Charleston gets expedited hearing in appeal over ILA’s Leatherman lawsuit

by | Mar 23, 2023 | Articles, News

A federal appeals court in June is expected to hear arguments in an appeal filed by the South Carolina State Port Authority (SCSPA) as it seeks to block the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) from suing container lines who call on Charleston’s newest marine terminal. The fast-track hearing schedule came after the SCSPA told the court the port could become “bottlenecked” if ships can’t call the Hugh K. Leatherman Terminal. 

In an order issued last week, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, said all briefs in the SCSPA’s appeal of a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling must be turned in by May 26, shortening the timeline of oral arguments from approximately two years to six months. Following the briefs, oral arguments in the case could be heard as soon as June 6. 

“The court seems to have recognized that additional marine terminal capacity facilitated by the Leatherman Terminal is critically important to managing supply chain issues and that there is a need to resolve the legal issues posed by the union’s actions sooner rather than later,” Carter Phillips, attorney for the SCSPA, said in a statement to the Journal of Commerce

The SCSPA asked the court in January to overturn the NLRB’s ruling that the ILA could sue ocean carriers that called the Leatherman terminal because of its use of non-union workers on cranes and lift equipment. As a result of that ruling, all ocean carriers, save for SeaLead Shipping, are calling other Charleston terminals due to the risk of an ILA lawsuit. 

In 2021, the ILA sued Hapag-Lloyd and Orient Overseas Container Line over calls their ships made to the Leatherman terminal. As USMX members, which is the signatory to the master contract for longshore workers on the East and Gulf coasts, the ILA claimed the carriers were required to only use terminals with union workers. The USMX was also named in that suit. 

The ILA and the USMX, which plan to file intervening briefs on behalf of the NLRB and SCSPA, respectively, are also included in the expedited schedule.  

“SC Ports remains hopeful that we can work with the ILA to achieve a solution that will allow for full utilization of the Leatherman Terminal and preservation of the growth trajectory our port has experienced, which creates more jobs for both SC Ports employees and ILA members,” SCSPA Chief Executive Barbara Melvin said in a statement to the Journal of Commerce.  

‘Bottlenecked’ without Leatherman 

The SCSPA had originally asked the court but was denied, that all briefs in the case be filed by April 7. The NLRB argued that the original expedited schedule did not leave them enough time to prepare briefs.  

The agency further claimed that the Port of Charleston was not being impacted too severely by ocean carriers not calling on Leatherman, as evidenced by the port’s 2022 volumes, which were a record 2.8 million TEU. Year-to-date through February, Charleston has reported a 9 percent decline in total TEU volumes compared with the same period in 2022. 

In its second motion for an expedited briefing, the SCSPA said it would not be able to keep up with the volume growth it saw last year if ocean carriers continue to skip Leatherman due to the threat of legal action from the ILA.  

“With the growth that has been experienced, SCSPA terminals have the potential to become bottlenecked if all shipping lines attempt to use the same terminals due to the NLRB’s endorsement of the ILA’s tactics,” the motion said.  

The NLRB did not respond to a request for comment.   

Joseph Bustos, a Republican representing Charleston in the South Carolina state legislature, told the Journal of Commerce his office is keeping an eye on developments at Leatherman due to the impact on the port and the local economy.  

“We’re definitely interested in the negotiations and what’s going on,” Bustos said. “But we’re going to have to wait for the process to play out to see what we’re doing. Obviously, we’re very anxious to see things resolved and the port moving forward.”

Source: Journal of Commerce 

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