Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez threw cold water on efforts by some in Congress to pass port-specific changes to labor law that would undermine the collective bargaining process and make it more difficult to reach negotiated settlements in the port sector. Secretary Perez echoed what we’ve been saying all along: legislation like the Protecting Orderly and Responsible Transit of Shipments (PORTS) Act, introduced by Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), isn’t necessary, and is a distraction from the real challenges facing our port and maritime industries.
Perez would know. Earlier this year, he helped West Coast port workers and management end a protracted stalemate under longstanding labor rules.
“The collective bargaining process worked,” Perez said at a press conference with port officials in Los Angeles last week, referencing the recent labor negotiations he helped facilitate. “The most important thing we can do, not only here at the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach, is to help with investments and infrastructure so that we can compete with the rest of the world.”
Gardner and his allies claim that this bill is needed to prevent labor-management disputes from interfering with port operations. But the fact is that virtually every port contract is settled at the negotiating table without a work stoppage, making it clear that this bill is nothing more than a desire by the corporate lobby to circumvent the collective bargaining process and limit the rights of port employees.
The legislation would give sitting governors in states with ports the power to haphazardly meddle in sensitive and complex port labor-management disputes by issuing injunctions under the Taft-Hartley Act. Currently, the only elected official that has the ability to intervene during bargaining disputes is the President of the United States. Since 1947, this power has been used in only 35 labor-management disputes and is a tool of last resort. The irony is that by dispersing authority for port labor relations to the chief executive of individual states, a president becomes less likely to be in a position to help facilitate settlements at the bargaining table.
Unfortunately, the Gardner bill is not the only corporate-backed threat faced by port workers. The Senate Commerce Committee recently approved a bill, over our strong objections, that would require the Department of Transportation to monitor port productivity leading up to and during a labor-management dispute. The bill’s aim is to link all problems related to U.S. seaport productivity to collective bargaining and blame workers for any reduction in port productivity. It does not take into consideration other external factors that could lead to losses in efficiency, including the rapid increase in the size of vessels transporting goods, outmoded landside infrastructure, the state of the economy or — God forbid — unsavory conduct by employers.
Led by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), committee Democrats fought to remove these anti-labor provisions from the bill. Although the effort failed, all Democrats voted against the bill, recognizing that it, along with the PORTS Act, is part of a broad and concerted effort led by wealthy corporate interests to undermine the rights of port workers.
Instead of wasting time trying to coddle up to the already-disproportioned interests of the big business lobby, which is shoveling record sums of money toward the advancement of anti-union legislation, lawmakers such as Gardner should take a cue from Secretary Perez. It’s time they focus their energy on building up this country’s infrastructure and transportation systems, instead of tearing down the hardworking men and women who keep America running.