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West Coast Port Issues

Tim Logan and Andrew Khouri reported on the front page of Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times that, “The dispute that has snarled West Coast shipping revolves around a rarity in American business — a small but mighty union.

“The International Longshore and Warehouse Union represents 20,000 dockworkers, a fraction of the organized ranks of teachers, truck drivers or healthcare workers. But the port workers — who still queue up at hiring halls daily for work and spend years earning full membership — stand guard over a crucial chokepoint in the global economy.

“For decades these ‘lords of the docks‘ have been paid like blue-collar royalty. Their current contract pays $26 to $41 an hour, with free healthcare for members. Some earn six figures with overtime. Even as a growing chorus of business groups clamor for a resolution to their months-long contract talks with the Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents shipping companies, the union sees little need to back down.”

Wednesday’s article noted that, “‘They have unique skills that aren’t easily replaced,’ said Goetz Wolff, who teaches about labor and economics at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. ‘They’re not going to roll over and play dead.”

“They went back to work Tuesday, after a holiday weekend port shutdown that left dozens of ships parked off the Southern California coast. They also returned to the negotiating table, where U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez is now trying to broker a deal.'”

The LA Times article pointed out that, “Still, the ILWU shouldn’t overplay its hand, [Marc Levinson, an economist and author] said.

“‘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,’ he said.

“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.”

Laura Stevens and Melanie Trottman reported in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal that, “Both sides in the labor dispute at the West Coast ports met with the U.S. secretary of labor on Tuesday, as fresh data showed just how sharply business fell at one of the main ports in January.

“The Port of Oakland said that January imports fell 39% to 44,171 containers, compared with the same month last year. Exports fell 26% to 57,581.”

The Journal writers explained that, “Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez traveled to San Francisco to ‘urge the parties to resolve their dispute quickly at the bargaining table,’ his press secretary said.

“In the meetings, Mr. Perez ‘made clear that the dispute has led to a very negative impact on the U.S. economy’ and that ‘further delay risks tens of thousands of jobs and will cost American businesses hundreds of millions of dollars,’ a Labor Department official said.

“Mr. Perez also spoke by phone with various state and local officials about the economic impact of the continuing dispute on their local economies, including with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, California Gov. Jerry Brown, and the mayors of Los Angeles; Seattle; Long Beach, Calif.; Oakland; San Francisco; and Tacoma, Wash.”

Sarah Halzack reported in yesterday at The Wonk Blog (Washington Post) that, “Meanwhile, meat producers who export their goods overseas are running short on cold storage facilities because of the backup. The North American Meat Institute estimates the industry is losing $85 million a week in sales of meat, poultry, hides and skins.”

Keith Good