S.C. Lawmakers Fail to Beef up Port Worker Screenings

A drive to require background checks on unionized dockworkers has failed, dealing a setback to efforts in Columbia to address safety on the state's waterfronts.

Whether the legislation stands a chance next year is up in the air, given that some of Charleston's most influential lawmakers disagree on whether such measures are needed.

Their division stalled the port security bill last week in the state Senate during the last days of this year's legislative session.

To its proponents, the bill was critical because policy changes look unlikely to happen any other way.

"It's critical this legislation passes (next year)," said Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, the bill's main sponsor. "Hopefully, (critics) will see the wisdom of it, and next year when the Senate calendar is clear, we'll try again." The bill would have ramped up the State Ports Authority's oversight of union dockworkers coming and going on the docks.

The legislation materialized in February, just days after a veteran stevedore at the Port of Charleston, Billy Hughes, was run over and killed by a seasoned longshoreman with a lengthy criminal background. That dockworker eventually was arrested and charged with reckless homicide.

The bill would have required all dockworkers to undergo in-depth background checks, and anyone found to have been convicted of a violent crime, drug charges or a whole host of other crimes in the past seven years would have been denied waterfront access.

The SPA now has the ability to similarly screen its own employees -- hundreds of crane operators and maintenance crews -- but doesn't have oversight of more than 1,000 union longshoremen and stevedores. Those groups say they do their own background checks, but the screening doesn't apply to veteran longshoremen and employment guidelines are entirely up to the union.

Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, said Friday the screening issue should be dealt with on a federal level. He said longshoremen were being unfairly targeted by the proposed legislation.

"That bill wasn't spelled out and it was a spur-of-the-moment overreaction," said Ford, who raised an objection to the bill last week, effectively tabling it for the remainder of the session. "The ports have a lot of entities out there and (the bill focused) on just one, the longshoremen.

They're the most important group on these docks and the most efficient in the nation." The International Longshoremen's Association, which represents unionized dockworkers, also raised concerns that other waterfront workers, such as truck drivers passing through the port, would not be subject to the same scrutiny if the bill passed.

Congress, as part of sweeping homeland security programs, has been batting around legislation for several years that would tighten up the screening requirements for anybody who regularly sets foot on port property. But those policies have failed to get the green light so far mostly because by union leaders nationwide have raised objections.

After a string of accidents at South Carolina ports over the past year, state ports officials backed state lawmakers' attempts to give them more leeway to scrutinize union workers on the docks. They say their hands are, for now, tied when it comes to cracking down on who's working the waterfront.

"This has to be solved legislatively," Byron Miller, spokesman for the State Ports Authority, said Friday. "We have supported this solution, but with this particular situation, it's up to the Legislature. Whether it's state or whether it's federal, it has to be done by changing these laws."