Commentary: Compromise Needed to Ease Port Labor Pains

Commentary: Compromise Needed to Ease Port Labor Pains

Q: I’ve been reading about problems in negotiations between East and Gulf Coast port operators and the International Longshoremen’s Association.

It appears management is mad at the ILA for demanding job security. They’re accusing the union of refusing to “bargain in good faith” just because it’s made that demand.

To me, this doesn’t make sense, especially in today’s economic climate. We have high unemployment, and people are scrambling to get jobs, any job. Why is it so wrong for a union to try to protect its members against having to join the ranks of the unemployed without good reason? Isn’t the union just doing its job?

It seems to me this is just another illustration of the anti-union bias showing up more and more in business and politics. Don’t you agree? Or are you still another union-basher?

A: No to both of your two questions. I don’t agree with you, but neither am I a “union-basher.”

Indeed, I’m something of a fan of labor unions. They’re a much-needed counterpoise in the eternal conflict between workers and bosses, and when they do their job right, they serve that purpose. Protection of the members quite certainly is a big part of that job.

There is, however, a major difference between a legitimate job and a boondoggle, which is where the ILA conflict has arisen. Perhaps it’s merely a matter of semantics, with the two sides not in actual disagreement, but both parties are digging themselves negotiating holes with far too much public rhetoric.

Start from management’s perspective. A good manager does indeed owe a duty to those who work under him or her, including job preservation. But the manager also owes a duty to those who own the operation and whose money’s being spent, be they public stockholders or private entrepreneurs, and on occasion these two duties can come into conflict.

It’s expensive to hire employees — not only for the wages but also the benefits, the hiring costs, etc. I’m not begrudging workers any of these things; the United States is founded on the principle of “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work,” and that should prevail on the docks as anywhere.

So I’m not in favor of trying to cut costs by the old union-busting tactic of laying off skilled workers and replacing them with cheaper unskilled labor — “scabs,” as the unions call them. But cost-cutting is, of course, part of the manager’s obligation to its ownership, so suppose this can be done by eliminating the need for some jobs altogether?

This is what automation’s all about. You spend money on machinery so you don’t need so many worker bees buzzing around doing things that can be done less expensively. Yes, it eliminates jobs at the operating end; but it creates them elsewhere (somebody has to make those machines), so there’s some evening out economy-wide.

Of course, a union such as the ILA is a lot less concerned with the economy as a whole than with its own narrow segment of that economy. It sees jobs being phased out of its little sector and couldn’t care less about other jobs being created somewhere else. To it, therefore, automation is anathema and to be fought against vigorously.

That’s what’s going on. As management sees it, the ILA is demanding, not job security, but paycheck security. It wants its members to continue drawing pay (and hence paying union dues) even if there’s no longer any work for them to do for that pay. And it’s supposedly saying the issue is non-negotiable, that it won’t even start bargaining unless management agrees up front to that demand.

Now, I’m not sure the union is really so obdurate as news reports make it out to be. I mean, it must recognize that it would be doing its members no real favor. Sure, it’s nice to get paid for doing nothing, but you sure can’t take much pride in your “work,” can you? Long-term, wouldn’t you be better off moving on to something more productive? If the ILA is really demanding such “featherbedding” for its ranks, it’s backing a horse that loses for everybody.

I expect, though, the two sides will sit down for serious talks once the hot air stops getting media coverage. The union can’t reasonably hope for a sudden end of progress; management can’t cram in automation so fast that it decimates the labor force overnight. One can hope they’ll reach some accommodation between those extremes.

Consultant, author and educator Colin Barrett is president of Barrett Transportation Consultants. Send your questions to him at 5201 Whippoorwill Lane, Johns Island, S.C. 29455; phone, 843-559-1277; e-mail, BarrettTrn@aol.com. Contact him to order the most recent 351-page compiled edition of past Q&A columns, published in 2010.