Lawmaker: Port labor disputes about job security, not wages

Recent labor disputes between dockworkers and managers at ports on the East and West coasts were not about money, a California lawmaker said Thursday.

Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Calif.), who is a co-founder of the bipartisan Ports Caucus in Congress, said disagreements that threatened shipments at multiple ports across the country in recent months were, instead, about job security. 

ADVERTISEMENT
"The dispute most recently wasn't about salaries," Hahn told The Hill in an interview Thursday. "It was about whether those jobs were going to be retained."

Dockworkers and managers at 14 East Coast and Gulf Coast ports agreed last week on a new labor contract after months of contentious negotiations that had to be extended by federal mediators several times.

The West Coast port labor fight resulted in a weeklong strike port officials say had closed 10 of 14 terminals in the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports before the group of mediators, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS), got involved.

A potential agreement on a new contract for the West Coast dockworkers hit a snag when local affiliates of the AFL-CIO-affiliated International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union (ILWU) voted against the terms of the proposed deal. The group is negotiating with the Los Angeles/Long Beach Harbor Employers Association, which represents port managers in southern California.

The dispute the group is now trying to resolve involves a port in Hahn's Los Angeles district.

Hahn is one of two lawmakers scheduled to receive a "Port Person of the Year" award from the American Association of Port Authorities later this month, along with Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas). 

Hahn said it was important to protect "very good paying jobs" on docks across the country.

"Nobody wins when ports are shut down," said Hahn, who is a former Los Angeles City Council member.

However, Hahn predicted port labor issues would continue to pop up.

"Every time a contract comes up, whether it's East Coast or West Coast, there is a tension between modernization of our ports and deploying new technologies and protecting our workers," she said. "I've never met a longshoreman who doesn't understand that things change and technologies change, but these are some good American jobs." 

Congress is anticipated to begin consideration this year of a new inland waterways bill, which traditionally contains funding for ports.

Hahn said she wanted to see any new legislation that passes address the labor issues that have contributed to unrest at ports on both coasts of the country.

"You can't do anything on the maritime industry without talking about the men and women who are the backbone of the movement of goods in our country," she said. 

Hahn added that dockworkers also play a role in protecting the country from terrorist threats.

"It's a security issue," Hahn said. "They are on the front lines of whatever might becoming into our ports. They understand these containers."

Hahn said such understanding would be lost "if you have someone in Arizona who is controlling a remote."

Hahn said she was also going to push for Congress to limit funds raised for the trust fund for harbor maintenance to dock work.

"There's some interest that we use that for what it was intended for," Hahn said, naming issues like dredging ports.

"It was collected at the ports," she continued. "It should be used for what it was intended for." 

The Ports Caucus has requested that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hold a hearing on the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.

"For years, the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund has built to a multi-billion dollar surplus — even as so many ports across the nation have suffered from lack of investment," Hahn and Poe wrote to House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.).

"Common sense says there is a better way to manage and spend the trust fund, but we have not yet done what we need to fix it," they wrote.