Union Slowdowns Act of 2023,’’ or shortened to the ‘‘PLUS Act of 2023’’.

As defined in the bill, a labor slowdown would include “any intentional effort by employees to reduce productivity or efficiency in the performance of any duty of such employees; and does not include any such effort required by the good faith belief of such employees that an abnormally dangerous condition exists at the place of employment of such employees.”

Under the proposed legislation, unions that were found to violate the law would have to pay damages in an amount equal to twice the amount of damage inflicted by their labor actions.

Risch emphasized in the legislation that unions were “blocking modernization”, referring to the ongoing battle between dockworkers and marine terminals over the use of automation at ports—a common sticking point in the negotiations.

Worker no-shows at terminals across the West Coast ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Seattle, Oakland, Tacoma and more spawned backups of vessels, containers and trucks in recent weeks. Many weren’t sure if congestion would worsen during the peak shipping season starting in July.

In the 13 months of negotiations prior to the tentative agreement, shippers were increasingly rerouting their imports to the East Coast.

By the time a new tentative deal was struck at the West Coast ports, supply chain visibility platform FourKites said that just 27 percent of import shipments it tracked in June went through the West Coast ports, compared to 73 percent on the East Coast. It was a marked shift from just a few months earlier, when 40 percent of import shipments moved through the West Coast ports as of February.

“In order to remain competitive in an increasingly competitive global economy, it is essential that the United States possess a highly efficient and reliable public and private transportation network,” the bill said.

The legislation claims that “deliberate and unprotected labor slowdowns” caused “frequent and periodic disruptions” to maritime commerce, ultimately interfering with the flow of goods both domestically and internationally.

The bill says this interference ultimately threatens the economic health, stability and global reputation of the U.S.

“It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States to eliminate the causes and mitigate the effects of such disruptions to commerce in the maritime industry and to provide effective and prompt remedies to individuals injured by such disruptions,” the proposed bill reads.

Risch noted in a statement that the labor union slowdowns caused Idaho businesses to lose “tens of millions of dollars.”

“With labor negotiations underway on the West Coast, unions have already instituted slowdowns that are destined to have massive financial repercussions,” Risch said. “I implore my colleagues to support and pass the Preventing Labor Union Slowdowns Act to protect our national supply chain and stop another slowdown before it costs America hundreds of millions in losses.”

Risch has unsuccessfully attempted to float similar legislation in the Senate before, supporting several versions of the PLUS Act in prior years. The latest version is slightly different than previous iterations, in that it includes the provisions related to union efforts thwart port modernization.

Earlier this month, Risch, Budd and Crapo joined 20 other senators on a bill to reintroduce the Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL) Protection Act of 2023. The legislation addresses the number of “smash-and-grab” thefts targeted at federally licensed gun dealers by enhancing penalties for criminals who steal firearms from federally licensed firearms and ammunition dealers.

Government intervention, in some way or another, seems to be a common theme in stopping recent labor disruptions at major logistics hubs. Acting U.S. Secretary of Labor Julie Su is largely credited with accelerating the West Coast contract negotiations, holding three days of meetings between the PMA and ILWU until the unofficial deal was announced. Both parties still have to ratify the tentative contract.

Last year ended with the government narrowly averting a national railroad worker strike after Congress passed a bill effectively forcing laborers to accept a tentative collective bargaining agreement after three years in dispute. President Joe Biden signed the law into effect in December.


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