Mark Szakonyi, March 3, 2015, JOC.com
The third-ranking Senate Republican on Tuesday floated the idea of putting unionized port employees under the purview of the Railway Labor Act, a move proponents say would prevent longshore labor showdowns like those seen seen on the U.S West Coast in recent months.
Sen. John Thune, of South Dakota, said some have suggested that bringing port labor under the same system overseeing railroad and airlines workers would “provide our nation’s supply chain with additional protections” and provide “robust contract mediation procedures.”
Although Thune didn’t say whether he backed such a change to the port labor-management negotiation system, which currently falls under the National Labor Relations Act, the mention of such a move by a member of Congress is likely the first time the idea has been aired since alleged International Longshore and Warehouse slowdowns brought West Coast ports to a near breaking point.
“I don’t believe at this point that I can say that I would support those types of changes,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said at the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing. He said a balance is needed between labor and the business community.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, who was also a witness at the hearing, didn’t weigh in on whether or not moving longshore labor under the Railway Labor Act was a good idea.
‘We’ve got to have a better way of making sure we don’t end up with logjam that we had,” Thune said.
His comments reflect an aggressive push by retailers and other shippers, while the wounds of West Coast port woes are still fresh, to pressure legislators to change how unionized port labor and waterfront employers negotiate. Matthew Shay, president of the National Retail Federation, on Monday at the 13th annual TPM conference in Long Beach, California, said “the interest of thousands” can no longer threaten the livelihood of millions.
The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents West Coast waterfront employers, accused the International Longshore and Warehouse Union of engaging in slowdowns during negotiations, a charge the union denied. After more than nine months of negotiations, the two sides announced a tentative five-year agreement on Feb. 20.