Work Stoppage at Ports Would Have Ripple Effect

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By Rhonda Smith

A proposed one-day work stoppage led by the International Longshoremen’s Association at ports on the U.S. East and Gulf coasts would hit those regions hard economically, observers say.

The total value of cargo imported and exported through the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey alone exceeded $200 billion in 2014, according to estimates provided by that agency.

“On a daily basis, that’s $547 million a day, just in goods” arriving or leaving the ports, Will Brucher, a faculty member at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations in New Brunswick, N.J., told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 23.

“If there were a work stoppage, those goods won’t be unloaded in the harbor for import or loaded onto ships for export,” he said. “The trucking industry would get backed up. It could pose problems in rail shipping and in warehousing as well.”

Regulations Under Fire

The union plans to announce a specific date for the work stoppage within two weeks.

The actions are intended in part to shed light on how regulations enforced by certain government entities, such as the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, impede the union’s ability to hire dock workers, an ILA official said.

“The Waterfront Commission is a hindrance,” Kenneth Riley, ILA vice president, told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 22. “They want to determine if and when workers are needed.”

Officials with the Waterfront Commission declined to comment.

The Port Authority operates the busiest port on the Eastern seaboard and is the third-largest in the U.S. More than 3 million containers are unloaded at its six terminals each year, serving 23 million customers. An estimated 36 ports along the East Coast employ ILA-represented dock workers, the union said.

“This is an industry where a one-day strike can have a huge impact,” Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 23. “One day is a huge loss of money.”

Employer Group Cites Contract

A spokeswoman for the United States Maritime Alliance Ltd. (USMX), which represents employers in the longshore industry along the East and Gulf coasts, told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 22 the planned shutdown would violate the employees’ collective bargaining agreement.“The Master Contract between the ILA and the USMX forbids any unilateral work stoppage by the ILA for any reason,” the alliance said in a Feb. 22 statement. “If the ILA engages in any unilateral walkout, USMX will enforce the contractual rights of its members to the fullest.”

The alliance, based in Lyndhurst, N.J., is composed of employers on the East Coast and Gulf Coast that transport cargo shipped to and from the U.S. The USMX represents management groups during collective bargaining over the master contract. ILA members ratified a labor contract in 2013 that expires in 2018.

The ILA did not respond to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment about the alliance’s concern.

Watchdog Dogs Union, ILA Says

New York’s Waterfront Commission investigates crime and corrupt hiring practices. But some of its own practices are causing many dock worker jobs to remain unfilled, the union said in a statement Feb. 21.

“The commission’s self-created system of background checks for all that work on the now largely mechanized waterfront is resulting in job shortages throughout the Port of New York and New Jersey and damaging the U.S. economy,” the ILA said.

The union and the Waterfront Commission have been entangled in similar disputes for years, Brucher said.

More than 1,000 longshoremen walked off their jobs during a labor disagreement with the commission on Jan. 29, 2016. The dispute pertained to disagreements tied to jurisdiction, hiring and technology. The workers alleged the commission was interfering in their collective bargaining agreement. The dock workers returned to work later that day after the issues were resolved.

A legal dispute between some of the same stakeholders was resolved by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in August. The court ruled that the commission has authority to impose a rule meant to prevent race discrimination in hiring ( New York Shipping Ass’n v. Waterfront Comm’n of N.Y. Harbor, 2016 BL 282135, 3d Cir., No. 14-3956, 8/30/16). The judges rejected arguments that the hiring rule improperly interfered with collective bargaining rights.

Reform Needed Down the Coast, Too

Riley, who is president of ILA Local 1422 in Charleston, S.C., said the South Carolina Ports Authority also is impeding the union’s ability to hire workers in that state.

The union said in the Feb. 21 statement that “overregulation and governmental interference are killing jobs and reducing the value of economic activity at the ports.”

The South Carolina Ports Authority “uses non-ILA members to operate cranes, receive and deliver cargo and perform other terminal work,” the union said.

Such actions are leading to “unsafe dock labor, and injury to the coastal economy,” the ILA said.

The South Carolina Ports Authority declined to comment Feb. 22.

On average, the South Carolina ports handle more than $150 million in cargo daily, according to the Authority’s website.

“A concern the local has in South Carolina is whether union members actually get to work in the port terminals,” Brucher said. “The state government operates some of the port facilities directly, which is usually not what happens at ports.”

Companies at ports usually lease pier space and hire union members to operate cranes there, he said. “In South Carolina, there are some state employees—nonunion labor—doing that work,” Brucher said. “For the ILA, that’s a major concern.”

The one-day shutdown is being planned at ports along the East Coast and the Gulf Coast because the 65,000-member ILA represents dock workers in those regions.

ILA members are planning to hold a one-day protest in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the work stoppage.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rhonda Smith in Washington at rsmith@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Christopher Opfer at copfer@bna.com

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