AJOT Insights

All quiet on the Western Front?

Feb 18, 2015

It’s another day of PMA and ILWU negotiations (at this writing talks are ongoing and it is easy to forget that it was in the middle of baseball season [July] when the contract expired) and a new participant US Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez has now (maybe inevitably) put his oar into the troubled waters of the West Coast waterfront labor dispute.

Given the free time, it’s worth reading a good book or two in advance of Messrs. Taft & Hartley entering the fray. Back in 2002, while covering that West Coast port dispute, I bought a couple of books in a San Francisco bookstore to work on my West Coast waterfront history: “Workers on the Waterfront” by Bruce Nelson and “THE UNION MAKES US STRONG” by David Wellman. The two tomes kept me occupied before President George W. Bush called on the Taft-Hartley Act (otherwise known as Labor Management Relations Act of 1947) to expedite settlement in December 2002. To add a little balance [East Coast waterfront versus West Coast waterfront], it’s also worth brushing up with “ALONG THE SHORE” by Maud Russell.

The subtitles on the three books are interesting in their own right. Nelson’s book has the subtitle “Seamen, Longshoremen and Unionism in the 1930s, while Wellman’s is a little more provocative with “Radical Unionism on the San Francisco Waterfront.” On the other hand, Maud Russell’s book simply stated “I.L.A. and its history.”

Obviously, there is a difference between East and West as ILWU’s development was forged in the strike of 1934 and is considerably different than that of the ILA, which evolved from a very long legacy of Great Lakes/East Coast waterfront disputes.

However, since the advent of containerization in the 1960s all waterfront labor has contended with how to adapt to portside automation of all kinds. Since unions grow by either putting on more members (presumably as business grows) or adding more industry sectors like box repairs and new tech oriented positions, automation which cuts jobs is rarely perceived as advancing the laborer’s wellbeing.

Back in the 60s, gantry cranes weren’t exactly welcomed as new “labor saving devices” like dishwashers or washing machines. More to the point, it was like HG Wells “War of Worlds” machines attacking jobs on the waterfront. The ILA didn’t dub containers “ILA coffins” for nothing.

Fast forward to our current situation; add in a few recessions like 2008, shipping slumps, and the impact of much larger containerships with fewer port calls and it’s easy to understand the deep division between labor and management.

Another major change has much of the waterfront management, particularly on the vessel owning side, now beneficially owned overseas, although with US management. This represents a new wrinkle in the waterfront dynamics that prior generations of both management and labor really didn’t have to deal with.

Productivity

The underlying issue with automation is productivity. Can a US waterfront perform at a level necessary to handle both the cargo flows and new ship sizes and other challenges associated with freight velocity? The knee jerk answer has always been “no,” but there are enough instances to the contrary to throw this open to debate (note performances in US Southeast ports.) We’ve heard similar stories about US auto manufacturing and yet we have managed to overcome these.

To the average American, waterfront labor issues are akin to an NBA or MLB labor dispute. Waterfront labor makes a lot more money with better healthcare and pensions than most Americans. Sometimes the compensation is even better than the people on the other side of the negotiating table described as “management”. It’s hard to conceive of this dispute as rich management versus poor labor - a point never lost when the waterfront debate becomes part of the nightly news.

Cycling

The overall question that needs to be answered is not when the ILWU-PMA dispute will end and a new contract put in place, but whether the cycle of contract termination, protracted negotiations, and slowdowns can be ended.

Right now the Euro Zone is in a tither over the Greeks - frankly the new Gerald Desmond Bridge is probably more important to international trade than Greece. It’s time to consider building a lasting bridge between waterfront-labor and management that takes into account the enormous consequences that come with each cycle of contract negotiation.

Unfortunately for the PMA and ILWU their issues might be too large to be left to just each other. It’s already been demonstrated with the last two disputes.

Perhaps a basic contract with a built in two-year extension period and tiered performance provisions would allow enough time for negotiations with outside observers/mediators to work on the thornier long-term problems. There are many ways to build in an elongated cooling off period that should enable negotiators to hammer out a contract without disruptions.

In any case, it’s time for the cycle to be broken as the consequences of these disputes are too expensive to be ignored.

Author Photo
George Lauriat
American Journal of Transportation
Editor in Chief