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Kurt Schrader, West Coast legislators push for Barack Obama to invoke Taft-Hartley Act if labor dispute continues

U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., called for President Barack Obama to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act soon if longshore workers and West Coast port operators can’t reach a resolution on a new contract. (Michael Lloyd/The Oregonian)

Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader and representatives from Washington and California called on President Barack Obama on Thursday to invoke the federal Taft-Hartley Act to resolve congestion at West Coast ports.

“Well, this is clearly the greatest threat our nation faces, except for the stuff that’s going on overseas,” Schrader, D-Oregon, said.

The Taft-Hartley Act would allow President Obama to intervene in the contract negotiation between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, a coalition of 29 West Coast operators including ICTSI Oregon. Schrader and Southwest Washington Rep. Jaime Herrera-Beutler, a Republican, stressed that the recent withdrawal of Hanjin Shipping Co. from the Port of Portland show that port congestion has reached a breaking point.

“It is time for the Pacific Maritime Association and the ILWU to recognize that the consequences of their actions reverberate far beyond their own personal concerns,” Schrader said. “They need to immediately conclude their negotiations before they do any further harm to the economy.”

More than 40 percent of Oregon’s agriculture products are exported either overseas or across the country. As work at the West Coast ports slowed, farmers started eating the cost of produce and other products not making ships on time.

Earlier Thursday, 350 Oregon agriculture companies sent a letter to Schrader and the rest of Oregon’s federal delegation to push for a conclusion to the negotiations.

“In January alone, Oregon cherry growers lost over $250,000 of export sales directly related to port disruption; if not resolved, it will lead to a sales loss of $5 million in 2015,” Schrader said.

Herrera-Beutler’s district encompasses Southwest Washington’s portion of the Columbia River canal. It also includes Weyerhauser’s Longview facility, where 180 lumber workers were recently laid off. The Oregonian/OregonLive reported in January that the timber company’s officials said the slow West Coast ports were the culprit.

“That might not sound like much in a metropolitan area, but in a small town that’s been struggling to make it economically, it’s everything,” she said.

In labor disputes involving unions, there is not much legislators can do at a state or Congressional level. The Taft-Hartley Act is usually used as a last-ditch effort when the U.S. economy is lagging because of the strife.

Taft-Hartley was a Republican-led response to New Deal legislation that conferred a range of bargaining rights to unions. Taft-Hartley added provisions that tipped the scale back in the direction of employers, adding right-to-work provisions and permitting employers to oppose the unionization of a workplace.

The act gave the president the right to intervene in labor disputes that threatened the national interest, requiring employers and employees to reach agreement within 80 days.

The act was passed in 1947 over the veto of President Harry Truman. Presidents have invoked the emergency injunction 35 times, but only three times in the last 35 years. Before President Bush in 2002, President Carter used it in in 1978 in an unsuccessful attempt to end a strike by coal miners and President Reagan used it in 1981 to break the air traffic controllers union.

In 2002, the lockout of longshore workers by West Coast port operators caused congestion that damaged manufacturers, retailers, growers and others who rely on exports and imports. Bush declared operation of West Coast ports was “vital to our economy and to our military,” leading a federal judge to issue an injunction that reopened ports. News reports at the time estimated the 11-day shutdown had cost the economy more than $10 billion.

It ended when President George W. Bush invoked the 1947 Taft-Hartley to order up to an 80-day cooling off period, which led to a settlement shaped by federal mediators. Some expect a replay of those events this year.

Unions still resent Bush’s actions, referring widely to his invocation of the “anti-union Taft-Hartley Act.”

In this case, politicians are saying that the stalled ports are also vital for outside economies.

Amata Coleman Radewagen, the Republican non-voting Congressional delegate from American Samoa, said that her tiny country is dependent on shipped exports because there is no trucking or rail.

“There’s only one lifeline and it is sea shipping,” she said. “Our shelves are bare, our people are getting hungry and the price of goods has skyrocketed.”

Port of Portland Executive Director Bill Wyatt said Wednesday that he expects a lockout in the next few days if the ILWU doesn’t accept the Pacific Maritime Association’s most recent offer, laid out earlier this month.

Already, the West Coast operators announced four days of canceled work at the 29 ports, starting Thursday and ending Tuesday.

Rep. Janice Hahn, D-California, said the suspension of work is as unproductive as some allege the union’s actions of slowing down or stopping work. Hahn’s district includes many longshoremen who work at the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports — the biggest on the West Coast.

Read the original article on Oregon Live here.