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Latest News - July 2015

June 24, 2015
Legislation on ports, labor gains momentum
Source: JOC.COM

The Preventing Labor Union Slowdown Act that was filed at the weekend by Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, was the third bill in the past two months that focuses on U.S. ports, but for retailers who depend upon a smooth flow of commerce, the attitude toward port legislation is, bring it on.

“This will help to shine a light on ports,” Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation, said Tuesday in an interview.

Retailers, whose imports move predominantly by sea, want Congress, the President and the individual states to be aware of what is going on at U.S. ports, not only in terms of labor disruptions, but all matters that affect productivity, including cargo surges from big ships, carrier alliances and transportation infrastructure needs.

Equally as important, retailers want to feel secure in the knowledge that there are metrics available to judgeport productivity, and legal restrictions in place to prevent waterfront labor and management from using strikes, work slowdowns or lockouts as a tool of leverage in collective bargaining negotiations.

The NRF was one of almost 100 trade organizations representing manufacturers, farmers, agribusinesses, wholesalers, retailers, importers, exporters, distributors, transportation and logistics providers who sent a letter Monday to Sen. John Thune, chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, in support of his Port Transparency Act. That legislation would mandate government collection of data on port operations that could be used to establish standardized metrics for port-related productivity.

Government agencies regularly collect comparable performance data on other components of the supply chain, including rail and highway goods movement, “but when it comes to ports, perhaps the single most important node in the intermodal transportation system for international trade, we must rely on anecdotal data,” the trade groups stated.

Meanwhile, the PLUS Act sponsored by Risch would amend the National Labor Relations Act, which governs port labor actions, to make work slowdowns illegal under federal law, and to expose unions that engage in slowdowns to claims for monetary damages both from employers and from injured parties, such as exporters and importers.

A third bill, the Protecting Orderly and Responsible Transit of Shipments Act, would specifically allow the use of Taft-Hartley to end work slowdowns at ports, and would empower governors to direct their attorneys general to seek a federal court injunction against slowdowns, strikes and lockouts.

The event that inspired introduction of these three bills was the crippling West Coast port congestion that began in early November as a result of work slowdowns and employer retaliation during contract negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association.

“The highly negative economic impacts from the recent slowdowns and congestion at our West Coast ports caused by prolonged labor negotiations and other operational issues demonstrate how vital efficient ports are to the U.S. economy,” the trade organizations stated in their letter Monday to Thune.

However, an equally important thread running through this legislation is that U.S. ports, and the transportation infrastructure that serves the ports, are not prepared for the cargo surges generated by mega-ships, Gold said. The mega-ship phenomenon will become even more pronounced at East Coast ports beginning in April 2016 with the completion of the Panama Canal expansion project, he said.

Therefore, when considered as a package, the three bills involve the ports, labor, management, seaport states, interior states that depend upon ports for their exports and imports, Congress and the White House, in a national effort to measure port productivity in order to respond quickly to remove bottlenecks that impede productivity.

Gold acknowledged that passing one, let alone all three of the bills, will not be easy. The bills will be heard by different committees and will most likely be opposed by longshore unions and their supporters in Congress. Also, Congress is engaged in a number of high-profile actions involving domestic, foreign and economic issues that grab voter attention much more so than port, transportation and infrastructure issues.

On the other hand, the pain of perishable exports rotting in the fields, interruptions in manufacturing assembly lines and lost merchandise revenue because of missed selling seasons is still fresh in the minds of many Americans, the trade coalition noted, so now is an opportune time to move on such legislation.

The events of the past year on the West Coast should also be a wakeup call to retailers who do not understand, and never bothered to understand, how ports and marine terminals operate, Gold said.

Passage of the Port Transparency Act would start the process of collecting port performance data and establishing standardized metrics for marine terminal productivity so that Congress could better focus on bottlenecks, be they caused by weather, infrastructure inadequacies or labor disruptions, he said. That effort would fit in with development of a national freight transportation plan that will benefit the entire economy, Gold said.



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