A matter of great difference

Left Out

By Frank Capece

Over the coming weeks, people in the area may be brushing up on the history of the federal Taft-Hartley Act of 1947.

With the chances growing of East Coast shipping being brought to a halt by a dockworkers’ strike, “it will make a great deal of difference to a great many gentlemen,” to paraphrase Rhett Butler before another conflict.

A big target is the Port of Elizabeth, with its bustling trade. One port professional said, “It would be devastating if a strike happens on the projected Oct. 1 deadline.”

Secondary operations dependent on the port, like trucking and other commerce, could also be shut down, costing the East Coast an estimated billion dollars.

So far, the tough guys in a very tough environment are talking tough. James Capo of the negotiating group against the unions points to the larger costs of doing business in the New York-New Jersey port.  The perspective of Marlon Brando from “On the Waterfront” has lived on in reruns since 1954. It’s questionable how realistic this is in the new world of cargo ships and worldwide port competition.

Capo has zeroed in on the annual $232 million in container royalties that the union members get as benefits. He claims the port is just too expensive.

My New York friend Eric, a union advocate, speaks with pride about the benefits of collective bargaining. The royalties were established in the early 1960s to protect the dwindling number of workers during the rise of the use of shipping containers.

The port is flourishing. In just the past decade, the tonnage traveling through it has more than doubled to 110 million tons.  Capo counters that “archaic practices,”  such as paying for 24 hours of work when only a few hours actually occur, does not make the port a place to do business. There were an estimated 42,000 longshoremen working at the port in 1954. Today the number is down to 3,000.

The strike talk is a source of frustration for the big wigs at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. In July, they proudly announced that the project to raise the Bayonne Bridge was running six months ahead of schedule. The Port of Elizabeth and the secondary business that depend on the commerce were looking at a big rise in profits with the completion of the project. While the port currently handles 30 percent of all East Coast shipping, the bridge project was expected to make our area even more attractive than competitors such as Savannah and Baltimore.

Back to the history lesson. In 1946, during some rough, post-World War II labor strife, the very conservative Senator Robert Taft from Ohio overwhelmed President Truman’s veto with the Taft-Hartley Act. Beyond the creation of the role of federal mediators, who are currently on the scene in the port, the Act also provided the president the ability to mandate a so-called 80-day “cooling off” period. None too happy were the unions, when President George Bush wielded that club to end a nasty West Coast dock strike in 2001.

Enter the political overlay on the problem. In a close national election, with a number of competitive states up for grabs, President Barack Obama may be reluctant    to utilize the power of the cooling off period a month before the election. The Unions are strong Obama supporters.

Among the local workers at the port, the predictions are mixed. Some union types are gearing up for a long strike. It will be interesting to see if they can do without the large salaries they fairly bargained to gain. With their dwindling numbers this may be a fight they have to make.

No doubt their actions will matter a great deal to a large number of local consumers.