Solidarity Never

I’ve got to admit it. Sometimes I don’t understand the thinking of newspaper columnists at all. Here’s the working man’s victory that Harold Meyerson is lauding in his column today:

Unraveling the mystery of longshoremen’s pay, however, goes a long way toward explaining the U.S. economy and its possible futures. The four reasons dockworkers make what they do are, first, there are so few of them; second, they’re highly skilled and productive; third, their work can’t be relocated; and, fourth, they’ve had powerful unions.

In the 1950s — the time of the film “On the Waterfront” — 35,000 longshoremen were employed at the Port of New York and New Jersey. Today, there are just 3,500, loading and unloading much more tonnage than their more numerous predecessors did. The difference, of course, is that beginning in the ’60s, cargo has been shipped in massive containers that are placed on trucks or railcars. The longshoreman’s job has changed from hoisting much smaller loads with slings to running the giant cranes that move the containers between ship and shore.

The current task requires radically fewer, though better-trained, workers than the old process did.

So, let’s summarize. Doing the job on a “lights out” basis would be prohibitively expensive. The job can’t be moved overseas. It can’t be moved to Kansas or Tennessee. The union, with plenty of cards in its hand, succeeded in increasing wages to about twice the median wage with a 90% reduction in force. How many victories like that can American workers deal with?

I also don’t see how you can condemn an “I’ll be gone; you’ll be gone” strategy in finance when you’re advocating it for longshoremen. But that’s a topic for another post.

6 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    For completely unrelated reasons I was curious a few months ago about how much cargo the Port of New York and New Jersey handle in comparison with other ports. Wikipedia seems to indicate none, if any:

    I must be missing something, but in any event the vast bulk of cargo is going through Louisiana, Texas (weak union states) and Long Beach. Is New York particularly relevant anymore?

  • PD Shaw Link

    Since Wikipedia says the Port of New York and New Jersey is “by tonnage the third largest in the United States and the busiest on the East Coast,” perhaps the answer is that cargo is not unloaded there anymore, but “processed” for disembarking elsewhere. Paperwork?

  • PD Shaw Link

    Nevermind, this shows the Port of NY & NJ as being the third largest. The Wikipedia entry was either in error or something was off about 2004.

    It does show that non-union states predominate in shipping. New York and Long Beach are important, but outliers.

  • My main point is that the longshoremen have made the same choice as the UAW members: higher pay for the few remaining union members. That doesn’t sound much like a model worth emulating to me.

  • My main point is that the longshoremen have made the same choice as the UAW members: higher pay for the few remaining union members. That doesn’t sound much like a model worth emulating to me.

    Uhhmmm, no.

  • PD Shaw Link

    Sorry to disrupt the point, but I would probably go further. There is only a limited amount of work that necessarily needs to occur at the docks. Loading, warehousing and unloading demand a lot of space in limited coastal property, particularly in areas where property values has competing uses. My understanding is that the domain of the longshoremen in NYC has been gentrified. Containerization means some of the loading and unloading can happen before (consolidation in Puerto Rico for instance) or after (break-downs in Memphis, TN), and what little warehousing is needed is short-term and doesn’t result in liability/insurance concerns because nothing is really happening at the point of entry. So, despite the columnist’s assurance that the work cannot go elsewhere, it did go elsewhere; the longshoremen’s job didn’t become more sophisticated, it shrunk. “Powerful labor unions” were not able to stop this. I’m not sure that slashing their wages/benefits would have stopped it as long as ports like NY/NJ and Long Beach do not have land to reasonably expand into.

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