A century worth of change
Exactly 100 years ago, the celebrated American painter George Bellows produced one of his most iconic works, Men of the Docks.
Typical of his understated, yet gripping portrayals of immigrants and laborers in New York around the turn of the 20th century, the scene shows a group of men gathered near the shore as a vessel arrives at port, ready to be unloaded on a snowy winter day.
I took particular note of this work while walking through an exhibition of Bellows’ work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington this summer.
The painting conveys the utter hardship these men faced. The accompanying placard described the terrible working conditions and meager pay longshoremen suffered through, and how Bellows sought to illuminate their plight.
It seemed too hard for me to ignore the fact that Bellows’ painting was unveiled a century before current longshoremen on the U.S. East and Gulf coasts engage in their tensest negotiations with employers in three decades.
I won’t go through the laundry list of issues over which the ILA finds itself at odds with the U.S. Maritime Alliance, the negotiating body for East and Gulf coast terminal operators and 24 shipping lines that use those terminals (my colleague Chris Dupin has covered these extensively).
But one of the basic negotiating divides stems from that very modern problem of technology, and how it threatens to reduce the need for actual manpower on the docks.
“We know technology is coming and we know we can’t stop it forever, but we will not be deterred from protecting our work and our jurisdiction,” ILA International President Harold Daggett said in March at a now infamous panel at the Trans-Pacific Maritime conference in Long Beach, Calif.
“If you think you are going to bring in fully automated piers like they have in Rotterdam or in Liverpool, you wiped out all the longshoremen locals over there. That ain’t going to happen here on the East Coast. We are not going to stand for it,” he said.
Those were, quite clearly, fightin’ words, and the fight has persisted through August. The two sides have until Sept. 30, when the current contract runs out, to find a solution or face the first work stoppage on the East Coast since the 1970s.
In late July, the two sides had seemingly worked out some of their differences on technology, with USMX Chairman and Chief Executive Officer James Capo confirming to American Shipper that ILA members would fill new jobs created by technology, and receive limited pay protection for ILA workers displaced by technology if they agree to be retrained and reassigned to new jobs.
The danger for union officials is that the fight to preserve their turf has come at a pretty rotten time. The global economy is in, to put it kindly, a malaise. The U.S. economy is gradually recovering, but industrial production actually contracted in the summer. China’s did too, as orders for exported goods from Europe and North America slowed.
What’s more, the nuclear option for longshoremen — an out-and-out strike — would have far-reaching implications for the economy. We’re a decade removed from the lockout at West Coast ports, and that was estimated to cost the economy $1 billion a day. More recent research shows that the actual toll may have been seriously underestimated. True, the East and Gulf coast ports aren’t as busy, or fundamentally important, as the Southern California ports, but they aren’t far off.
Ports covered by ILA members handle cargo from Asia, Europe, South America, the Middle East, and Africa. Importers and exporters — large and small — stand to be affected.
The battle over protecting jobs, meanwhile, comes at a point when U.S. unemployment has been achingly high (with some suggesting it’s much higher than the official 8 percent estimate). ILA members make an average of $124,138 per year and get health care coverage at virtually no cost, according to USMX.
If you find yourself getting irate at those numbers, remember that the employers, the great majority of whom are large, multinational corporations, have well-paid employees too.
So this is essentially a battle among the well-paid, and history shows that the general public tires of the acrimony pretty quickly, particularly when they might be adversely affected.
The threat of a strike for shippers is clear. American Shipper research over the summer has shown that shippers are very wary of a labor dispute at ILA-controlled ports, with about 70 percent planning to use U.S. West Coast or east coast Canadian ports to manage potential disruptions. Less than a quarter of shippers say they aren’t worried about a disruption.
With many Americans out of work, others paid less than before, and still others struggling to secure health care, will unionized longshoremen be seen as sympathetic figures in the eyes of the general public?
Or will they be seen as one of the few categories of workers to have actually achieved that clichéd American Dream, a vocation where long-term stability and viable pay are actually possible?
More pertinently, does the ILA even care about public opinion? Judging by Daggett’s comments to an admittedly niche crowd, probably not. The focus is on retaining the power and strength in numbers that the ILA has carved out for itself over the last, remarkable century.
Now think back to the Bellows’ painting. Those men, huddled on an icy day on the Hudson River, could probably never have imagined their ranks a century later would be amongst the best paid workers of their kind in the country. They likely would have found it hard to believe that it would be them dictating terms to their employers, and not vice versa.
And the ILA would surely argue that the work of the union in the past century has transformed the job of a longshoreman from a poorly paid itinerant laborer to a successful career. Interesting images to ponder as we enter crunch time on negotiations.