US lawmakers have reintroduced legislation that would redefine labor slowdowns at US ports as unfair labor practices, effectively enabling the federal government to crack down on disruptive labor maneuvers and “injured parties” to demand monetary reward for damages incurred.
The same legislation was introduced once before, in June 2015, without ever making it out of the Senate. None of the bills make it clear who would be the ultimate arbiter to make the distinction between an unlawful work slowdown or a lawful reduction in dispatched labor.
The Republican senators that introduced the bill last week specifically cited the 2014 and 2015 West Coast dispute between the International Longshore Warehouse Union (ILWU) and terminal operators with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA). There’s no official estimate, but retaliatory labor and employer actions two years ago cost the US economy billions of dollars and left cargo stranded for weeks on end.
Although port operators have argued that the unions use go-slow tactics to gain leverage in coastwide contract negotiations, like those in the 2014 to 2015 dispute, the labor groups themselves maintain slowdown allegations are hearsay. Groups such as the ILWU do often base decisions, such as the reduction in the dispatch of skilled labor, on health and safety claims.
The Prevent Labor Union Slowdowns, or PLUS, Act would allow shippers, terminal operators, and transportation providers to seek double augmented damages resulting from slowdowns and recover attorney and expert witness costs. Ostensibly, the threat of such suits would also discourage slowdowns from occurring the in the first place.
“By qualifying the ‘slowdown’ tactic as an unfair labor practice, this bill will ensure businesses can continue to import and export their goods regardless of these disputes,” said Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, who reintroduced the bill alongside Sens. Mike Crapo of Idaho and David Perdue of Georgia.
It is unclear how effective such legislation would be, as it designates no arbiter who could decide if a slowdown had occurred, or if a union had reasonably reduced dispatched labor.
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