Labor Law and the West Coast Dock Dispute

By Baird, Charles W. | Ideas on Liberty, February 2003 | Go to article overview

Labor Law and the West Coast Dock Dispute


Baird, Charles W., Ideas on Liberty


The two-month West Coast dock dispute was settled in late November, but not until after President Bush obtained an injunction to halt the shutdown that was underway at all 29 ports from Seattle to San Diego. The injunction imposed the full 80-day "cooling off" period permitted by Sections 206 through 210 of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. The settlement, however, came about a month before the injunction would have expired.

This labor dispute pitted the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) against the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA). The ILWU represents all 10,500 non-management workers in all 29 ports. Apart from management, there is no such thing as a non-union worker on the docks. Any attempt to hire any union-free workers, even though the law clearly permits the hiring of non-union replacement workers during labor disputes, would be met with threats of violence, if not actual violence by the ILWU. As Jim Spinosa, president of the ILWU, said, "We will fight like hell to keep our jobs." What that means can be inferred from the history of the ILWU starting with "Bloody Thursday" on July 5, 1934, during the infamous dock strike (about which more below).

The PMA is the organization that represents all the employers involved with the docks in labor relations with the ILWU. The PMA was formed by the employers to present a united front against the ILWU in contract negotiations and labor disputes. Since unions are exempt from antitrust laws, the law permits one union to monopolize all the labor in an industry, and it also permits the employers in those industries to act together in dealing with such monopoly unions. Industry-wide collective bargaining before this dispute resulted in average blue-collar workers on the docks making base wages of over $82,000 per year, not counting overtime. The unionized clerks, whose job is to keep track of cargo going in and out of the ports, made over $118,000 per year.

The issue between the PMA and the ILWU in this dispute was not wages and salaries. It was the introduction of labor-saving technologies on the docks, which would allow west-coast ports to begin to catch up with productivity gains and cost reductions that are routine elsewhere. For example, on ILWU docks the use of a single crane usually requires two crane operators, a clerk, and a signalman. In Singapore all those tasks are done by one worker operating a computerized cab.

The PMA didn't seek to go as far as computerized cabs. They merely wanted the union to agree to allow clerks to use barcode scanners and hand-held computers, and allow truck drivers and their cargoes to check in to terminals using fast passes similar to those used on toll bridges and roads. It was estimated that these innovations would eliminate about 600 of the 1,200 clerks' jobs at the 29 ports. The PMA agreed to find alternative dock jobs for the displaced clerks at no cut in pay, and to downsize through attrition, not immediate dismissals. Indeed, the actual number of jobs on the docks would almost certainly increase as modernization increased the volume of cargo passing through the ports. …

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