By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
"You never catch up," he tells me. "I had several ships en route from China, which is normally a four-week cycle — two weeks to get here and two to go back. But that 10-day backlog means it's now taking three to four days to unload a ship instead of the usual two. You plan for a hot item like the radio cars, but they won't get here in time for Christmas." Woo estimates he'll lose 20 percent of his Christmas-season sales, which account for half of his company's yearly earnings.
There was never any doubt that President Bush would invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, which forced open the ports just long enough to prevent a Christmas-season wipeout. The administration, which regards the prerogatives of big business as unassailable droits des seigneurs, had regularly consulted with PMA executives during the talks while threatening to militarize the docks in the name of national security if the ILWU didn't sign a contract. There were also some not very subtle hints that the White House might look into placing the ILWU under the same no-strike status as railway workers, and declare "monopolistic" the ILWU's rule of binding all ports under a single contract.
Public impressions of the lockout were predictably shaped by TV news, which eagerly played the toy card by hammering home the idea that the closure would deprive children of their Christmas presents. By counterposing images of ILWU pickets with those of toy stores, TV news also implied the shutdown was the doing of union Grinches; it wasn't unusual for news readers to erroneously call the lockout a "strike." Dire predictions about the impact of the shutdown on the recovery of the national economy had pegged lockout costs at $1 billion per day, a figure that then miraculously leaped to $2 billion — only to be considerably knocked down when the lockout's toll was eventually tallied up.
The eternal law of labor PR was in effect: Workers are the ones who must seek raises, and so they're the ones tarred as tippers of the economic apple cart — all big business wants to do is make sure kids get their Christmas toys. No mention was made that wages account for only 1 percent of the PMA companies' operating costs, or that only one shipping line is now American-owned and that the White House is essentially acting as a bouncer for foreign interests. Or that fully 37 percent of the longshore work force are casuals to whom the PMA gives no benefits. And, certainly, no one reminded TV audiences that the $100,000-plus annual longshore salaries constantly quoted on-air represented the highest-paid workers.
The union, however, was almost willfully unsavvy about press relations and the need to shape the opinion of a public that smiles upon multimillion-dollar salaries for athletes and movie stars, but vexes over blue-collar workers earning more than $50,000 a year. The union could have said, "The next time you want someone to unload your new Honda, ask Shaq or Harrison Ford to go down to the harbor and get it for you," or pointed out that most other Americans could be making the same pay as longshore workers if they had enough guts to organize. Instead, the ILWU let the PMA use the media as its speakerphones.
Public support for ILWU locals 13 and 63, however, was visible all over San Pedro, where pro-union placards filled many store windows. Nick Tsouloufas, who owns Big Nick's Pizza, is typical of the locals who instinctively helped the longies during the lockout. The son of a Teamster, Tsouloufas was driving home during the shutdown's first hours when he noticed ILWU pickets outside the gates of the massive new Maersk facility at Pier 400.
"I hadn't heard anything on the radio about a lockout," he says, "but it was 11 o'clock and cold, so I brought over pizza and hot drinks to the guys. I'm from a family of union members, and longshoremen and unions have always supported my family's restaurants in Long Beach. I felt like giving something back, and food always makes people feel good."
SINCE ITS FOUNDING IN 1937, THE ILWU HAS REmained the most militant and class-conscious of America's big unions — virtually alone among the left-wing CIO unions of the 1930s, the ILWU emerged from the Cold War with its leadership and democratic principles intact. But it's a union enamored with its own muscular mythology and traditions in an age when the shipping industry is being transformed at a blurry velocity by robotics and computerization.
Before the two sides reached an understanding on the issue on November 1, the biggest sticking point in the contract talks had been the PMA's insistence on introducing new technologies to plan the loading of cargo and to track its progress from port to port. When export cargo comes in a terminal gate by truck or rail, it is transferred to different ships. A ship planner pulls up a stow plan of a vessel that is color-coded by port of discharge. The planner then prints out a bay plan which is distributed by clerks to the laborers. PMA member companies claim that the relative absence of computerized cargo-management systems, along with the use of optical scanners and other forms of electronic tracking, had caused American ports to fall behind higher-tech harbor facilities like Singapore and Rotterdam.
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