Labor secretary: Pandemic, worker vexation feed port issues

Business News
Kenny Riley, Marty Walsh

International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422 President Kenny Riley, left, and U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, right, speak with reporters outside the Port of Charleston on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021, in Mount Pleasant, S.C. Walsh visited the port amid slowdowns at terminals across the country constrain the U.S. supply chain ahead of the holiday shopping season. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. (AP) — During a visit to South Carolina’s Port of Charleston, the nation’s ninth-busiest, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said Wednesday that slowdowns and bottlenecks at the nation’s shipping terminals are the result of an ongoing pandemic, coupled with problems like stagnant wages for some workers along the supply chain.

“They were saying that they’ve been in this industry for 25 years, but their wages haven’t shown that,” Walsh told The Associated Press on Wednesday, after a tour of the port and roundtable discussion with truck drivers at a union hall in Charleston.

“We really have to think about how we respect our workers better, and some of that might mean to pay our workers more money, because they’ve been doing their service for a long time and have seen no increases,” he added.

Walsh’s visit came as part of his travels to ports around the country, amid a container ship traffic jam threatening the U.S. economy and holiday shopping season. The slowdown, as unloaded goods wait for trucks to move them to their next destination, is leading to mass shortages and delays, as well as a longer than expected bout of inflation.

Last month, President Joe Biden announced a deal to expand the Port of Los Angeles to a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week operation as a way to try to tamp down inflation. That move, Walsh told AP Wednesday, is part of the solution, as is patience for a coronavirus pandemic that seems to have slowed but is still ongoing.

“We’re not back to where we were, pre-pandemic,” he said. “People are ready to move on, but unfortunately we’re still living with a pandemic.”

Walsh’s visit also comes amid an ongoing labor dispute between South Carolina and the dockworkers’ union, the International Longshoremen’s Association, related to who should operate heavy-lift equipment at a new shipping terminal. The union has said its contract with shipping carriers requires union members to do the work, which is now carried out by South Carolina Ports Authority employees.

That provision is being challenged by Attorney General Alan Wilson and the ports agency. President and CEO Jim Newsome told AP this week that “there’s no advantage to” Ports Authority employees joining the union, where he said they would not be paid as well as they are currently, adding: “I think our guys would take a cut in pay if they went to work for the union.”

An administrative law judge has sided with the state, but Longshoremen Local 1422 President Kenny Riley told AP in an interview Wednesday that he had “faith in the system and in the arguments that we are putting forward,” expressing confidence that the union would prevail.

“It means the world to us and to our membership,” he said, of Walsh’s visit.

South Carolina is a “right-to-work” state, meaning workers can’t be compelled to join unions, even if the organizations represent them. According to data released earlier this year by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, South Carolina had the lowest union membership rate, at 2.9 percent.

Walsh, a former union official himself whose visit to the state was planned before Riley’s request, said that he played no role in the NLRB case but advocated on behalf of all workers, including anyone who wished to be part of a union.

“People should have the right to join a union if they want to join a union,” Walsh told AP. “I think it’s really disingenuous for people to say that they’re going to keep unions out when in fact that allowing people to collectively bargain means allowing the opportunity to earn a decent wage, opportunity potentially to get a pension when they retire, health care.”

During his time in South Carolina, Walsh met with Jim Newsome, the chief executive in charge of the state’s ports authority, as well as State Ports Authority chief operating officer Barbara Melvin, who will take over leadership of the entity next year. They discussed “the important role ports play in keeping supply chains fluid amid the ongoing global supply chain challenges” but did not talk about the labor case, according to the agency.

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Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.

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