Esther Shmunis, Express Trade Capital

In response to the recent West Coast port work stoppages that have strained the U.S. economy, enraged the nations’ embattled retailers and impacted millions of American jobs, the federal government has begun deliberations on whether to amend the Taft-Hartley Act to provide local state authorities the power to adjudicate port disputes.

taft-hartley primer

Enacted in 1947 by Senator Robert Taft and Representative Fred Hartley, the Taft-Hartley Act empowered the President of the United States to intervene and demobilize “labor strikes that threaten to cripple the nation.”  The Act sought to promote “the full flow of commerce and to prescribe the legitimate rights of both employees and employers in their relations affecting commerce.”  In recent years, American Presidents – including President Obama – have been reluctant to invoke their powers under the Act.  The recent port disputes, however, have renewed discussions about the Act’s effectiveness in preventing or mitigating work stoppages that threaten the nation’s economic well-being.

the ports act

On June 5th Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado introduced the Protecting Orderly and Responsible Transit of Shipments (PORTS) Act to “safeguard the American economy from the threat of labor shutdowns and slowdowns at seaports.”  Co-sponsored by Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Gardner’s proposal would shift the power to adjudicate port work stoppages from the President of the United States to state governments,  effectively “empower[ing] the local leaders who are most affected by these port disruptions, to apply pressure to their state governments to bring these damaging disputes to an end.” The PORTS Act’s proponents contend that the changes will “help the millions of American jobs and workers who rely on the efficient flow of goods through our nation’s ports…ensuring the continual free flow of cargo in and out of our ports is in everyone’s interest.”

The PORTS Act has already garnered support from the United States Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, Agriculture Transportation Coalition, and the National Retail Federation.

Labor unions enraged

Labor unions, who never warmed to the Taft-Hartley Act, were dismayed by the recent proposal.  ILWU spokesman, Craig Merrilees, viewed the proposed bill as “outrageous, extremist, antiworker legislation.” Michael H. Leroy, labor law professor at University of Illinois, added proposals to alter the basic mechanics of the Taft-Hartley Act, such as Gardner’s PORT Act, are not “realistic proposals in terms of political dimensions… any tinkering with law is just going to involve a lot of chasing ones tail over and over.” (JOC).

End in sight?

Neither side, however, questions the importance of expediently resolving labor disputes at the nation’s ports.  At last count, 23 million Americans depend on the ports for jobs.  Moreover, the Federal Reserve Board attributed the West Coast port disputes as the key culprit for the 0.7 % decline in GDP in the first quarter of 2015.  However, it remains to be seen whether shifting adjudicatory authority to local leaders will alleviate delays at the country’s ports.

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