Monday, September 19, 2011

Tough Guys

The disturbances and arrests in Longview, Washington following the International Longshore and Warehouse Union raid on the new grain export facility there need some historical context.  The company that built the facility chose the Operating Engineers union for the jobs at their site, but has been unable to ship grain because of continued actions by the ILWU.  A federal judge has approved a restraining order at the request of the National Labor Relations Board, but the union has defied it.
Huffington Post Labor Writer David Macarey has the assault on the terminal by 500 baseball bat-carrying ILWU members as “breathing new life into the labor movement.”  He goes on to say that the attack, which featured windows being broken, people dragged out of their cars, tons of grain dumped and rail cars damaged, all of which resulted in 19 arrests, as “It's American, it’s patriotic, it’s grassroots.”  Later, longshoremen shut down the ports of Seattle and Tacoma.
The context needed here is not the adrenal rush of a head-busting, unlawful labor action, but the changes in the industry threatening our region and whether we can compete using the Ice Age tactics demonstrated in Longview combined with the middling productivity on our Seattle docks. 

The ILWU gained its control of the west coast waterfront after the 1934 dock strike in San Francisco .  It still maintains control over the terminals, though it lost a big piece of the marine economy when the Teamsters out-maneuvered them when container technology first swept through the industry in the 1970s. 

Leading up to the 1934 strike, today’s ILWU was the West Coast branch of the International Longshoreman’s Association.   The San Francisco local wanted more than money.  Its members wanted to control their destiny and get rid of the humiliating and corrupting "shapeup" that started each day, when the companies walked through crowds of men on the end of the pier and chose who they wanted.  "You."  "You."  "You."  
San Francisco Library Collection
On Bloody Thursday, July 5, 1934, the police charged 2,000 strikers at Pier 38 on San Francisco's Embarcadero.  Many were beaten, two were shot dead.  But the violence of the police helped the union win the day, the strike and control of west coast waterfronts.  They capped it all off with a four day general strike, the first since Seattle in 1919.  Three years after the strike, the ILWU split off from the ILA and Harry Bridges, their controversial leader, became the union's president.  To this day, longshoreman do not work on July 5.

The ILWU was at its zenith and the dockworkers acted like they owned the waterfront.  There were many days when a lot of people on the dock appeared to be doing very little.  Herb Mills, an ILWU member who worked in the 1930s San Francisco waterfront, describes a pretty cushy system.

San Francisco Library Collection
“Eight-men crews were the norm, even though most situations didn't need more than two or four men at a time, so the work crews developed the 4-on, 4-off system, wherein at any given moment during the workday, four men would be sitting around drinking coffee and playing cards while the other four actually worked.”

Shipping technology would soon interrupt this happy scene.  The intermodal shipping container was coming and its arrival would change the basics of the waterfront.
The old break bulk system of handling one piece of cargo at a time, from the hold of a ship, to a rope sling carrying just over a ton, to yet another individual transfer on the ground was replaced by a container crane operator and a truck driver moving 20 foot by 8 foot containers carrying 25 tons in one move.  Bar codes and scanners replaced clipboards and paper.  Then the boxes got to be 40 feet, then fifty feet and the ships carrying them also got bigger and bigger.
All of this picked away at the control of the docks the union had after the 1934 strike.  The union agreed to steady-men, well-trained people who were union, but essentially reported to the company, not the hiring hall.  In exchange for an early retirement bonus to its older members, the union allowed the use of B members, part timers who had a lesser say in union affairs and only part time work.
And there was the fundamental question of who would put the goods into the containers and who would take them out?  More and more it was the Teamsters doing that.  The intermodal nature of the containers allowed cargo to be driven off the docks to warehouses elsewhere, out of the jurisdiction of the ILWU. 
The tensions grew and in 1971-72, the Longshoremen struck again, the longest strike in its history, 134 days.  This was a strike the union would lose.  It had no strike fund and relied on the military shipping to Vietnam as a way of getting its members some money.  The union had allowed British Columbia dockworkers to have a separate contract and Canada provided an option for shippers.  The Teamsters were not letting their container stuffing jobs go away and, larger and more politically capable, protected their work. 

I did a documentary about the container at that time and a longshoreman I interviewed summed it up this way:
“We used to be big.  Now we got nuthin.”
The longshoreman who work in Seattle today have far more than nuthin.  They make good money and have excellent benefits.  The average Seattle longshoreman earned $44.05/hour and earned $107,000 in 2010.  And, unlike a lot of workers, their salaries have risen, not stagnated.  Salaries are up13%, up from $38.49/hour, in 2005.  And, as they've demonstrated in Longview, their willingness to be tough guys and defy the law still makes them formidable on the docks. 
However, they are focused on the wrong foe.  Many of those Seattle salaries and a great deal of public investment are at risk by a new world order that is coming in the shipping industry. 

Most of the containers arriving on Seattle docks are bound elsewhere to bigger consumer markets.  Seattle is mostly the modal interface from ship to truck or train.  The widening of the Panama Canal in 2014 will double its capacity and further work will triple the canal's capacity by 2025.  This means that ships from Asia can bypass Puget Sound and have an efficient all-water route to big markets on the east coast. 

The size and cost of these vessels require fast turnaround times and so, along with the super ships come super cranes.  The new cranes will increase the number of containers off-loaded each hour to substantially higher levels than the Port of Seattle's middle-of-the-scale container productivity.  In Korea, containers are off-loaded remotely by operators using joysticks in air-conditioned offices, proving the point that if you can take out an individual terrorist by a remote controlled drone, you can very likely handle a metal box on a ship that way. 

The industry looks at the west coast US ports differently than it did at the beginning of the container revolution.  There is a substantial ocean option through the recharged canal and a capable competitor to the north.  With higher productivity and significant new investments, Vancouver, British Columbia has become a significant threat to those high paying jobs and public investments on our side of the border.  It has gone from a backwater port to a front line competitor because it knows what it wants.
All of these pressures and others face the longshoremen and the public infrastructure on which they work.  They pose a much greater threat to their jobs than the choice of which union to use at a brand new grain terminal in Longview, Washington.

Video of 1934 Strike
Early Days of ILWU in San Francisco
Longshoreman comments to media (watch out, full of profanity)

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