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Ripple Effect of Dockworkers' Strike Could Turn Into Tsunami

Globalization makes a world of difference in port labor disputes.

October 08, 2002|DAVID HELVARG | David Helvarg, the author of "Blue Frontier: Saving America's Living Seas" (Henry Holt paperback, 2002), is also a commentator for the public radio program "Marketplace."

In 1999, the longshore union shut down West Coast ports for a day in solidarity with anti-globalization protesters at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. Now, with the owners locking out the dockworkers, globalization may give the workers an advantage that has frightening implications beyond the labor-management bargaining table.

Harry Bridges has to be laughing in his grave.

Bridges was the fiery Aussie organizer who, through pickets, deadly street battles and a San Francisco-Oakland general strike, won recognition in 1934 for what became the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. One of his lawyers once said, "There are eight bridges in San Francisco, and the one you don't want to cross is Harry."

But Bridges was pragmatic enough to recognize change when he saw it.

Rather than fight the shipping-container revolution that began in 1956, he cut deals that took the reduced need for stevedore labor into account.

Through the 1960s, 1970s and beyond, older ILWU members were allowed to retire with their benefits intact while the union retained control of the dockside cranes, forklifts and trucks that continue to move the boxes.

Now the shipping industry is trying to squeeze the union to make additional job concessions. But the dockworkers no longer need painful months-long strikes and confrontations to show their power.

More than 1 billion tons a year--97% of trade goods not under the North American Free Trade Agreement--come through our ports in huge container ships that need to be offloaded immediately.

With the globalized demand for bigger, faster, cheaper delivery, many warehouse operations have been replaced with a "just in time" delivery system. This means everything from Chinese toys for Wal-Mart to car parts for General Motors is supposed to cross oceans and docks and be with the end user just as the old parts run out. It's like that "I Love Lucy" episode with the assembly-line chocolates, only on a planetary scale.

Significant parts of the U.S. economy could grind to a halt if the shutdown continues.

The shipping industry may be hoping for intervention from the Bush administration to force the union to agree to its terms. But if the dockworkers say no, free-market thinkers from the Heritage Foundation or the Competitive Enterprise Institute won't be climbing the cranes to offload the ships.

Unfortunately, with global shipping imports expected to double by 2020, the vulnerability of this endless conveyer belt of consumption doesn't end at the picket line anymore.

I've recently been on the docks with members of the Coast Guard and Customs Service who are rightly worried that the sheer scale of our appetite for stuff--bottled water from Italy and France, for example, or nails from Korea and Saudi Arabia--could overwhelm their best efforts to secure our ports not against strikes but against terrorism.

"If a container has some nasty stuff in it, once it gets to this port it's already too late," the director of the port of Oakland warned me.

Better intelligence, surveillance and so-called smart seals on shipping containers (which would indicate whether the boxes had been tampered with) may be one answer, but smart thinking about how much, how fast and how safely we consume the fruits of the world's many labors could be another way to go.

In the interim, it would be nice to see the shipping industry, port authorities and dockworkers working together to help secure our most vulnerable transportation and commercial hubs, America's more than 360 major ports.

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