ILA Strike Watch 2012: Does the ILA Need Public Relations Help?

 In export, ILA Strike, import, International Shipping

ILA Strike Watch 2012

The possible ILA strike has brought some interesting issues to the surface: union vs. big business, innovation vs. job security, and ethical responsibility in the midst of economic crisis.  A strike would certainly cause problems for the international shipping industry, at the very least for those who import or export through the US east coast. As I have researched the ILA conflict, there seems to be a subtle bias against the dockworkers union. Yet one has to wonder if the ILA really is the “problem” in this conflict.

News articles and industry blogs seem to present the ILA as being stubborn, backwards, and selfish. It appears that the union simultaneously provides members with inflated wages and protects otherwise obsolete jobs from the threat of automation. Port operators come off as being reasonable, merely requesting long over-due changes such as reducing excessive over-time pay and making alterations to inefficient and expensive work practices.

This all seemed so reasonable I found myself thinking, “Yeah, why do they get paid so much?” But after ruminating on the potential strike, I began to recall the history of unionization in the US and questioned my initial buy-in to the selfish, un-progressive union member stereotype.

Working on the docks of ports, handling the import and export cargo loading an unloading is demanding and can even be dangerous work.

labor union historyHistorically, unions were formed to prevent workers from being exploited through unfair wages, exhausting work schedules, and dangerous working conditions. Historically, it was the employees who needed protecting from their powerful employers, and the way they achieved this was by collective bargaining, i.e. unionization.  Historically, it has been employers who have usually needed to be curbed, whether through federal intervention or assertive organized labor.

Is that need of protecting the employees from the employers (at least in the international shipping industry’s ports) history?

I find in the current case of the ILA workers, the roles seem reversed with the union apparently taking advantage of their power to strike to refuse to make much needed changes.

Genuine abuses of power cannot be condoned, but the power almost always resides in the employer and not in employees – that is why unions exist, to level the playing field. It is the workers who are usually the more vulnerable party. The push and pull of business dictates that corporations will always try to increase their profit margins and that workers will always seek better wages. Yet in my own experience, it is the employee who makes the most sacrifices. Your average employee will take a pay cut and stay at their job because lower wages are better than being unemployed.

I don’t know which is truly the case with the ILA/USMX conflict. I don’t know whether the proposed changes to workers’ pay, etc. are fair or if the union really is abusing their collective power to demand unsustainable wages and job security.

Statements by USMX representatives have articulated the specific problems with the current system and made solid arguments justifying the proposed changes.  They claim that they are being driven out of business by the current system. I find their platform convincing, despite a general sympathy drawn from organized labor.

In response to the proposed changes, the ILA has asserted that the current policies are non-negotiable and that even suggesting these changes is unprecedented and inappropriate.  I have yet to read any specific defense of the current contract conditions by an ILA representative. They come off very weak by arguing that the changes are unprecedented. [1] That is, in fact, exactly what the USMX is claiming, that these practices have crept in over the years, have never been addressed, and need badly to be updated in order for their ports to remain competitive.

On top of this, ILA president Harold Dagget doesn’t come off that well on the ILA website. It seems almost as though he is against technology, fighting automation to protect jobs that technology would otherwise eliminate. Of course, protecting ILA jobs is exactly what he was elected to do. We can hardly be surprised if he does so tenaciously. Who wants to go the way of the US auto industry?

The weakest part of the debate within the media is how Dagget and other ILA reps have not defended themselves against the accusations of unfair and archaic practices. I want to believe that the ILA members are hardworking men and women who earn every penny of their wages and are willing to negotiate the delicate balance of technological advances while looking out for their long term job security. But there is nothing on the web to show that this is the case. The ILA webpage contains vague protestations of outrage but doesn’t even address the issues specifically, let alone intelligently.

In short, there are a lot of unanswered questions about what would be a fair and reasonable agenda for negotiations. But the longer the ILA acts as if they don’t need to address the criticisms raised by USMX, the more likely it seems those critiques are accurate.

I sincerely hope they aren’t, but Daggett and other ILA reps would do well to not just claim they are being mistreated by USMX and maligned by the media, but to use the media to articulate their own agenda. The longer they refrain from doing so the stronger the impression that their wages and work practices can’t be justified and that their detractors are right to demand changes.

Perhaps they need a good PR person.

What are your thoughts on the ILA/USMX conflict and possible strike? Leave a comment below.

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