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A Union on the Line | The Nation

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A Union on the Line

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Meanwhile, some of the economic issues in negotiations, such as healthcare coverage, were settled after the union refused to continue extending the old contract. But that left the most contentious issue outstanding--the introduction of automation. For those familiar with waterfront history, the impending collision was reminiscent of the last dock strike, in 1971. That marked the end of one era of great technological change, when container cranes revolutionized shipping, reducing the number of West Coast longshore jobs from more than 100,000 to the present 10,500.

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David Bacon
David Bacon is author of Illegal People—How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants, and the...

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Today dockworkers look with trepidation at the beginning of another era. Decades from now, the waterfront will be largely automated. Workers in front of computer screens, often hundreds of miles away from the docks, will control the movement of cargo on and off ships. Ports like Singapore and Rotterdam already have this new technology, and the world's shipping companies want to introduce the same system on the Pacific Coast.

Wages and benefits are not the main issue. The hourly rate for longshore workers ranges from $27.68 to $33.48--about the same as a plumber or electrician. Employers paid $32,320 per worker for benefits in 2002, about $16 per hour. Most California longshore workers are African-American or Latino, and longshore jobs have become the economic backbone in many communities of color. While these are good wages in terms of the US industrial average, the shipping companies are not claiming poverty in negotiations, and in general are making large profits.

What the companies would like, however, is to keep certain workers out of the union--the vessel planners who tell the cranes where to put every shipping container, the clerical workers who help track container movement and the drivers who haul containers in and out of the ports. In many ports, workers in these categories have already joined the ILWU, or tried to, attracted by its wage rates. The union wants to include them in all ports, to make up for the potential loss of jobs among the clerks who currently track cargo manually. PMA negotiators have said no. For the union, this is an issue of its own survival.

"As work changes, some jobs disappear, while others increase," explains ILWU spokesman Steve Stallone. "Right now our jobs are the ones disappearing. When the companies say they don't want our members doing these new jobs, it's like saying they want the union to disappear too."

In the 1960s the PMA reached a historic agreement on the same issue with the ILWU's most charismatic leader, Harry Bridges. The union accepted the introduction of the giant container cranes and their accompanying technology, in place of the old cargo net and hook. The change cost thousands of jobs, but the shipping companies agreed that union members would do the new jobs technology created.

The PMA now wants to abandon that agreement, which has held for more than three decades. In July the union proposed a basic framework in which it would not object to introducing automatic readers and other devices at terminal gates, permitting companies to track containers without the labor of clerks who now do that job on paper, putting their data into computers. In return, the union asked for jurisdiction over the new jobs created by more-automated ports. According to the ILWU's Spinosa, "The union has told the employers over and over again, 'We will meet you in the middle, we will allow for free flow of information, we will allow for technology to move forward, providing that you meet us halfway on the jobs that are left to be done in this industry.'"

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