Could Congress prevent future longshore labor disputes?

One economics expert wrote in an editorial that Congress has the power to stop future longshore slowdowns and lockout threats, as a dock workers’ union and management remain without a contract on the West Coast.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, a center-right policy institute, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that in the future, the threat of labor slowdowns and lockouts could be removed by placing longshore union labor agreements under the purview of the Railway Labor Act. The former Congressional Budget Office director explained that placing longshore labor negotiations under the oversight of the National Mediation Board would ease any future risk of work disruptions.

The legislation that currently oversees the negotiations, Holtz-Eakin wrote, doesn’t have the sort of protections needed to end discussions quickly and avoid any disruptions at ports. The National Mediation Board, however, has a near spotless track record. The group claims 99 percent of the rail and airline mediation cases it has handled since 1980 have been resolved without any interruptions.

Work slowdowns worrying trade associations

West Coast ports have been plagued by congestion issues for some time now. Since mid-summer, the some 20,000 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) have been working without a contract with their management group, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA). Recently, negotiations between the two groups reached an apparent impasse, and a number of associations have alleged that the ILWU has begun to initiate work slowdowns in response.

“We are hearing from folks that they are having issues with some of the last-minute hot items that are still stuck at the ports,” Jon Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy, told Politico. “It used to take cargo two to three days to get out of the ports. Now it’s taking seven to ten days, and that has an impact.”

Trade associations have publicly worried about how the negotiations may affect their business this season as they continue into December, according to the publication. Some groups have even requested that President Barack Obama get involved in the discussions, though this can only be done if the two groups themselves, the ILWU and PMA, request assistance. If the president did get involved, that would likely force some sort of quickly-negotiated deal that would probably benefit retailers.

However, the ILWU asserts that it has done nothing illegal, has no intention to strike and should not bear the brunt of any blame for holiday shipping emergencies, Politico explained. Nevertheless, groups still assert that the dock workers are utilizing a “work to rule” labor tactic. This method involves working exactly to the rule laid out in dock workers’ guides, rather than skipping unnecessary steps in order to improve efficiency.

Craig Merrilees, spokesman for the union, has stated that while the ILWU and its officers don’t endorse “work to rule” tactics, individuals are allowed to engage in their own “work to rule” campaigns, according to the news outlet.

However, if longshore labor negotiations were placed under the oversight of the National Mediation Board, congestion likely wouldn’t end right away. Holtz-Eakin recommended not counting on the passage of legislation placing discussions under the purview of the Railway Labor Act as a solution to current slowdowns. Placing future labor negotiations under the Railway Labor Act would be tough to do as well, the Journal of Commerce noted. The ILWU would likely produce a robust lobby against any attempts to disrupt the current balance.

Holtz-Eakin wrote that thus far, he doesn’t know of any legislation attempting to place U.S. ports under the purview of the Railway Labor Act.