A labor agreement that expires July 1 between dockworkers and West Coast port operators could add new shocks to the U.S. supply chain if a strike or lockout occurs. The Biden administration ought to anticipate this potential disruption because presidents have unique powers to temporarily halt these types of work stoppages, says Michael LeRoy, an expert in labor law and labor relations at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. LeRoy, who advised the Council of Economic Advisors for President George W. Bush during the last national emergency labor dispute in 2001, spoke with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora about the potential crisis.
What is a national emergency labor dispute?
In 1946, the United Mine Workers organized a nationwide strike in the fall, just as coal furnaces were firing up to deal with cold weather. The public deeply resented having home heating held hostage by the union. This resulted in the election of a Republican-majority Congress that passed a labor law, the Taft-Hartley Act, with many strike controls. Much of the law excessively restricted strikes. However, Taft-Hartley enacted a good law to protect the public in rare instances when a strike or lockout poses a “national emergency.”
Who defines what constitutes a national emergency?
Under the Taft-Hartley Act, the U.S. president convenes a board of inquiry to determine if a labor dispute poses a national emergency. Before 2001, presidents invoked this emergency power 32 times, often in port disputes that disrupted the national economy. My research showed that boards found emergencies in all but one dispute.
If the board finds that it’s a national emergency, the president then sends the U.S. attorney general to a federal district court to get an injunction that orders the resumption of work or no stoppage at all, because the law allows for a preemptive injunction.
The injunction lasts no longer than 80 days. More than 90% of the requests by a president are granted by the federal courts.
With an economy that’s still in the throes of a supply chain crisis that has contributed to severe inflation for U.S. consumers, what would you advise the Biden administration to do?
The Biden administration would likely have the same questions as the Bush team did in 2001: How does the Taft-Hartley Act work, and is it effective? The law works by stoking public opinion against the work stoppage – in other words, day by day as the injunction continues, pressure mounts on the parties to compromise, even when they don’t want to.
When a strike or lockout happens on the West Coast, it has a fast and crippling impact on many supply chains. Therefore, it’s extremely important to settle the dispute.
My research found that the Taft-Hartley Act is highly effective in getting unions and employers to settle before the 80-day injunction expires. I’m sure the Biden team knows that the nation cannot easily endure a West Coast work stoppage that lasts even a week, so I’d advise them to start thinking about forming a board of inquiry in the next week or two.