Big Harold vs. The Nut

As the old saying goes, “Time flies when you’re having fun.” Somehow, TPM 2012 has come and gone, with record attendance and, from all indications, a very satisfied group of conference attendees. Your dedicated, committed program committee already has begun the conversation about TPM 2013, and we know the bar again has been raised.

Beyond my participation as part of the program committee and panel moderator, TPM for me is a highly anticipated, very personal event each year. As the later stage of my career approaches, I increasingly look forward to the opportunity to meet with the friends and colleagues that have become part of my collective experience over the past 40-plus years. Being part of the process has enhanced my annual TPM experience. I hope many of you share this feeling, each in your own way.

Initial returns indicate a high level of satisfaction with this year’s event. Needless to say, perfection is a goal that may always be slightly out of reach, but we try to make improvements to the program, the venue logistics and the overall feel of TPM each year. Your comments are always appreciated, so please send them along.

I received many comments regarding a short, intense and high-profile conversation I had with Harold Daggett, president of the International Longshoremen’s Association. I had never met Big Harold — I got his permission to call him Big Harold — before the East Coast Labor panel, but he certainly lived up to his reputation. I suppose it would be useless to pretend I was surprised by his reaction to my question — “Can you tell those people with the cargo who today bring it to the East Coast that they really don’t have anything to worry about?” — but it also would be wrong to think I asked the question in order to provoke a response.

During his comments in his presentation and his responses during the Q&A, Daggett adopted an aggressive posture toward the ILA’s upcoming negotiations with the employers, and I posed my question in order to try to get some clarification. His comments indicated he didn’t feel there was any reason for concern regarding the outcome of the negotiations, at least from the employers. He didn’t speak to the concerns that might worry the ultimate constituents of these negotiations: not the few dozen shipping lines, but rather the thousands of shippers who will be most impacted by any labor disruption at East and Gulf Coast ports that could result from failed negotiations.

Many of those in the room, it seemed to me, were very concerned about how a failed negotiation would affect their businesses, especially during whatever kind of peak season we may have this year, a year of improving business conditions. Any closure of East and Gulf Coast ports could destroy this tentative improvement.

I’m not anti-union. The process of collective bargaining isn’t much different from the negotiations for a service contract between a shipper and a shipping line, or between a professional athlete and his or her team, or even you when you have that dreaded conversation with your management. Each side wants something, typically more than they had before the negotiations began.

Aggressive behavior can be part of this process, but it’s not the only part. Certainty of your position is important, but the other side feels the same. One thing is for sure: Threats don’t work well. You may get what you want, but when the Law of Unintended Consequences kicks in, and it will, your victory may turn into the Pyrrhic variety.

Extreme positions also have a tendency to work against the proposer, setting up a sense of mistrust with their interlocutor: Would anyone have been surprised if it had been suggested to reinstate the 50-mile rule along with turning back the clock on automation? But Harold’s job is to get the best deal he can for his members, just as shippers want the best deal they can get from their carriers. The problem was the threatening words and unyielding positions.

Now, Big Harold called me a nut — he didn’t ask for permission — but compared to other adjectives he could have used, “nut” seemed pretty mild. Most importantly, I think my point was made. A potentially major problem is brewing at our East and Gulf Coast ports. We’d all prefer to take Daggett at his word and set our worries aside, but he didn’t throw out that lifeline when he had the opportunity.

So I take seriously those conference attendees who indicated they would return to their offices and begin the process of changing at least some routings away from East Coast port discharge later this year. This may be premature, but the ball is now in the ILA’s court. I hope it can hit it straight.

Barry Horowitz is the principal of CMS Consulting Services. Contact him at 503-208-2232 or at barryh@cms-cs.com.

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