Dockworkers union wins state appeal in dispute over new terminal jobs

Published: Jul. 30, 2023 at 9:38 AM EDT|Updated: Jul. 30, 2023 at 6:42 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP/WCSC) - Unionized dockworkers have the right to staff every job at a new container terminal in South Carolina under a federal court decision — but there is no guarantee that a $1 billion loading site that has sat largely idle will soon resume activity.

A three-judge panel on Friday denied an appeal from the South Carolina State Ports Authority that would have instead maintained the fairly unique “hybrid” model that relies on state and union employees. The ruling handed a victory to International Longshoremen’s Association members in the least unionized state seeking to hold onto jobs after technological changes last century that threatened their work.

In a release, the International Longshoremen’s Association expressed their thanks to the court for the ruling.

“We want to express our gratitude to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal for thoroughly examining the case and recognizing the significance of the ILA’s work preservation efforts,” the release says in part. “This victory would not have been possible without our members and legal team’s dedication, and the support of hundreds of dock workers and allies who withstood the heat at the July 12th rally to oppose the attack on workers’ rights and in favor of the ILA demands.”

The labor dispute began when the ILA sued the United States Maritime Alliance for sending shipping lines to Hugh K. Leatherman Terminal shortly after the completion of its first phase two years ago. The union alleged the move violated the terms of a master contract prohibiting the use of newly constructed terminals where ILA dockworkers do not perform all unloading tasks.

That interpretation posed a problem at the Port of Charleston — one of just three sites alongside those in Savannah, Georgia, and Wilmington, North Carolina, where union members work alongside state employees.

Shipping line containers subsequently called off. The South Carolina State Ports Authority viewed the move as an illegal strong-arm tactic to grab new lines of work and argued a solely unionized staff would increase operational costs. The state favored a narrow definition of the jobs entitled to ILA members that excluded “lift-equipment jobs” like cranes operation.

However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit endorsed a broader definition. Two of the three judges affirmed the National Labor Relations Board’s conclusion that “work” involved “the loading and unloading generally at East and Gulf Coast ports.”

But the rift may not be over. Republican Gov. Henry McMaster told reporters earlier this month that he would support sending the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if the dockworkers won the state’s appeal.

SC Ports President and CEO Barbara Melvin responded Friday to the ruling.

“We are disappointed in the 4th Circuit’s majority opinion,” Melvin said. “We are reviewing the opinion and weighing all options for appeal. Leatherman Terminal is a significant supply chain asset for all port-dependent businesses in South Carolina and beyond, and our longstanding hybrid operating model works.”