ILWU Port workers say GOP proposal to stop slowdowns is ‘antiunion’-War Against ILWU Continues

ILWU Port workers say GOP proposal to stop slowdowns is ‘antiunion’- War Against ILWU Continues
By Joe GarofoliJuly 10, 2015 Updated: July 10, 2015 5:21pm

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., wrote the proposed legislation that would require regular reports to Congress on productivity at ports.
Republicans in Congress and retailers are still ticked about a slowdown at 29 West Coast ports this year that sent ripples of economic pain across the country as cargo ships queued up for days while labor and shipping operators were locked in a contract dispute.

But representatives for the 20,000 West Coast union port workers say the GOP’s proposed solution to future stalemates, the Port Transparency Act, is thinly disguised “antiunion” legislation that demands greater scrutiny of port operations. If the measure moving through the Senate passes the Republican-dominated Congress, it could force President Obama — whose relationship with labor is increasingly rickety — into another uncomfortable showdown with one of his political allies.

Authored by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and backed by retail industry groups and agricultural interests, the Port Transparency Act would require a new set of metrics and regular reports to Congress on productivity at the nation’s ports. It zeroes in on specifics like the “number of lifts per hour by crane” and “the average truck time at ports,” things union leaders say tell only part of the story about productivity.

West Coast port battle may be over, but the fight’s just begun

Thune said that since many ports are publicly owned or at least receive federal subsidies, standard reporting requirements would help government officials and business leaders “if a future dispute or other problem again threatens unnecessary disruption of commerce.”

But one longtime national labor figure wonders why conservatives — who preach less government intervention and regulation — would push a measure that would increase federal oversight and involvement.

“It’s a shot across the bow to rein in a union (the International Longshore Workers Union) that has been very aggressive and very successful at the bargaining table,” said William Gould, a former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board appointed by President Bill Clinton, and a professor emeritus of law at Stanford University.

Gould called Thune’s proposal “a solution in search of a problem. I don’t think it would do that much.”

A Commerce Department report last month noted that the economy contracted at a 0.2 percent annual rate for a variety of factors, including poor weather and the ports disruption. In March the nonpartisan UCLA Anderson Forecast predicted that the near-term effect of the port dispute would be “relatively small.”

But even though port workers signed a five-year contract in February, Thune wants to prevent future slowdowns.

“The lack of adequate performance measures for U.S. ports helps explain why officials in Washington were caught flat-footed by a labor dispute that dragged on for over nine months and needlessly damaged our economy,” Thune said.

Passed as a stand-alone piece of legislation by the Senate Commerce Committee, the provision is now tucked into a huge transportation projects measure scheduled to be heard by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on Wednesday.

In a letter to senators last month, dozens of leading national and local retailers groups urged them to pass the measure because there is no common set of standard data “collected and evaluated on a consistent basis. This bill takes an important step toward achieving that highly desirable goal.”

But Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who, along with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., urged both parties in the labor dispute to reach agreement in February, doesn’t like Thune’s legislation.

“I oppose injecting the federal government into the collective bargaining process in this clearly one-sided way,” Boxer said.

Union representatives and their supporters in the Senate say the statistics sought by the legislation are too focused on labor and don’t take into account all of the other factors that go into moving cargo from sea to land.

For example, “metrics on crane moves per hour is useless,” said Lindsay McLaughlin, legislative director for the ILWU in Washington, D.C.

Crane hoisting capacity and speed differs markedly, McLaughlin said, depending on the manufacturer and the age of the equipment — not necessarily the speed or efficiency of crane operators.

“Portland, for example, has cranes that were built in the 1980s,” McLaughlin said. “The speed and dexterity of those cranes does not compare to the cranes built and going into operation today.”

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, who came to the Bay Area in February at Obama’s behest to end the West Coast port slowdown, isn’t a fan of Thune’s legislation or similar measures floating around Washington.

Last month, according to the Journal of Commerce, a trade publication that covers transportation issues, Perez told a gathering of union leaders, politicians and port officials in Los Angeles that “I don’t support those bills. I don’t think they are necessary.”

“It’s the department’s position that we should be focusing our energies on infrastructure spending and other efforts to modernize our ports,” a spokesman for the Labor Department told The Chronicle. “That's what will allow us to continue growing our economy and expand our capacity to export more made-in-America goods.”

A representative for the Port of Oakland, the fifth-biggest in the United States, said the port has taken no stand on the legislation. Port officials lease the facilities to marine terminal operators. A spokesman for the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping companies, said it won't have a position on the legislation, noting that the association already compiles and publicly posts many performance statistics.

Joe Garofoli is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: Twitter: @joegarofoli