ILA Strike Watch 2013: Choke-Holds, Labor and Technology

 In container shipping, exports, ILA Strike, Imports, International Shipping

ILA Strike Watch

I read an article about the threatened ILA Strike and it rang a few bells for me.

Bell #1: The term “choke-hold”.

In an article in the Observer (9/25/12) David Jaffee, a sociologist at the University of North Florida, was quoted explaining the ILA’s economic power thus, “They’re strategically located in the choke-hold position. This is the last stronghold of union power in the U.S., or in the supply chain at least.”[1] Bear with me…

Once I worked at a terrible job. Actually, it wasn’t that terrible; I was just overworked and underpaid. After doing some reconnaissance about the wages being paid to some folks with comparable responsibility in comparable businesses I resolved to advocate for myself and procure a fair wage.

I made an appointment with my employer, determining to discuss the issue and ask for a raise. I decided that if I was refused I would give my 2 weeks notice. It was my first time negotiating with my employer and I was nervous but not as nervous as I might have been because of one fact. I was the ONLY employee at this very small company at this time. I was in a position of power, a great bargaining spot. I was needed and there was no ready replacement for me.

Despite my strong bargaining position – what some might even call a choke-hold – I had legitimate concerns about my wages. Just because someone can command a wage increase doesn’t necessarily mean they are greedy and grasping. I certainly wasn’t. I had been underpaid for months and I wanted fair compensation.

This experience keeps me from jumping to conclusions about the ILA’s proposed strike. Saying they have a “choke-hold” on our economy may be true but it can be a little misleading. Just because they have the power to affect the economy profoundly doesn’t mean they have no legitimate complaints about their financial compensation.

What makes their power so scary is that it doesn’t just affect a company they work for, but the entire U.S. economy with the ability to obstruct the country’s imports and exports. That adds weight to their actions and, if we’ve learned anything from Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, it also adds greater responsibility.

Bell #2: Technology’s toll on jobs.

The potential ILA strike brings up another, bigger issue – the effect of automation on employment. This issue has been raised since the Industrial Revolution, with the invention of the textile mills. Weavers feared the new technology would make their skills obsolete. They asked “Will these new looms cost us our jobs?”. [2]

The answer is more complex than it might seem at first. Certainly those early textile machines displaced some weavers and deprived them of their original occupation. But the argument goes that the increase in production achieved by automation created more new jobs elsewhere simultaneous to displacing weavers making cloth by hand on a loom.

The key is for those displaced workers to retrain, to develop another more relevant skill, in order to take advantage of the jobs created elsewhere by the increase in productivity achieved by automation. When that happens then there can be a net gain in productivity, and thus jobs, brought on by technological innovation. [3]

But this retraining does not always happen in practice and that is what the dockworkers are really struggling with and will struggle with. The future of transport technology is here. There are sophisticated ports like Rotterdam which are fully automated.

The author of the Observer article described this port like this, “a ship-to-shore crane lifting containers onto railroad cars, smaller cranes at the end of the line lofting containers onto stacks. The entire operation seemed to be run by a handful of computer operators in a glass-enclosed tower.”[4]

These fully automated docks are markedly more efficient than ports with less technology and more raw human labor. These ports are cheaper to send your import/export goods to. These ports are even safer to work at. They are the future of transportation technology.

These ports also scare traditional dockworkers because they clearly will displace many of them from their jobs. ILA president Harold Daggett is said to have remarked (upon seeing the fully automated port at Rotterdam with its tower of technological terror) “If I had a hand grenade, I would have threw it up there. It was terrible. I was sick.”[5]

This technology is scary because it will inevitably make many longshoreman jobs obsolete. And the reality is that, while increased productivity will likely create jobs elsewhere to offset this loss, your average dockworker is unlikely to retrain and get the job created by the increased productivity of the new technology. It is more likely that he or she will be let go, set adrift unemployed with a set of archaic skills and few job prospects.

I would be worried too. If the people really want to solve the problem of the longshoreman choke-hold on transportation it starts with acknowledging the job displacement that will inevitably happen.

The answer is to face it, and offer one of two things: retraining to current dockworkers or attractive retirement packages. The next step is to replace those workers with automation. This would ensure the gradual phase-out of longshoremen positions, while not abandoning ILA members to bleak re-employment prospects. Then and only then will the ILA be able to bargain from a place of security, instead of knee-jerk fear over becoming obsolete.

The rest of the ILA/USMX conflict is just bargaining to improve wages, good for workers in the short-term but these things will not change the root of their job security problem.  Only education can really do that.

Perhaps you have insight or thoughts into this problem. If so, comment below. Feel free to comment on any aspect of the strike.

ILA Strike Watch

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