Captains are not supervisors under federal labor law based on their authority to assign and direct their tugboat crews, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled in a split decision published June 30.

The case involving Cook Inlet Tug & Barge Inc., Anchorage, Alaska, bolsters the organizing efforts of the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific, which wants the captains included in a bargaining unit.

Telling deckhands to close hatches, bring in winches, and have relevant equipment ready “constitutes ad hoc instruction to perform discrete tasks, not assignment in the statutory sense,” board members Mark Gaston Pearce and Kent Hirozawa said. In addition, the company failed to prove “that the instruction is anything more than ‘routine,’ ” meaning there’s no exercise of independent judgment.

Nor is such judgment involved in setting deckhands’ work schedules, which means adhering to Coast Guard rules that specify a crew can work only 12 hours in a 24-hour period, the two said. Higher management sets the schedules.

NLRB member Philip A. Miscimarra dissented saying the evidence shows captains are supervisors “because they have authority to assign and to responsibly direct deckhands” — the only two indicators the board was considering. His colleagues were wrong to dismiss “unrebutted testimony establishing supervisory status merely because it could have been more detailed,” he said.

What’s more, the majority view implies nobody on the vessel has supervisory authority, contrary to the evidence and “applicable Coast Guard requirements that make captains ultimately accountable for everything that happens on board,” Miscimarra said.

The board’s finding endorsed an NLRB regional director’s 2013 decision that let captains and deckhands vote on union representation.

“Overall, it’s a very good ruling,” said Alan Cote, national president of IBU, which was formed in 1918. It is “positive for our efforts as a union. Workers have come to us and asked to be represented to improve their lives.”

Cook lawyer Ronald Knox, of Seattle, who had not yet reviewed the entire decision, said the next steps would be to open the ballots and for the company to decide whether to appeal the NLRB decision. Cook, a Foss Maritime sister company, has 14 employees and six vessels.

The NLRB’s latest finding follows a 2-1 decision earlier this year reaffirming that mates are not supervisors for union organizing purposes. The International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P) is pressing to bargain with Brusco Tug & Barge, Longview, Wash. 

Ken Hocke has been the senior editor of WorkBoat since 1999. He was the associate editor of WorkBoat from 1997 to 1999. Prior to that, he was the editor of the Daily Shipping Guide, a transportation daily in New Orleans. He has written for other publications including The Times-Picayune. He graduated from Louisiana State University with an arts and sciences degree, with a concentration in English, in 1978.