The two parties are at the negotiating table, where U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez is now trying to broker a deal. Both parties say they want to avoid repeating the 10-day lockout of 2002, which then-President George W. Bush stepped in to end. They have reportedly agreed on many major elements of a new contract but remain at odds over finer points. The same forces that have pulverized private sector unions in other industries — overseas manufacturing, lower transportation costs, global markets — have strengthened the hand of the ILWU. Every day, ship owners have to pay a lot of money for a ship. The cranes are very expensive, and if they're not being used, that's wasted money. Containerization made the shipping industry very capital-intensive, and that effectively gave power to the union.
So did two decisions by ILWU's founder and longtime president, Harry Bridges. The first was negotiating a single contract covering every port from San Diego to Bellingham, Washington. That prevents shippers from playing one West Coast port against another, as sometimes happens on the East Coast. The other was a 1960 agreement that embraced the arrival of containerization, essentially agreeing to shed thousands of jobs manually hauling crates and bags from ships' holds in order to save thousands in the higher-tech — and higher-paid — work of operating forklifts and giant cranes.
As container traffic boomed in the decades since, that tough choice paid off. But the industry faces a new round of changes. Ever-larger ships are dumping more cargo at once on the docks, creating more congestion even when the work is going smoothly. That's increasing the demand for automation. Ports in Europe and Asia increasingly use robotics to move goods that union longshoremen handle today on the West Coast. Another threat is the widening of the Panama Canal, scheduled for completion next year. That will enable some larger ships to pass more quickly to the East and Gulf Coast, though experts disagree on how much that could hurt Southern California.
The employers and the union both have a common interest in the success of L.A.-Long Beach and in keeping the port as efficient as possible. As the dispute drags on, the union's solidarity could be a key factor. The ILWU is known as an aggressive union — forged in violent strikes on San Francisco's Embarcadero in the 1930s, booted from national labor groups in the McCarthy-era 1950s for being "too red," and willing to shut down the docks several times in recent years in solidarity with smaller unions. That's what happened in 2012, when clerical workers at the L.A.-Long Beach docks went on strike and clogged the ports for several days.
In the port towns, everyone has a friend, a brother, a cousin, a niece who works in this industry and benefits from the power of the union. Many would like to join. Membership is typically earned only after years of so-called "casual" work, which involves showing up in the early morning at the cracked parking lot next to a junkyard in Wilmington, where day labor jobs are doled out — if there's work to go around — at the lower end of the pay scale. Log enough hours, and eventually you qualify for full membership, with better hours and full benefits. When they open the rolls to new casuals, the lines are thousands of people long.
Last year, it was the Justice for Port Truck Drivers work stoppage over “unfair labor practices” at Green Fleet Systems, Total Transportation Services and Pacific 9 Transportation that temporarily hemorrhaged the port system. The Teamsters affiliated group has backed three previous strikes in the last two years, each lasting less than 48 hours, at these carriers serving Southern California ports. The Teamsters charge the three carriers violated labor laws and interfered with unionization efforts. (L.A. Times, 2/17/2015, CCJ Digital, 7/8/2014)