Officials are concerned a labor dispute at the Port of Toledo could disrupt the expected arrival of machinery for a $700 million iron-concentration plant now under construction near the port.
A collection of elected officials and labor leaders turned up the pressure on an already tense labor dispute that has effectively stopped overseas cargo shipments at the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority’s general cargo docks.
Toledo’s mayor, Lucas County commissioners, port authority officials, the president of CMM Inc., and representatives from the Northwest Ohio Building Trades Council, Laborers’ Local 500, and Teamsters Local 20 all signed what Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz called an open letter imploring the Coast Guard to step in and allow overseas vessels to travel to and from the docks.
The International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1982 has been in a years-long dispute with Midwest Terminals of Toledo, which the port authority contracts with to manage its docks. The strife has spilled over to navigational pilots — which help guide international ships to and from the docks — refusing to bring in or take out those vessels calling on the Port of Toledo or the Port of Monroe, Mich.
“On behalf of the region’s business, labor, and governmental leadership we call upon the United States Coast Guard, who oversees pilotage in the Great Lakes, to change its policy to require these pilots be available to guide international vessels 24/7 — after notice is given by the shipper regardless of any condition except safety,” the letter, dated Aug. 22, states.
Two days later, the president of Midwest Terminals had the ear of the highest office in the country and took the opportunity to bring up his issue with the Coast Guard. Alex Johnson caught President Trump at the Republican Party’s annual state dinner in Columbus and said he was sympathetic to his position.
“It’s not the labor issue that I talked to the President about, it’s the Coast Guard. What needs to happen is pretty straight forward. Pilots need to do their job. They have a monopoly on the Great Lakes and they need to do their job, come in, and move commerce,” Mr. Johnson said. “I got 30 seconds of talking and he gave me 30 seconds of answer.”
Mr. Johnson added that he was “glad to have the support” of the parties who wrote the open letter.
EDITORIAL: Settle this dispute
Paul Toth, the port authority’s president and chief executive, was one of several to sign it. He said community and labor leaders sent the message following “just pure frustration” in exhausting their efforts for a resolution.
The Great Lakes Pilotage Office, under the Coast Guard, oversees U.S. pilots. Mr. Toth said the group is asking the Coast Guard to require that pilots do their jobs.
“Sitting back and not doing anything is not an option at this point,” he said.
Mr. Kapszukiewicz said the labor dispute is blocking economic progress in Toledo, and he is particularly concerned about disrupting the expected arrival of machinery for the construction of Cleveland-Cliffs, a $700 million iron-concentration plant now under construction near the port.
“It would be devastating to Toledo’s economy. There probably is not a single project more exciting for Toledo’s future than the Cleveland-Cliffs project, and so anything that would jeopardize it is a real threat to the long-term health of our economy,” Mr. Kapszukiewicz said. “That’s why it is important to me that we get this resolved.”
Bill Yockey, the International Longshoremen’s Association trustee who is managing Local 1982, said the letter will have no direct effect on the labor dispute with Midwest Terminals or the impending iron ore plant project.
“It takes an act of Congress to change the Coast Guard policy and there would have to be public hearings. It’s all there in the Great Lakes Pilotage Act of 1960 — that covers it,” Mr. Yockey said.
Additionally, “I called the director of pilotage for the Coast Guard’s Ninth District today. He said they have no pressing agenda to change anything,” Mr. Yockey said.
But the ILA trustee said asking the Coast Guard to intervene in a local labor dispute “is just a bad thing for labor.”
He issued his own letter Thursday in response to the group’s open letter, refuting the notion that shipping in the lower Great Lakes has been “paralyzed” because of the dispute. He also questioned why elected officials and other labor leaders waited until now to weigh in if they were “truly concerned about the Shipping on the Great Lakes.”
Dawn Christen, a labor attorney representing the Building Trades, said the purpose of the group letter is to let the Coast Guard know that it can, should it choose, allow ships to sail to the Interlake Docks without a pilot aboard.
“Under the Great Lakes Pilotage Act there is a rule that says if a pilot is unavailable for more than six hours, then the Coast Guard can allow the vessel to sail without the pilot,” Ms. Christen said.
“The [Coast Guard] commandant issued an instruction in the 1990s interpreting the six-hour rule to say that a pilot would not be deemed ‘unavailable’ if there’s a labor dispute. We’re asking them to suspend that instruction,” she said.
“At this stage, there has not been any dispute at the site of the project,” Ms. Christen said. “But obviously for the Building Trades Council, we do recognize there is a dispute by ILA and Midwest Terminals.”
George Tucker, the executive secretary-treasurer of the Greater Northwest Ohio AFL-CIO, said he was aware of the letter asking the Coast Guard to intervene, but his organization — which includes both the ILA and unions that make up the Building Trades — would not take sides in the issues surrounding the impending project at the Interlake Docks.
“We don’t take sides. The only thing we do is try to tell the union and the employer to get it settled and offer help if needed,” Mr. Tucker said.
Blade staff writer Jon Chavez contributed to this report.
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