Where Is Harry Bridges When We Need Him?

Posted on: October 15th, 2012 by Stas

Where Is Harry Bridges When We Need Him?

By Stas Margaronis, RBTUS

A new, innovative tug and barge service between the California ports of Stockton and Oakland that can shift as many as 750 truckloads per week off Northern California highways and reduce fuel costs and emissions, has been put on hold due to manning objections from dockworkers in Stockton.

This barge service is expected to carry heavy loads that cannot easily go on roads and agricultural exports from Stockton area farmers who want to avoid truck traffic congestion in Oakland. There is a projected 15% per container savings by barge as compared to truck, but it could be lost if cargo manning costs rise.

An unnamed International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) official representing Local 54 told the Stockton RECORD that the union objects to the attempt by the stevedoring company, Ports America, to reduce the cargo manning of the barge service, compared to other maritime ship operations in Stockton, by 50 percent and “if the union gives in on this thing and someone gets killed, then we’re responsible.”

As a result, the Port of Stockton was forced to cancel the service’s opening ceremony on October 10th that would have included U.S. Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood.

A California maritime executive says that he was told by a senior officer of the ILWU that the union opposes the development of new marine highway or coastal shipping services, such as the Stockton- Oakland service. The objection focuses on manning: the new Stockton-Oakland barge service projects carrying 5,000 tons of cargo per voyage, not surprisingly, will not require as many longshore workers as a vessel carrying 40,000 tons of cargo at the Port of Stockton.

One California stevedoring executive said, “The problem is that the union is against change and sees any effort at improving efficiency as something that they will not tolerate. They don’t see that if this service substantially reduces the cost of moving containers that more containers will go by water than by truck which will create more port jobs and help the environment.”

In 1960, the founder of the ILWU, Harry Bridges, negotiated the M&M Agreement (Mechanization and Modernization) with employers from the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) that agreed to major productivity changes that facilitated containerized cargo-handling at West Coast ports.

Instead of resisting the new system that would replace the old way of workers hand stowing cargo, Bridges and the ILWU negotiated an agreement to help make it happen.

Bridges and the ILWU embraced mechanization but insisted employers establish a generous retirement package for workers wishing to retire and a generous compensation package for workers who stayed on.

The agreement was very controversial and many union members saw it as a betrayal. However, Bridges and the leadership prevailed and the new contract was ratified by a majority of union members. The result was a huge improvement in cargo handling productivity which doubled within 8 years.[1]

One surprise was a huge increase in longshore jobs as lower handling costs stimulated more demand for containers and workers.[2]

The biggest surprise was that the ILWU had to force employers to invest in more forklifts and winches.  Employers refused to buy new equipment and insisted workers physically carry more freight. Bridges and the ILWU filed a breach of contract complaint and in 1965, the ILWU won one of the most unusual arbitrations in labor history. PMA members were ordered to spend more money for forklifts and other mechanization equipment to improve longshore worker productivity.[3]

The ILWU played a leading role in the improved productivity achieved by West Coast ports compared to East Coast ports where longshore unions resisted mechanization. Today, West Coast ports such as Los Angeles, Long Beach, and to a lesser extent Oakland, Portland, and Seattle-Tacoma, dominate foreign trade in shipping facilitated by the ILWU.

Harry Bridges, the Marxist founder of the ILWU, also led the 1934 longshore strike that won West Coast union recognition. During World War II, Bridges showed that he was also a trade unionist concerned about productivity. He proposed the so-called “Bridges Plan” to speed up West Coast cargo-handling in support of war-fighting.

Today, Bridges is recognized, along with shipping executive Malcolm McLean, as one of the leaders in making the transfer of cargo from more efficient containerized loads.

Marine highway and coastal shipping have a similar potential to transform goods movement by shifting thousands of truckloads off roads and on to tug barges and ships that, by U.S. law, must be built at U.S. shipyards. The result will be new port jobs, new shipbuilding jobs and new jobs for mariners operating  U.S. flag vessels. These vessels will reduce fuel consumption and emissions currently generated by trucking loads along U.S. coastal corridors.

However, the new service cannot be cost efficient if longshoremen insist on high handling charges related to outmoded manning regimes.

This is why the U.S. Department of Transportation supports the Stockton to Oakland demonstration project.  Longshore union members who oppose marine highway shipping may wish to revisit the Bridges success story to understand the potential for embracing efficiencies that create new growth and jobs.



[1] Marc Levinson, THE BOX, page 116

[2] Levinson, page 116

[3] Levinson, page 117


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