[Marxism] How Longshoremen Keep Global Wind At Their Backs (WSJ)
walterlx at earthlink.net
Wed Jul 26 19:16:25 MDT 2006
(It would be interesting in light of this material if someone could
provide us with links to see what the Socialist Workers Party of the
U.S. - presumably totally negative - and what the Communist Party,
Workers World and other left groups had to say about the famout ILWU
productivity agreements made in the early sixties. I simply do not
recall what was said by the other left tendencies at that time. The
SWP was completely negative. Can someone help? Thanks.)
July 26, 2006
Keep Global Wind
At Their Backs
As Trade Soars, Union Workers
Prosper by Staying Up
With Technological Change
Threat of a Day Without Ports
By ANNE MARIE SQUEO
July 26, 2006; Page A1
CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Neat rows of new BMW Z4 Roadsters at the Union
Pier Terminal here awaited longshoremen to drive them onto cargo
ships one recent morning. Last year, the German auto maker exported
some 75,000 vehicles through this terminal and imported 112,000. That
may not be good news for unionized workers in the auto industry, but
it is terrific news for the longshoremen.
The global economy has shipped overseas hundreds of thousands of
union jobs from apparel to auto parts. Their employers, buffeted by
lower-cost foreign competitors, are slashing expenses and workers.
But the longshoremen are thriving. The 100,000 members of the two
longshoremen unions handle nearly every product or shipping container
that enters or leaves a U.S. port. They usually get compensated even
for those they don't touch. With average salaries topping $120,000 a
year, longshoremen are the highest-paid blue-collar workers in the
U.S., according to labor experts.
Over the past century, work on the docks has been transformed by such
changes as the move to put cargo in standard-size containers and
high-tech tracking systems. But the longshoremen's unions -- the
International Longshoremen's Association on the East and Gulf coasts
and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union on the West Coast
-- have expanded their power. That is partly because the unions
aggressively guard their position at the chokepoint of global trade.
They have also shrewdly turned technological change to their
advantage and formed powerful alliances with affiliated unions, such
as the truckers who carry goods to and from docks.
The international scope of their business and the shipping lines
whose goods they handle forced them to think beyond individual ports
long before people were talking about a national economy, let alone a
world-wide one. Now, some of their methods are being viewed by labor
leaders as a potential roadmap to re-energize other unions.
"The lesson we learned when there was a national economy is you can't
organize one Ford plant, you have to organize the whole company. Now
we're seeing that transfer to the global economy," says Andy Stern,
president of the Service Employees International Union, who has been
pushing the idea of partnerships among workers in different countries
as a way to bolster the waning clout of U.S. unions. "The
longshoremen were way ahead of their time."
Mr. Stern's union, whose members include health-care and
building-maintenance workers, has set up operations in 10 countries
outside the U.S. and is funding joint labor drives with overseas
partners, since most large companies are now global operations.
With goods flowing in and out of the U.S. totaling about $3 trillion
last year, dockworkers are a vital cog in the engine of global trade.
On the West Coast, which handles rising trade from Asia, ports
handled more than 20 million containers (both loaded and empty) in
2005, more than twice as many as a decade earlier, and that number
continues to rise. A work stoppage or even a slowdown on the U.S.
docks would have ripple effects around the globe within weeks.
A glimpse of that was evident in October 2002 when the Pacific
Maritime Association, which represents shippers and terminal
operators, locked the longshoremen out of its 29 ports on the West
Coast for 10 days amid faltering contract negotiations. Economists
estimate the lockout cost the U.S. economy about $1 billion a day as
ships idled offshore and trucks were backed up for miles on land.
"It took only four days before automobile plants were shutting down
because just-in-time shipment of parts had exhausted themselves,"
says David Olson, a professor of political science at the University
of Washington who specializes in the history of the longshoremen.
The lockout left the longshoremen in a stronger position than ever.
The ports won the right to implement new technology, such as new
software for designing how containers are filled and
global-positioning-satellite-system technology for tracking cargo.
But the longshoremen got the right to run that technology, with no
loss of jobs other than through attrition.
The longshoremen's power is sure to be tested as shipping lines
further consolidate and big retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
continue to push for cost cuts in their supply systems. Nonunion
ports, especially in Mexico and in states like South Carolina with
laws that limit union power, are trying to pick up more cargo from
Asia. Kansas City Southern Railway has assembled a rail line from
Mexico's port of Lazaro Cardenas to the Midwest that major importers
have expressed interest in using, according to a study by the
University of California, Berkeley.
Another potential problem: The ILA is being threatened with possible
federal oversight because of alleged affiliation with organized
crime. Federal prosecutors in New York have filed a civil
racketeering case against some senior union officials, naming the ILA
itself as a nominal defendant. Howard W. Goldstein, an attorney for
the union, which is seeking to have the case dismissed, said the ILA
has taken steps to ensure that organized crime or any wrongdoing is
addressed by an internal system.
Still, labor and economic experts say cutting out the union-dominated
U.S. ports would prove difficult and that much of the development
south of the border is due to backups at West Coast ports caused by
the enormous flow of goods. Also, the longshoremen have prevented
nonunion U.S. ports from landing lucrative work unloading shipping
containers: Shippers that sign master contracts with the longshoremen
aren't allowed to use nonunion workers without obtaining clearance
from the union.
According to the Pacific Maritime Association, average earnings for
full-time longshoremen working 2,000 hours a year are $123,464.
Foremen make about $192,463. By comparison, the Center for Automotive
Research estimates the average United Auto Workers member at one of
the Big Three earns about $74,500 a year, based on 2,000 hours of
Applicants -- even college graduates -- are clamoring for these
longshore jobs. When the Port of Los Angeles needed to fill 3,000
jobs in August 2004, more than 300,000 people applied for the
positions, which were awarded via lottery.
Some workers find the docks are an improvement over their
professional careers. Marquette Map, 35 years old, was laid off from
his engineering job at telecom company Nortel Networks Corp. in
Atlanta. His father-in-law helped him get a longshoreman's job in
Charleston. Now, he says, he makes more than he used to, and his
hours are flexible enough to allow him to pick up his children from
For many, the image of a longshoreman, made famous in the 1954 film
"On the Waterfront" starring Marlon Brando, is that of a
rough-and-tumble, brawny man with a limited education. Back then,
these jobs involved back-breaking work -- lifting 250-pound bags of
coffee or moving 500-pound rolls of paper while avoiding being
Alonzo Grant, a 65-year-old longshoremen with 38 years on the
Charleston docks, remembers the difficulty of moving bananas. "They'd
come in on a whole stalk that you'd need two men to lift," says Mr.
Grant, noting it had to be done without bruising the fruit.
Now, the longshoremen rarely move individual items -- just the
containers that have revolutionized the shipping industry. The
containers, 20- or 40-feet long and loaded with everything from socks
to refrigerators, are moved using massive cranes. They were first
introduced at the Port of Newark in New Jersey in 1958, and the
longshoremen immediately identified them as a threat. Suddenly, the
work of 21 men could be done by six.
In November of that year, the ILA began boycotting all ships carrying
containers. It was largely a symbolic gesture, given that few such
vessels existed. But the message was clear: The longshoremen wouldn't
accept the introduction of containers without a fight.
An interim truce was reached in December, and a year later a plan was
set in motion that would financially compensate the union for all
container traffic. The container-royalty fee, as it became known,
endures and assesses a $3-per-ton levy on containers coming into
port, up to a certain tonnage cap. Last year, ILA members with
seniority in Charleston, for example, each received a check for
Even so, the issue of mechanization led the ILA to strike in 1962 and
1964, leading to a landmark contract that further bolstered the
union's safeguards. In exchange for agreeing to work with containers
and the massive cranes that move them, the ILA extracted
unprecedented promises on job security and guaranteed pay.
"The container came at a time when everyone in America was concerned
about automation, not just on the docks," says Marc Levinson, author
of "The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and
the World Economy Bigger." "The thing that was unusual about the
longshoremen was that they got compensation for the loss of their
jobs, which most people in the economy did not."
For shipping companies and port operators, such concessions were a
small price to pay for the increased productivity containers would
At the time, the West Coast was already doing something the East
Coast longshoremen didn't adopt until the 1980s: negotiating master
contracts that cover the union's whole territory. Doing so provided
enormous leverage in negotiations and thwarted efforts by shipping
lines to play one port off another on fees. By signing the master
contracts, shippers essentially agreed not to call on any nonunion
ports, under threat of a strike by the longshoremen.
Some basic realities of the job have helped strengthen the position
of the longshoremen as well. The job, while not as physically
demanding as it once was, is still dangerous, exposes workers to the
elements and requires experienced operators for the heavy equipment.
That makes it difficult to replace them during a strike or lockout.
Today's cranes are some 10 stories tall, with an operator sitting
inside a glass-enclosed bubble that hangs down from a metal rafter.
Using a joystick, the operators shuffle the huge containers like Lego
pieces. "On a windy day, the wind will take the crane and start
moving it," says Louis Cavana, an 18-year veteran of the Red Hook
Terminal in Brooklyn. "If the boom hits the ship, it could collapse."
Cranes usually have to be shut down when winds exceed 50 mph, he
The longshoremen can count on the support of other unions in contract
talks. During the contentious 2002 negotiations between the ILWU and
the Pacific Maritime Association, representatives from other unions
flew to California to sit in on meetings and attend rallies. At one
meeting, James Hoffa Jr., general president of the International
Brotherhood of Teamsters, said, "If you pick a fight with the ILWU,
you're picking a fight with the Teamsters. Just so you know."
International connections also proved pivotal in a 1999 fight in
Charleston between the union and Nordana, a Danish shipping line that
sought to shift its work to cheaper, nonunion labor after 23 years of
working with the ILA. South Carolina, a right-to-work state, also has
ILA members picketed Nordana's ships when they pulled in to shore.
During one incident in January 2000, hundreds of state police
officers turned out to end the boycott, and a melee broke out near
one of the docks.
Five longshoremen were arrested for inciting a riot. Dubbed "the
Charleston Five," they became a rallying symbol for workers at other
ports who believed Nordana was trying to break the union's
When longshoremen in Spain refused to offload Nordana ships that had
been loaded by nonunion laborers in the U.S., Nordana folded and
renegotiated its contract with the ILA.
Eventually, the state also gave in when it came time to try the five
workers. With union members on the East and West coasts, Australia,
South Korea and elsewhere threatening an International Day of Action
that would shut down ports around the world, the state dropped the
most serious charges in November 2001. The men pleaded guilty to
misdemeanors and paid $100 fines.
"This is a unique industry," says Leonard Riley, also a Charleston
dockworker. "The importance of having labor peace holds a lot more
significance than if it was a private company."
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