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Latest News - May 2015

May 13, 2015
US Congress wades into port congestion, labor issues
Source: JOC.COM
By: Mark Szakonyi

WASHINGTON —  In the aftermath of the crippling West Coast longshore labor negotiations, legislation pushed by the third-ranking Senate Republican aims to keep Congress more in the loop on port congestion flare-ups and gauge how labor negotiations impact port performance.

The legislation — co-introduced by Sen. John Thune of South Dakota — would also require the Bureau of Transportation Statistics to create a port performance statistics program and update Congress annually on the capacity and performance of key ports. In an effort to determine whether labor negotiations have an impact on port productivity, the bill, introduced Wednesday, would require the Department of Transportation to report on the state of port performance before and after the expiration of labor contracts. The DOT reports — done in consultation with the Commerce and Labor departments — would also give legislators estimates on the economic impact and how long it will take for port productivity to be restored.

“The recent labor dispute at West Coast ports underscored how a lack of data and transparency to quantify ongoing problems at our ports can affect businesses from coast to coast,” Thune said in a statement. “At present, statistics for air cargo and even forms of ground transportation are more developed and accessible than those for maritime transport.”

The legislation, introduced Tuesday, comes after Congress weathered fierce criticism from shippers and transportation providers for failing to get more actively involved in ending the showdown between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and waterfront employers. Granted, Congress’s ability to get both sides to reach a deal is limited since it can’t invoke the Taft-Hartley, as only President Obama can use the law to end a strike or marine terminal lockout, which he did not do. Legislators were also reluctant to weigh in on an issue in which the stumbling blocks preventing a deal from being reached were murky at best. Democratic legislators were also loath to open themselves to attacks from pro-labor backers. Other than Thune, the Senate bill has three Republican sponsors, Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee; Deb Fischer, of Nebraska; and Cory Gardner, of Colorado; but no Democratic sponsors.

Despite the obstacles to Congress getting more involved in preventing labor shutdowns and an addressing the larger issue of U.S. port congestion, which results from factors other than just labor tensions, shippers have pressed legislators to get more aggressive. In March Thune floated the idea of putting unionized port employees under the purview of the Railway Labor Act, which limits parties ability to disrupt operations. But although some labor attorneys think such a move would prevent labor showdowns, such an idea would be resisted on Capitol Hill by pro-labor forces.

The Senate bill seeking more port productivity data will likely be less controversial. Still, language within the bill seeking to compare port productivity when unions aren’t negotiating an agreement and when they are could still ruffle feathers. Even waterfront employers were initially skeptical.

John Crowley, executive director of the National Association of Waterfront Employers, questioned how the information sought through the Senate bill would be used. He acknowledged in a statement that the federal government is interested in measuring the performance of freight transportation to determine how best to invest in supporting infrastructure.

“But it’s less clear what the federal government's role is whether in collective bargaining between employers and labor or in commercial transactions between various supply chain parties,” said Crowley, whose association represents martine terminal operators and stevedores.

In a display of political acumen, the bill puts more focus on the need to better measure all factors affecting port productivity and points to the lack of such statistics, instead of visibility specifically into labor negotiations.

The DOT admitted in a 2009 report that the “lack of complete data on U.S. international freight” challenged the department’s ability to spot trends in international trade movement and the impact on surface freight networks. And the Maritime Administration, part of the DOT, said its efforts to measure the productivity of U.S. ports have been held back by the lack of a national standard, according to a 2001 report by the Transportation Research Board of National Economies.

That lack of national port productivity standards has left federal government with only a smattering of different metrics, including monthly container volume at ports, truck turns times at the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex collected by a trucker group, and West Coast port productivity statistics provided by the Pacific Maritime Association. INTTRA, the world’s largest multicarrier e-commerce network, and JOC Port Productivity provide more detailed port productivity statistics, but only the major takeaways from their findings are made public.

The bill first seeks to determine what top 25 U.S. ports are by total tonnage, 20-foot equivalent units and dry bulk tonnage. Under the untitled Senate Bill 1298, port authorities would report to the BTS their annual exports and imports of containers, along with inbound and outbound shipments of break bulk, vehicles, dry and liquid bulk cargoes. If the bill passes, the port authorities would also have to report the average container lifts per hour, vessel turn times, cargo dwell times, port storage capacity and utilization, average drayage wait times and average rail delays. A variety of agencies and groups, including Marad, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Advisory Committee of Supply Chain Competitiveness, would be asked to give recommendations on how to measure port performance data with standard data elements.

At least one year before a port union agreement expires, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and his successors would have to give Congress port performance metrics for the ports affected under the contract. Foxx would then have to report the same metrics to Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure three months before the expiration of the labor agreement and each successive month until a deal between the union and waterfront employers is finalized.




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