Crazy but not stupid

Crazy but not stupid

A few blocks from the JoC offices in beautiful downtown Newark, city officials are preparing to blow $200 million in public money on an arena for pro basketball and hockey teams. Nothing unusual there, I thought as I skimmed a newspaper account of the deal. Near-bankrupt cities everywhere seem able to find money to give to sports franchises.

What caught my eye was a remark from a civic booster who said the proposed pleasure dome would transform Newark into a "boom town."

Wow! I said to myself. I want to meet this guy - I have a bridge I'd like to sell him.

That same bridge is available, at a good price, to anyone who believes Congress is ready to vote to place the International Longshore and Warehouse Union under the Railway Labor Act or some other law specifically aimed at dockworker unions.

In this space a couple of weeks ago, I suggested that as international trade expands, U.S. laws may eventually be changed to reflect the view that port work stoppages are too disruptive to be allowed. But I was talking about decades to come, not now.

Some people want action immediately. The stalemate between the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association has led retailers and others to float the idea of asking Congress to crack down on the ILWU, possibly by putting longshoremen under the Labor Act.

Applying the Railway Labor Act to the waterfront might be a good idea. The act was passed in 1926 to ensure railroad workers' rights to collective bargaining while protecting the nation from strikes in an essential industry. It contains dispute-settlement and arbitration procedures that prevent extended strikes. But any notion that Congress is ready to extend the law to the ILWU is wishful thinking.

At first glance, the ILWU seems vulnerable to action by Congress. It's not the most popular union, even am-ong its comrades in the AFL-CIO. The Machinists, Operating Engineers and Seafarers take exception to the ILWU's belief that everyone working in or near a West Coast port should hold an ILWU membership card.

Outside organized labor, the ILWU also has enemies. The union's repeated work stoppages and slowdowns, often over frivolous or extraneous issues, have hurt importers, carriers, terminal operators and port truckers (which reminds me, we haven't heard much lately about the ILWU-supported efforts to unionize port truckers).

But while the port disruptions have forced cutbacks by scattered manufacturers and threaten to disrupt retailers' make-or-break holiday season, there's no groundswell of public support for anti-ILWU legislation. Most factories are still operating normally. Though retailers are sweating over holiday shipments, Sunday newspapers are filled with inventory-clearance advertisements. Since the ports reopened on Oct.6, most news media have lost interest in the story. Except for directly affected businesses and industries, the general public isn't talking about it.

The ILWU deserves to be taken down a peg, but it's easier to kill a bill in Congress than to pass one. And al-though labor unions don't have the clout they used to have, they still have more than enough to defeat any legislation aimed at the ILWU.

Bill Mongelluzzo's article on page 16 notes that in a recent conference call with shippers, Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO's secretary treasurer, and ILWU President James Spinosa served notice that labor would fight any anti-ILWU initiative in Congress.

I suspect that after Trumka and Spinosa finished their conference call with shippers, the AFL-CIO official turned to his ILWU colleague and said, "Listen, Jim. I went to bat for you today, so you clowns better not make my job more difficult by letting this West Coast mess get out of hand."

The only thing that would galvanize Congress into action beyond possibly extending the cooling-off period under the Taft-Hartley Act would be a strike - a long strike - after the back-to-work injunction expires Dec. 27. If the ILWU becomes a conversation topic in bars and barbershops across America, Congress will pay attention.

That's unlikely. Since the docks reopened Oct. 8, the ILWU has walked a fine line. Union members have worked just fast enough to avoid contempt citations but just slowly enough to keep cargo backed up. Look for contract negotiations to be handled the same way. The ILWU will push for as much as it thinks it can get, and maybe a little more, but it won't press its luck. To quote a punchline from an old joke, these guys may be crazy, but they're not stupid.

Joseph Bonney is deputy editor of The Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at (973) 848-7139, or via

e-mail at jbonney@joc.com.