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A Tale of Two Unions: ILWU Has Advantages UAW Lacks

A Tale of Two Unions: ILWU Has Advantages UAW Lacks


Staff Reporter

The leaders of locals 652 and 602 understood that the future was technology even if it meant the loss of jobs. “We don’t look at automation as job elimination,” Gary Watson, president of Local 652 told the Washington Post. “We’re not giving anything away on this. We’re just using common sense.”

The year was 1984. And the union was the United Auto Workers, whose members determined that after years of anemic car sales and resulting plant closures, they would have to accept technologically up-to-date plants, with their robotics, computer-programmed parts and significantly altered work rules.

Why the UAW acquiesced 18 years ago on technology while to this day the International Longshore and Warehouse Union remains staunchly committed to its lower-tech ways speaks volumes about how the global economy has affected organized labor in different ways for different reasons.

In the case of the autoworkers, there was really little choice. With Japanese automakers developing cost-efficient means of producing cars, the long-term future of the American auto industry and with it, thousands of UAW jobs was on the line. “You don’t get the sales, you don’t get any jobs,” Watson told the Post.

But for the ILWU, the movement toward technology has been slow and unsteady. While the union in 1960 negotiated an agreement that accelerated the “containerization” of West Coast ports, it was adamant in maintaining control over the jurisdiction of any future jobs both additions and subtractions.

And unlike the UAW, the dockworkers had an inherent ace up their sleeves.

“You can’t move the waterfront you can mechanize the hell out of it but until containers grow little wings you’re going to need help on the shore,” said Harvey Schwartz, curator of the ILWU Oral History Project.

Then, as now, technology is at the heart of the impasse between the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents terminals and ship lines. Specifically, technology as it relates to 400-700 union clerks who have stuck to old-fashioned clipboards to check off container movements the sort of work that has been automated at numerous ports around the world.

The issue is not job security; the PMA has guaranteed that these clerks, who generally make more than $100,000 a year, would keep their jobs until retirement. The issue is the prospect of the ILWU losing control of those jobs once they’re gone.

The global economy’s evolution has had an opposite effect on the two unions. For longshoremen, the ever-increasing dependence has bolstered their position as “Lords of the Dock.”

“You can’t unload containers that are going to Kansas in Japan,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of “State of the Union, A Century of American Labor.”

For autoworkers, global trade has led to foreign competition and the outsourcing of what once were union jobs. Auto manufacturing plants are no longer the one-stop production facilities that employed tens of thousands of workers.

“It used to be one plant produced a 301 Pontiac engine and two states away the 305 Chevy was built,” said Mike Smith, interim director of the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit. “Today you have just one 305 that is produced.”

And unlike the ports, auto manufacturers can combat the union by moving their plants to right-to-work states that prohibit labor contracts requiring workers to be union members. The most popular strategy is to move plants to rural areas in Southern states, where workers are more eager for any job.

Both the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the United Automobile Workers union grabbed their first bits of power in the traditional union way.

They struck.

Through crippling walkouts in the 1930s, both unions were recognized by employers only after extended work stoppages that involved days of violence and opposition from private industry and the National Guard.

“They weren’t strikes, they were small revolutions,” said Lichtenstein.

But as auto manufacturers abandoned the vertical integration of the past, consolidating operations and contracting out parts work, the UAW has been unable to keep autoworkers together in a significant way.

For the longshoremen, much the opposite happened. In the past 40 years the union has shrunk by more than half, to the current 10,500 members, but power has not waned in concert with membership.

One reason for this is that unlike autoworkers, ILWU members are not aligned with any particular company. They are paid the same wage for the same working conditions and most longshoremen work for different employers each week. “Concessions based on economics don’t mean anything to them,” Lichtenstein said.

Lichtenstein also notes a distinct psychological difference between the two unions.

A prospective longshoremen will sign up at the local union office before even meeting his or her employers, whereas an assembly line worker contacts Ford or Daimler-Chrysler looking for a job before meeting the union.

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