An opportunity missed

An opportunity missed

When I toiled for the Associated Press years ago, I always looked forward to Labor Day. Not because it was a day off, but because it was a good day to work - holidays usually are slow news days, and our union contract paid double-time-and-a-half. I was delighted to swap a holiday for a fatter paycheck.

That attitude is not universally shared, as we saw this month when the International Longshore and Warehouse Union refused to grant a one-time exception to the ILWU contract's ban on Labor Day work. The Pacific Maritime Association had sought the union's help in reducing a monumental backlog at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. It's been taking five to seven days to get a ship in and out, compared with the normal three or four. As many as 30 ships at a time have had to wait for berths.

Concerned that those delays would be aggravated by a Labor Day shutdown, the PMA asked the ILA's Local 13 in Los Angeles-Long Beach to allow longshoremen to work on the holiday for premium pay if they wished to do so.

No way, the ILWU said. The union's position is that Labor Day is a near-sacred holiday, only one notch below Bloody Thursday, the July 5 commemoration of the deaths of two dockworkers during the 1934 strike that led to the formation of the ILWU. The union also said that it didn't cause the ports' current problems, the implication being that it shouldn't have to help fix them.

It's true that there's plenty of blame to go around. Cargo volume topped expectations. Railroads' tight capacity was aggravated by crew retirements. The ILWU says employers moved too slowly to hire more longshoremen.

And the impact of waiving the no-work rule would have been limited. Terminals would have been able to make a dent in their backlog, but railroads said the union's day off may have helped them by giving them time to catch up on their intermodal traffic. ILWU members would have seen little immediate gain - all of the cargo that would have been handled on Labor Day will eventually be handled by ILWU members, in many cases at overtime pay.

Furthermore, the union knows that no matter what happens, geography assures that the ILWU will continue to handle the vast majority of U.S. imports from Asia.

All of that, however, is beside the point. If you have opportunity to help and it's no skin off your back, why not do it?

By refusing to waive its no-work rule, the ILWU missed an opportunity. The union showed who was boss, but it blew a chance to play a small role in solving a big problem - and to win a measure of goodwill by showing critics that it considers itself a part of the industry.

Joseph Bonney is editor of The Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at (973) 848-7139, or via e-mail at jbonney@joc.com.