Back to Work

Back to Work

Copyright 2002, Traffic World, Inc.

Eighty days. Dockworkers and management on the West Coast have 80 days to work out a new contract. Shippers and carriers have 80 days to clear out a backlog of freight trapped on docks, in trucking yards, rail yards and in warehouses and on ships.

Damage has already been done by the lockout. Lockout? I'd call it a strike. The dockworkers could have come back to work at any time just by agreeing to a contract extension with what must be the best blue-collar wages and benefits in the world. The union wouldn't agree, most likely because signing an extension would prohibit them from continuing their work slowdown.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union began the slowdown as soon as the last contract extension expired, and by management's measure the dockworkers' productivity fell by more than 50 percent. That means the cost of labor to load and unload ships more than doubled and the dockworkers had the Pacific Maritime Association over a barrel. Double your labor costs, which are already exorbitant, or try to get the union to sign a contract extension. The union clearly forced the lockout and then cried foul and ordered the politicians they own to moan about bosses who refuse to bargain.

The union is fighting the introduction of long-overdue technology to speed cargo handling and make it more efficient. One transportation analyst has noted that a crane at West Coast ports requires four employees - two operators, a signalman and a clerk - while a similar crane in Singapore operates quite well with just one employee. That clerk is paid six figures - a base salary rising to $137,500 a year under the PMA's last contract offer - to write down container numbers on a clipboard. It is one of the ludicrously overpaid positions to which low-seniority dockworkers, the ones still doing manual labor, aspire.

When the ILWU argued against its members losing jobs to technology, the PMA guaranteed positions for all the members. The union also claims that the increased speed that technology brings would make the docks less safe for workers. That's a valid concern but just the opposite of what was discovered in an analogous situation in the rail industry. The old method of coupling cars involves having an engineer in the locomotive and a second employee guiding him from the ground. With remote control technology, the engineer is able to control the locomotive remotely from a tower. Without a flagman walking among moving trains, safety improved.

The sad thing is that many thousands of people have suffered from the work stoppage but it wasn't the 10,000 or so dockworkers. It was 12,000 West Coast truck drivers who had no cargo to haul. It was American farmers who could not sell huge quantities of rice, wheat, beef, pork, grain, cotton, fruit and nuts, and the thousands of agricultural workers who were laid off. It was the American factories that were running out of components for manufacturing and it was their workers who were to be laid off.

And it was the nation itself, which saw the economy take yet another body blow from the port shutdown. Pro-labor politicians like Sen. Ted Kennedy attacked President Bush as anti-labor and are using his courageous decision to reopen the ports to influence Senate and House elections next month. But President Bush acted in the best interests of the nation to keep the economy alive.

Now there are 80 days for the union and the PMA to come to agreement. The ILWU must accept that technology is here to stay and work with the PMA to minimize its effects on the workers. The PMA must now bargain in good faith and not rescind positive offers it made earlier in negotiations.