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Twin Blows Befall The Port Of Charleston

South Carolina’s competitive position continues to erode …

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This week’s big headline for the beleaguered South Carolina State Ports Authority (SCSPA) was a landmark legal defeat it sustained at the federal level. The U.S. supreme court refused to hear a case brought by the agency over the unionization of workers at its newest terminal just north of Charleston, S.C. – giving organized labor a huge win and an expanded footprint in the Palmetto State.

The result of the high court’s decision? The port of Charleston must exclusively use union workers for all “heavy-lift equipment” at its new terminal – including all ship-to-shore cranes and all “RTG” cranes, or “rubber-tryed gantry” cranes. SCSPA had been attempting to keep these positions staffed by state employees – who are not unionized.

The U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled against the port – citing a 2012 agreement between the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) and the United States Maritime Alliance (USMX). This decision was upheld by the U.S. fourth circuit court of appeals – and appealed to the supreme court in September. Only one justice on the high court – Brett Kavanaugh – indicated he would have granted SCSPA’s petition to hear the case.

Regular readers of this media outlet will recall we covered this saga extensively over the last few years – noting how this costly new maritime facility was withering on the vine in the face of a boycott led by organized labor. Shipping lines which might have been inclined to call on the new terminal – named after the late state senator Hugh K. Leatherman – were simply unwilling to risk retaliation from the union at other ports of call on the eastern seaboard.

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SCSPA leaders knew this would happen before the terminal was even constructed – but their political overlords refused to budge on the issue, citing the Palmetto State’s proud history as a “right-to-work” state. That position was compromised, however, by the fact the agency long ago ceded control of its critical gate operations to unionized workers.

Contrasting South Carolina’s approach? Georgia’s decision to work with the unions on construction of its massive new 395-acre terminal on Hutchinson Island that will expand the port of Savannah’s current capacity by an additional 2-3 million twenty-foot equivalent (TEU) containers per year.

South Carolina politicians – including former governor and 2024 presidential candidate Nikki Haley – love to score points by trashing unions. The reality? They employ them. Also of interest? Haley also has a legacy of compromising the competitiveness of South Carolina’s port system – one which created a major scandal for her during her first term as governor of the Palmetto State.

On the heels of the SCSPA’s defeat in court, another blow fell the “enterprise agency” on Thursday. Norfolk Southern – one of the five largest railway networks in the nation – announced it was canceling its intermodal service from Charleston and Savannah to several key inland destinations. Each port received a one-month notice that the railway would not be shipping freight from either port to Chicago, Cincinnati and Louisville.

“We’ve had a product (in Charleston and Savannah) that has not been successful,” a Norfolk Southern executive told Ari Ashe of the Journal of Commerce, adding that the aforementioned cities will “be served by other ports.”

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RELATED | SOUTH CAROLINA EMPLOYMENT SITUATION FLATLINING

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As my news outlet has meticulously documented over the years, the political appointees running SCSPA have been slow to address regional infrastructure challenges – specifically a lack of road and rail access to port facilities and a lack of waterfront space for new port operations in Charleston harbor. As S.C. senator Tom Davis has frequently (and accurately) pointed out, South Carolina’s politicians and port leaders continue trying to “shoehorn additional capacity” into Charleston – even though it clearly won’t fit in this rapidly growing population center.

Meanwhile, these same port leaders have refused to develop the nation’s last deepwater port location in Jasper County, S.C. – where waterfront space is readily available – despite pledging twenty years ago to devote the “full faith and credit” of the state to the task.

Sadly, this is what happens when politicians and their stooges – as opposed to businesspeople – make decisions.

For years, I’ve argued one of the keys to restoring South Carolina’s competitive position on this front involves abandoning the current port management model – i.e. bickering government appointees – and adopting a landlord-tenant arrangement instead. This would allow private sector firms to manage the state’s port infrastructure (with taxpayers retaining ownership of the assets). Such a move – which senator Davis has championed for the better part of the past two decades – would free up potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in public money for needed infrastructure enhancements (including the proposed Jasper port).

Sadly, for decades South Carolina politicians have refused to heed Davis’ wisdom …

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

(Travis Bell Photography)

Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina and before that he was a bass guitarist and dive bar bouncer. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven (soon to be eight) children.

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3 comments

Avatar photo
The Colonel Top fan February 23, 2024 at 11:03 am

You know, I was just thinking that I hadn’t heard anything about the good ol’Jasper Ocean Terminal in a long time…

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Wayne Hegamyer Top fan February 23, 2024 at 2:36 pm

Port related truck traffic in the Charleston area is off the charts. I am so thankful that the property on Daniel Island was not developed by the SPA. Avoiding the topic of having rail service serving the Mt. Pleasant terminal was a serious blunder that will be hard to fix.

Reply
CongareeCatfish Top fan February 26, 2024 at 9:35 am

A big part of the State’s focus on Charleston at the expense of developing Jasper actually traces back to the closing of the Charleston Navy base. Highly connected individuals bought up those tracts of land from the City of North Charleston back in the early 2000s with a view to develop them into a multi-use boomtown that needed an expanded business footprint by the Port to bring in the new businesses. The Great Recession put that effort on ice for about ten years, with the original developers having to fire-sell the properties; Hough Leatherman had one of our state agencies buy up the property so certain choice parcels could be used for the port expansion while the others not directly used by the state were sold off in de facto no -bid sales arrangements until some people started asking questions – but by that time all the choice pieces of property got into the hands of their favored intended buyers . Now a new group of developers have bought up all of the properties via a tightly held syndicated investor group; the acquisitions were spearheaded and facilitated by means of a very prominent Republican legislator who is now the Mayor of Charleston. His name is on the execution of practically every deed and land instrument that facilitated this deal. So he will draw a City of Charleston paycheck while profiting handsomely off of these insider deals in the City of North Charleston in a manner that will probably have him set for life. I wish some intrepid investigative journalist would sharpen their pencil and ferret all this out to see if there were any kickbacks or bribes paid – it is all far, far too cozy for their not have to been some backroom quid pro quo involved – but I speculate.

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