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By Lori Ann LaRocco - June 22, 2023

The widespread supply chain issues that resulted from the recent International Longshore & Warehouse Union work slowdowns at West Coast ports are the target of a new bill being introduced Thursday in the Senate.

The legislation, sponsored by Idaho Republican Senator Jim Risch, would amend the National Labor Relations Act and the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 to deter labor slowdowns and prohibit labor organizations from blocking the modernization of ports.

Worker “no shows,” unfilled port orders for union labor, and worker productivity issues — some of which led port management to relieve labor from daily shifts — led to backups of vessels, containers and trucks at ports across the West Coast in recent weeks. Automation of ports, meanwhile, has been among the key sticking points in negotiations over a new labor contract between the ILWU and Pacific Maritime Association, which represents port ownership.

The bill, co-sponsored by Senator Ted Budd (R-N.C.) and Senator Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), would update the National Labor Relations Act to define a labor slowdown by maritime workers as an unfair labor practice.

Under the proposed legislation, unions found in violation of the law would be subject to paying damages in an amount equal to two times the amount of damage sustained by their labor actions. During the recent West Coast port issues, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimated that a “serious work stoppage” at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach would likely cost the U.S. economy nearly half a billion dollars a day. It estimated a more widespread strike along the West Coast could cost approximately $1 billion per day.

The recent union workers slowdowns impacted key transportation operations, including truckers, the freight rails and ocean vessels. Union Pacific had to stop containerized U.S. exports moving into the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach because of the lack of specialized rail workers. The Port of Seattle released labor workers every day for a week who were assigned at its SSA terminal to move containers off of vessels due to intentionally slow work. As a result of the slowdowns, $5.2 billion in cargo was stuck off the West Coast ports.

“Deliberate and unprotected labor slowdowns or impediments to modernization at the ports have led to substantial supply chain and economic disruptions,” the bill states, according to a copy reviewed by CNBC before its introduction. “Such frequent and periodic disruptions to commerce in the maritime industry hurt the reputation of the United States in the global economy.”

The legislation describes labor actions as a “burgeoning threat to the financial health and economic stability of the United States” and states that the policy of the United States should be “to eliminate the causes and mitigate the effects of such disruptions to commerce in the maritime industry and to provide effective and prompt remedies to individuals injured by such disruptions.″

The PMA and ILWU have reached a tentative agreement — though it will take months for the tentative deal to be ratified by rank-and-file members. The deal was brokered by President Biden’s acting Labor Secretary Julie Su. Risch was one of 31 senators who signed a letter calling on President Biden to withdraw the nomination of Julie Su to be Labor Secretary. He remains opposed to Su’s nomination based on her track record as the California Labor and Workforce Agency, including the state’s gig worker law AB5, which had independent truckers walk off the job for five days in protest and resulted in West Coast port delays last year.

This isn’t the first time that Risch has attempt to move a substantially similar bill in the Senate. He has supported several versions of this bill in prior years, including in 2017 and 2022 — when a version of what is called The PLUS Act was introduced just as talks between the PMA and ILWU were starting — without legislative success. Previous versions of this bill have never come to a full vote in the Senate. Even recent legislation with broader bipartisan support has faced high hurdles on Capitol Hill given the current divided government. The latest version of the legislation is slightly different than previous versions, adding the provisions related to efforts by labor organizations to block modernization efforts at ports. Risch has one of the most anti-union voting records among Senate Republicans, according to a union rating of legislators.

A Risch spokesperson said in a statement to CNBC that with Republican control of the House there appears to be greater appetite for a fix of this kind, and it is an issue that otherwise will persist over the long-term.

“We all saw the consequences of fragile supply chains over the past few years,” Budd said in a statement provided to CNBC. “The PLUS Act takes the important step of making intentional labor slowdowns an unfair labor practice. Contract disputes and tactics to increase Big Labor leverage should not be allowed to jeopardize the livelihoods of North Carolinians.”

Crapo said in a statement that reducing slowdowns by eliminating unfair labor practices imposed by unions is “best for maritime workers and their livelihoods while allowing companies to compete in a modern marketplace.”