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Senate Introduces PORTS Act to Curb Gridlock During Labor Disputes

United States senators introduced a bill in Congress Friday designed to prevent port pile-ups of West Coast proportions.

The proposed Protecting Orderly and Responsible Transit of Shipments (PORTS) Act (S.1519) would discourage disruptions at U.S. seaports and allow not only the president, but state governors, to intervene to address slowdowns, strikes and lock-outs owed to port labor disputes.

U.S. ports support 23 million jobs and account for 26 percent of GDP, so maintaining steady trade is critical to the economy.

The nine-month West Coast port debacle caused a 0.7% decline in GDP, delayed retail shipments leading to big spending on air freight to get goods delivered, and forced manufacturers to halt production lines while they waited on shipments.

Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo. and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. sponsored the bill, an expansion on the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, better known as the Taft-Harley Act, which lets the president petition federal courts to end labor disputes because of strikes, lockouts or the threat of either.

“Remedies to these disputes do exist, but often go unused. Congress decided long ago that the health and reputation of the greatest economy in the world should not be used as leverage in contract negotiations,” a statement on Gardner’s website noted.

The newly introduced legislation would provide additional options for remedy should the president opt not to act.

“This year’s slowdown at West Coast ports demonstrated the disastrous consequences that labor disputes at our ports can have on businesses, consumers, and the entire economy,” Gardner said. “Labor union bosses should not be allowed to hold the economy hostage, nor should they be allowed to use the livelihoods and jobs of millions of Americans as bargaining chips. This Act would empower 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 National Retail Federation voiced its support for the PORTS Act and senior vice president for government relations David French said, “Reforming the Taft-Hartley Act to empower governors to intervene in a port disruption will help the nation’s supply chain stakeholders and 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.”

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The move comes two weeks after the International Longshore Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) approved their long-debated labor contract following the months of slowdowns and pile-ups that saw supply chains set back because of delays. The five-year retroactive West Coast contract expires in 2019 and the East Coast ports contract expires in 2018, though employers and the cargo handlers’ union said they have already gotten a head start on talks.

American Apparel and Footwear Association president and CEO Juanita D. Duggan said the port labor system needs reform. “While we are glad to see an end to the most recent port crisis, the issue at the ports is not over until policymakers address systemic issues, a major one being how labor negotiations are resolved,” Duggan said.