Legislation introduced in the Senate late yesterday would give governors with marine terminal operations in their states the right to invoke federal law to prevent a waterfront labor-management dispute from disrupting the flow of commerce within their borders.
The legislation, cosponsored by Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) would amend the Taft-Hartley Act, the 1947 labor law that governs most labor-management relations in the United States, to grant the nation's governors sweeping new authority to stop maritime labor conflicts. The bill has been dubbed the "Protecting Orderly and Responsible Transit of Shipments (PORTS) Act."
Under the legislation, a governor in an affected state could request that the president form a special board of inquiry, which would set in motion the legal process leading to the declaration of a national emergency and the implementation of Taft-Hartley. If the president doesn't act within 10 days, the governor could appoint a board of inquiry on his or her own. The panel would have 30 days to produce a report on the situation. Once the report is submitted, the affected governor or governors could petition the federal courts to enjoin strikes, slowdowns, and management lockouts at the ports in their respective states, under the bill.
Under the legislation, only the president could seek an injunction to stop a coastwide slowdown or stoppage; governors can only enjoin work stoppages occurring in their own states. President George W. Bush invoked Taft-Hartley in October 2002 to stop a 10-day management lockout of International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) workers at 29 West Coast ports.
The bill comes as ports along the West Coast return to normal operations following an 11-month contract fight between ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) that resulted in significant vessel delays and shipment backlogs. During the dispute, management accused the union of engaging in deliberate work slowdowns at key ports like Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Seattle. The Gardner-Alexander bill would include work slowdowns as a trigger for governors invoking Taft-Hartley powers.
On Feb. 20, both sides tentatively agreed to a new five-year contract; the pact was ratified late last month.
Gardner said in a statement on his web site that the bill would give state governments additional tools to help end disputes that can inflict severe damage on state and local economies. Gardner also had harsh words for organized labor's alleged actions during the most recent dispute. "Labor union bosses should not be allowed to hold the economy hostage, nor should they be allowed to use the livelihoods and jobs of millions of Americans as bargaining chips," he said.
Organized labor has never been fond of Taft-Hartley; when it became law on June 23, 1947, labor leaders at the time referred to it as the "slave-labor bill." Congress overrode the veto of President Harry S. Truman, who nonetheless would invoke Taft-Hartley authority 12 times during his presidency.
The ILWU had nothing positive to say about the Gardner-Alexander bill. "The proposed bill is outrageous, extremist, antiworker legislation," said Craig Merrilees, a union spokesman.
Not surprisingly, business groups were pleased with the introduction of a bill to strengthen Taft-Hartley's powers by extending authority to the states. More than 100 groups signed a letter to Gardner applauding him for the legislation. "We believe this approach correctly reforms the Taft-Hartley process to align political incentives and promote government action in the face of great harm to our national economy," the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) said in a separate statement. "Most importantly, the bill clearly defines and expands situations in which Taft-Hartley can be invoked, preventing legal ambiguity from causing further inaction that exacerbates these detrimental port disruptions."
The Agriculture Transportation Coalition, which represents U.S. exporters whose businesses were severely affected by the recent standoff, said the bill will prompt governors to quickly intervene in a labor dispute if the federal government moves too slowly; President Obama did not invoke Taft-Hartley in the most recent dispute, choosing instead to dispatch Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez in mid-February to facilitate negotiations.