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.