Economy Watch: Bill Proposed to Make Port Labor Action More Difficult

A new bill would allow state governors to examine the economic harm of port disruptions.

Though the labor dispute involving West Coast ports was eventually settled before extreme damage was done to the economy — and industrial and retail real estate, for that matter — enough harm was caused to inspire various ideas to prevent such a circumstance again, such as putting U.S. ports under the Railway Labor Act, which currently governs airlines and railroads, since that law provides guidelines to avoid any interruption to commerce. Failing that, another idea has bubbled up in the form of a new bill introduced by U.S. Senator Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee: The Protecting Orderly and Responsible Transit of Shipments or PORTS Act. The bill would modify the Taft-Hartley Act to allow state governors to examine the economic harm of port disruptions and petition federal courts to intervene in the dispute. Currently, only the president can make that kind of request.

More specifically, governors could convene a board of inquiry about a labor dispute involving a port in their state, and then once the board reports, petition federal courts to enjoin slowdowns, strikes, or lockouts at those ports. The act would explicitly include slowdowns as a trigger for a governor’s new Taft Hartley powers. The slowdown was the strategy of choice for the 20,000 dockworkers at 29 West Coast ports represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in its recent dispute with port management, the Pacific Maritime Association.

“A labor dispute at one of our ports can cause significant damage to U.S. employers and to our economy – the recent nine-month dispute at the West Coast ports made it difficult for auto manufacturers and suppliers in Tennessee to keep production lines running,” noted Sen. Lamar Alexander (R.-Tenn.), who is the bill’s cosponsor, in a statement. “This legislation will empower state governors to take steps to resolve port labor disputes and avoid economic disaster if the president is unwilling to act.”

Over 100 business and trade associations support the measure, including the Agricultural Transportation Coalition, Consumer Electronics Association, National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the National Federation of Retailers, which asserts that, “The supply chain needs predictability to work and should remain free from any man-made disasters — be it delays, disruptions, slowdowns, shutdown or strikes.” Not everyone’s on board with the idea, of course. The  International Longshore and Warehouse Union calls it “outrageous, extremist, anti-worker.”