TCS Daily

State of the Unions

By Stephen W. Stanton - October 14, 2002 12:00 AM

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union released a scathing statement against government intervention in the labor dispute at west coast ports. "The union is angry that the Bush administration gave PMA the gift it blackmailed businesses, farmers and consumers for - the Taft-Hartley injunction." The union represents roughly 10,500 dockworkers that had not unloaded ships for 11 days. The union clearly does not represent the thousands of other workers that breathed a collective sigh of relief when the ports reopened.

The affected ports are vital to American commerce. The shutdown sent ripples through the entire economy. Estimates of the damage range from $1 billion to $2 billion day, perhaps more. A back-of-the envelope calculation reveals that each idle dockworker cost the economy up to $190,000 dollars daily.

The dockworkers are a small but crucial link in the chain of commerce. It takes less than a minute for a crane operator to remove a shipping container from a cargo vessel and get it on the ground. From there, dockworkers route the container to the truck or railcar that will carry the cargo to its eventual destination, perhaps a factory or a warehouse. Once unloaded, the empty container is hauled to a facility with more goods to ship. A single shipping cycle can take weeks or even months. The few minutes a dockworker spends on each shipping container represents a small fraction of the total shipping labor. In contrast, a trucker may haul the same container for hours, or even days. When ports close, it affects a few dockworkers, but many more rail workers, truckers, and warehouse personnel. During the lockouts, these other individuals are out of work.

Moreover, it is easy to forget that many workers rely on what is inside the containers, such as parts needed for manufacturing. Without access to key parts during the lockout, Pontiac and Toyota assembly lines were shut down. The lockout affects more than manufacturers. The Washington apple growers are unable to export their produce to foreign markets, harming the many orchard workers.

Clearly, the port shutdown affects far more than the ten thousand dockworkers. By invoking Taft-Hartley, the administration protected the jobs of thousands of other workers, many of whom are unionized. The intervention is far from the "tragedy with historic ramifications'' described by AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka. In fact, thousands of auto workers, apple pickers, truckers, and rail workers are overjoyed that the ports reopened. The dispute among port labor and management had cost these other workers their jobs. Presidential action got them back to work.

This column is not intended to take sides in the labor dispute. Rather, it simply suggests that many workers outside the dispute rely on ports and want to keep them open. Most of these other workers make far less than the average full-time Longshore worker's $106,883 a year, according to the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA). If Bush had not pressured the dockworkers to return to their jobs, the other workers of America would have.

Taft-Hartley does not end the labor negotiations. It only keeps workers on the job while they are at the bargaining table. Union leaders should be relieved that Taft-Hartley lets them return to work without showing weakness. If the lockout continued, the dockworkers may have found themselves attacked by other unions.

The port closings cost the economy up to $2 billion a day. Each dockworker worker cost the economy more than a year's salary for every day he sat idle. If every American citizen shared this burden equally, the lockouts would have cost each of us $7 a day. However, this burden has disproportionately fallen on the truckers, farm workers, rail workers, and factory employees that could not do their jobs without shipping containers and the goods inside them. With their livelihoods threatened, these workers would have spoken out against the hardball tactics in the port dispute and demanded a reopening.

If President Bush really wanted to bust the unions, he would have just let them fight among themselves. This intervention was about the economy.



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