Is president considering 'nuclear option' Taft-Hartley in ports dispute?

Is president considering 'nuclear option' Taft-Hartley in ports dispute?
Elizabeth Weise, USATODAY 4:38 p.m. EST February 18, 2015

(Photo: U.S. Department of Labor)

SAN FRANCISCO — Labor Secretary Thomas Perez is meeting Wednesday with both sides in a four-month labor dispute on the West Coast ports that has disrupted shipments and is costing American businesses hundreds of millions of dollars.

Perez flew to San Francisco on Monday and spent Tuesday and Wednesday meeting with leaders from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association.

"On behalf of President Obama, Secretary Perez made clear that the dispute has led to a very negative impact on the U.S. economy, and further delay risks tens of thousands of jobs and will cost American businesses hundreds of millions of dollars," the Department of Labor said in a release.

It's unclear what, exactly, Perez can do that the federal mediators who've been involved in the negotiations haven't been able to do over the past several months.

"It could be a message from the White House, that the threat of a Taft-Hartley is looming," said Mark Szakonyi, an editor at the Journal of Commerce who has been following the issue closely.

Taft-Hartley refers to what some call the "nuclear option" in labor relations.

Officially the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, it allows presidents to get involved in labor disputes. However, there would have to be either a strike or a lockout for Obama to invoke it.

The Longshoremen were involved the last time Taft-Hartley was used, when President George W. Bush forced West Coast ports to open in 2002. In that instance, port employers locked port workers out for 10 days because of what they called a union slowdown.

Perez stressed that it is imperative for both sides to come to an "immediate agreement to prevent further damage to our economy and further pain for American workers and their employers," the Labor Department's statement said.

The dispute is between the 20,000 Longshoremen who work the West Coast's 29 ports and the port owners.

The dock workers' contract expired June 30, and both sides have been in negotiations ever since.

The exact sticking points are unclear, as all negotiations take place behind closed doors. However, a current issue is a demand by the ILWU that it be allowed the right to fire arbitrators.

Under current rules, neutral arbitrators preside over labor disputes between workers and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents port operators.

"The ILWU is essentially seeking the right to fire judges who rule against them," PMA spokesman Wade Gates said in a statement.

The labor issues are having a major impact on both imports and exports.

"Nothing is moving out of the ports because the cargo ships are waiting in line," said Wendy Fink-Weber, communications director for the Western Growers, which represents West Coast produce growers and packers.

In Los Angeles and Long Beach on Tuesday, she saw at least 30 ships waiting offshore as she drove along the Pacific Coast Highway, just south of the ports.

Because growers can't get their product out, "overseas buyers are looking to other sources for product," she said.

National Retail Federation vice president Jonathan Gold welcomed the administration's attention to the port issue.

He said he hoped "it recommits the two sides to reaching a deal. The slowdowns, congestion and suspensions at the West Coast ports need to end now."