THIS IS NOT THE TIME FOR A STRIKE. It could be argued that there is no good time for a strike.

But the strike by the International Longshoremen's Association, which went into effect at North Atlantic ports at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, finds the shipping industry particularly vulnerable. Few, if any, ship operators calling at the ports of New York/New Jersey, Boston, Providence, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Hampton Roads - the ports being struck by the ILA - would have made money this year even without a strike. Given a strike of some duration, there are a few ship companies that may never call at these North Atlantic ports again. The companies could go broke or might decide that ports south of Hampton Roads are less vulnerable.The real problem is that the strike is nobody's fault. It's everybody's fault. What is taking place in the ocean shipping industry is a disintegration of control by labor, in particular, and also by carrier and port management. The growth of intermodalism has combined with depressed economic conditions to create a more freewheeling, free enterprise industry. Something we always wanted, right? Yes, but in the interim a lot of economic dislocation can take place. And no one wants that.

The lack of control within labor is evident. In the past, ILA President Thomas W. Gleason would never have permitted ILA members to continue working at South Atlantic and Gulf ports while North Atlantic ports were being struck by the ILA. Even without intermodalism, the ability of carriers to divert their ships to other ports made it imperative that the ILA lock up as many ports as possible to put sufficient pressure on management. But depressed conditions and the resulting competition from the Teamsters and non-union longshoremen have forced ILA locals in the South and Gulf to cut their own separate deal, permitting two-tier pay - $17 an hour for longshoremen working containerships and $14 an hour the first two years and $14.50 the third year for longshoremen working non-container and bulk cargoes. Locals atNorth Atlantic ports won't go along with the two-tier agreement; hence the strike.

Management, for its part, is just as divided. Operators representing the New York and Boston ports have agreed to go along with the ILA. But the other ports, represented by the Council of North Atlantic Shipping Associations, want the two-tier payment contract.

An intermodal infrastructure is fairly well in place. Containers destined for North Atlantic ports can, with minimum cost, be trucked or railed from other ports (including Canadian ports). This has added a whole new dimension.

Neither ports, carriers nor labor have much control over that.

By the way, whatever happened to Mr. Gleason's pledge for a 60-day notice prior to calling for a strike?

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