Cargo gain keeps Port of Charleston on record pace

The setting sun silhouettes container cranes at the State Ports Authority’s Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant. The International Longshoremen's Association says state employees who operate the cranes are taking jobs from union members.

A key leader of the union that represents dock workers in Charleston and other at East and Gulf Coast ports is threatening a work stoppage and a march on Washington, D.C., to protest what he says is the loss of jobs to over-regulation and interference by government-run maritime agencies.

"We are protesting damage to the nation’s economy that is caused by the kind of interference that President Donald Trump promised to stop," said Kenneth Riley, vice president of the International Longshoremen's Association and president of the union's Charleston branch.

ILA president Ken Riley

Ken Riley is president of the International Longshoremen's Association No. 1422. File/Wade Spees/Staff

Riley said the ILA plans to choose a date for the work stoppage in the next couple of weeks. It will coincide with thousands of union members traveling to the nation's capital to "wake up the decision makers and force them to focus on our ports," he said.

Initial reports said the work stoppage would take place Monday, but Riley said that would not give the union enough time to prepare. 

"We’re going to do this the right way," he said. "We're not going to fly by the seat of our pants and be irresponsible. First, we have to organize and educate our rank and file members up and down the coast."

The U.S. Maritime Alliance, the employer group that negotiates a master contract with ILA members, called the threat of work stoppage "disturbing."

"The master contract between the ILA and (the alliance) forbids any unilateral work stoppage by the ILA for any reason," the group said in a written statement. The alliance said it "will enforce the contractual rights of its members to the fullest" if a work stoppage occurs. 

Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the State Ports Authority, said gates at the agency's Charleston and Georgetown terminals will operate normally regardless of the ILA's actions.

"It will be business as usual for us," he said, adding that while the SPA operates the terminals, it does not control work on ships that visit the port.

Newsome said the ILA's contract includes a no-strike clause, "so one could assume someone would seek injunctive relief and that could be rather quickly granted."

That's what happened in 2013 when ILA members staged a work stoppage in Charleston as part of a dispute with a stevedore firm that oversees the handling of cargo. A federal judge ordered the longshoremen to return to work with an order signed nine hours after the stoppage had begun.

Riley said government-operated ports, including Charleston's, are reducing union jobs by hiring non-ILA workers to operate cranes, receive and deliver cargo and perform other duties. Also, the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor is creating new layers of background checks and other regulatory hurdles that are creating job shortages there.

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Both of those issues were discussed during ILA meetings last week in Florida as the union prepares to negotiate a new master contract for about 65,000 members working at ports along the East and Gulf coasts. The current contract expires on Sept. 30, 2018.

"All we want to do is work, build this economy and keep the nation strong," Riley said. "But over-regulating agencies, enabled by the federal government, want something else, and that’s just not right for America."

Newsome said the ILA's claims of job losses are unfounded. He said union members in Charleston worked more than 1.7 million hours in 2016 - a 42 percent increase over 2010 figures that equates to about 250 full-time jobs.

The ILA's current contract calls for the union and maritime alliance to conduct a study to show how crane operator and other jobs currently performed by non-union workers in Charleston and other state-operated ports could instead by done by ILA members.

"To my knowledge, such a study has never been done," Newsome said. Other state-run maritime facilities that hire non-union workers include ports in Savannah and Wilmington, N.C.

"This is not an issue specific to our port but encompasses state-owned and operated ports in the Southeast and has been a subject of discussion periodically for quite some time," Newsome said.

The ILA has not issued a statement on Riley's plans. On its Facebook page, the union described its informal talks last week with the maritime alliance as "productive and fruitful."

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_