Cargo Kings

They've got money. They've got muscle. They've got power. Will Portland's longshoremen lose it all to a barcode scanner?




Tethered to Berth 605 at Terminal 6, the waters of the Columbia River lapping against her hull, the Hyundai Emperor is a floating colossus. She could swallow two football fields and still have room left over for a city block. Her yawning hold, fully loaded, accommodates 51,000 tons of cargo--more than the combined weight of every man, woman and child in Portland. From the graceful flare of her bow to her 30-foot propeller, the ship is a monument to the massive scale of today's global economy.

Right now, however, the Emperor has all the majesty of a beached whale.

Along with hundreds of other vessels stranded up and down the West Coast, the ship has fallen victim to a power struggle between the shipping interests who run the docks and the longshoremen who work them. On Sept. 29, the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents the employers, accused the 10,500 longshoremen of staging a slowdown to gain leverage in contract negotiations. In retaliation, the PMA locked the gates to every port on the West Coast--including the 49 cargo docks in Portland--marooning thousands of tons of cargo on the docks.

The lockout marks the end of 30 years of peace on the Pacific waterfront, historically the battleground for some of America's ugliest labor struggles. Like a blood clot choking off circulation to the brain, it has paralyzed international trade and sent shockwaves rippling through the U.S. economy, costing shippers, truckers, farmers and manufacturers an estimated $2 billion every day.

Considering the huge stakes, the actual dispute is almost surreal. Full-time longshoremen earn an average of $107,000 a year, which ranks them among the best-paid union workers in the world. The PMA is offering a three-year contract with a 7 percent wage hike and a beefed-up pension plan. In return, the PMA wants to install new technology, such as barcode scanners and global positioning systems, to speed dockside operations.

While conceding that the new technology might eventually eliminate as many as 400 jobs on the West Coast (with about 20 of those in Portland), the PMA has promised to pay the displaced clerks for 40 hours a week until they retire--even if there's no work for them to do. "Not one longshoreman will lose his or her job as the result of technology," PMA chief Joseph Miniace vowed on Monday.

Your average worker would probably greet an offer like this by popping the champagne. But your average worker doesn't belong to the most powerful labor movement in America--the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

On a recent Monday morning, the parking lot at the ILWU hiring hall down on Front Street is tight as a drum. SUVs, Jeeps, 4x4s and other four-wheeled toys splash through the puddles, jockeying for spots. Outside the hall, a dozen burly longshoremen in faded jeans and work boots take cigarette breaks from a strategy session. Don't even think about sneaking inside--the door is guarded by a husky ILWU marshal clad in chain mail and a Viking helmet (the costume may be whimsical, but the look in his eye is dead serious).

These men and women are the descendants--figuratively, and in many cases, literally--of the dockworkers who staged the epic West Coast waterfront strike of 1934, one of the most heroic struggles in labor history. Some of the ugliest episodes took place in Portland, where businessmen hired thugs to smash open the piers and anchored a steamship housing 500 strikebreakers alongside the Broadway Bridge; longshoremen stormed aboard, beat the strikebreakers with broomsticks and cut the ship loose from its moorings. Battles raged in the streets; Portland police shot and wounded four dockworkers. Gov. Julius Meier even called out the National Guard in an attempt to crack the strike. "It was a serious class struggle," explains Portland State University professor emeritus Michael Munk, a local historian. "But they stuck together through all the harassment and attacks."

Dockworkers' previous efforts to improve the atrocious conditions on the wharves had always failed because whenever they made demands in one port, shippers simply threatened to shift their operations to another. In 1934, however, the longshoremen demanded to organize coastwise--from Seattle to San Diego--under a single contract. If West Coast dockworkers all stood together, they reasoned, employers would have no choice but to capitulate.

It was a daring gamble, but the bet paid off. Led by a fiery Australian named Harry Bridges, the union won all its major demands, then proceeded to transform the dirty, dangerous waterfront into a proletarian utopia. Today, full-time longshoremen start at $19.94 an hour and top out at $51.55 an hour. They enjoy full health benefits--no deductible, no co-pay--for their families. They have a generous pension plan. In addition to the usual paid holidays, they celebrate Cesar Chavez's Birthday, Harry Bridges' Birthday and Bloody Thursday.

"It's the envy of the nation in terms of wages and working conditions," Munk says.

"Longshoremen are the most coddled group of employees in the United States," says a local lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They have the best fringe-benefit package known to man.... It's the Cadillac of unions--no, it's the Ferrari of unions."

Most longshoremen acknowledge that they have a pretty good deal--and say they're worth it. "We're the guys who do the dirty work," says crane operator Jerry Cressa. "So we're paid more than firemen. Well, maybe firemen aren't paid enough! What about the guy who designs tennis shoes, or a basketball player...? It's a social question. Look at how much cargo we move--bring Michael Jordan down on the waterfront and see how much cargo he moves."

With his receding hairline, enormous bifocals and encyclopedic knowledge of longshore lore, Cressa, 55, comes across like a history professor who swapped his tweeds for denim. In fact, Cressa grew up on the waterfront--his father was an immigrant Italian who started working the San Francisco docks in 1934. Although he has a degree in mechanical engineering, Cressa has been on the wharves since 1964. Working part-time, he earns about $60,000 a year, lives in Hillsboro and drives a mint-condition '79 Chevette, which he maintains himself.

"It pays a good wage," he shrugs. "I love the democracy of the union. In a lot of jobs, you have to look over your shoulder in case someone reports you to the boss. Here you can speak your mind."

Over the years, through grit and solidarity, longshoremen like Cressa have forged a unique sort of cargo culture, where workers call each other "brother" and "sister," hold jobs for life and roam the waterfront with a certain degree of swagger. "We think we're pretty tough," shrugs Leal Sundet, the barrel-chested spokesman for Local 8, the Portland chapter of the ILWU. "This dispute is about the waterfront that we built. If they try to take away something it took us decades to build, we'll protect it."

Few unions protect their turf like the ILWU.

Every activity on the waterfront--from the most mundane to the most complex--is the domain of the union. Longshoremen work the cranes. Longshoremen drive the toploaders. Longshoremen load the railcars and lash the cargo down, and woe betide anyone who would usurp these duties--even something as trivial as unhooking the ropes that tether a ship to the dock. "You're an idiot if you do it yourself," snorts one shipping agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity, explaining that any vessel whose crew was foolish enough to let loose its own lines would face a coastwise boycott by the dockworkers.

"They have a monopoly," he continues. "If they say they're not going to work your ship, you're really screwed."

Like most monopolies, the union has been able to make itself comfortable. Its 258-page contract with the employers guarantees eight hours' of pay under a host of conditions even if the men actually work less than that. The contract spells out the minimum size of a work group, or "gang," for a variety of duties, even if fewer workers are actually needed. For example, crane drivers always work in pairs--even though it only takes one driver to operate modern cranes. (The union says the job is so stressful it requires two drivers to relieve one another.)

When the work dries up, longshoremen are paid anyway. The Port of Astoria, for example, handles very little cargo these days--13,000 tons a year, compared to 18 million for Portland--but its 33 longshoremen earn an average of $62,000, even though they work, on average, less than two days a week.

Not only does the union fight for members' paychecks, it also fights for their safety. Over the years, the union has negotiated a voluminous raft of regulations known as the Pacific Coast Marine Safety Code, a 160-page booklet spelling out rules for loading and unloading cargo in excruciating detail--everything from the cleanliness of the glass in crane operators' cabs to the mufflers of terminal trucks.

The purpose of the regulations, of course, is to reduce the risk of injury. In the past six months, there have been five deaths on the West Coast waterfront--and waterfront fatalities are never pretty. In March, for example, a Long Beach foreman was killed by a 3,000-pound metal ring after a crane's line snapped. The next day, a longshore mechanic in Los Angeles died trying to repair a metal shredder that rips automobiles into scrap. All told, employers reported 2,234 on-the-job injuries coastwise last year, several involving a category grimly known as "crushing."

"The employers have forced us into this mad frenzy," says Local 8 president Bruce Holte. "All they care about is productivity, productivity, productivity--they don't care about safety. They don't care about us."

But employers say the union sometimes uses safety regulations as a way to flex its muscle. In 1999, for example, Local 8 was involved in a dispute over the number of longshoremen required to load a grain ship. An arbitrator ultimately ruled that gangs on grain ships should be reduced from eight longshoremen to five.

According to a federal lawsuit filed by Columbia Grain, disgruntled longshoremen retaliated with a series of slowdowns based on bogus safety concerns. They demanded safety inspections for six consecutive shifts; they heard strange noises in the crane; they said tripping hazards on deck were outlined with the wrong color paint--orange instead of yellow.

The slowdown ultimately cost the grain company hundreds of thousands of dollars. "The ILWU is driving jobs out of Portland and the West Coast by making it incredibly expensive to load and unload goods," says Portland lawyer Dan Barnhart, who represented Columbia Grain in the dispute. "They are using their monopoly on labor to exploit an economic pinchpoint in a manner that would make a 19th-century robber baron proud."

"Longshore work is dangerous," says Dick Montgomery, a Portland columnist for the Shipping News who has covered the waterfront for 30 years. "There's no question it's dangerous. But work rules are the means by which the longshoremen have traditionally used their muscle--often in the guise of safety."

Perhaps the most powerful symbol of the union's iron grip on the Portland waterfront is the Hyundai Emperor.

By 11:30 am on Sunday, Sept. 29, the Emperor had unloaded all its cargo and was preparing to set sail. Longshoremen locked down the vessel's hatch covers, huge steel lids that secure the ship's hold.

At 3 pm, however, a remarkable sequence of events took place. Learning that a lockout was imminent, a union official ordered a longshore gang to unlock the forward hatch cover while a crane operator prepared to hoist it off the ship and back onto the dock. Without the hatch cover in place, the Emperor is not seaworthy--a large wave could spill water into the hold--so the ship would be stranded in port, costing its owner thousands of dollars a day.

In a desperate attempt to foil the longshoremen's plan, port managers dispatched electricians to kill power to the crane, but it was too late. By 3:15, the hatch cover was lying on the dock, and the Emperor had become a hostage.

"We had ordered the ship to sail," fumes Lars Uglum, operations manager for Sunrise Shipping, the Emperor's agent. "We had the pilot, the tugs; everybody was ready. My first reaction was, this is outrageous--and childish. Then I thought, well, I'm not surprised."

The union says it crippled the vessel in retaliation. "Hyundai Marine is a PMA member," says Local 8's Sundet. "They have a great deal of influence on the PMA. So when they lock us out, that's to do harm to us, and we are entitled to deal with them economically--to respond to their attack on us."

"That is typical of the tricks of the trade," chuckles columnist Montgomery. "The games that are played are million-dollar games."

Thanks to tactics like these, longshoremen have dominated the waterfront for decades. But the dockside empire they have painstakingly constructed is beginning to buckle. The volume of cargo on the West Coast, already at historic highs, is projected to double by 2012, according to political scientist Michael Nacht, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California-Berkeley. Unless they become more efficient, he says, the West Coast ports will be swamped.

"There's no way these ports can handle the load," Nacht told WW. "Shippers will have to go to Mexico or Canada or even switch to air freight when they can. It's crazy. We've got all this trade, and we're not equipped to handle it all."

Although comparisons are not exact, top foreign ports handle cargo much faster than West Coast ports. Hong Kong moves 20,000 containers per acre per year; Kaosiong, in Taiwan, moves 18,000; Portland moves 3,000.

In Singapore, dockworkers blaze through millions of containers a year thanks, in part, to computer-controlled cranes. On the West Coast, longshoremen still use sticks of chalk to mark containers' contents, and 6 to 10 percent of the containers on the docks are misplaced. "They'll find it eventually," Nacht says. "I mean, Joe knows where he put that crate of oranges, but he's gone to lunch."

Desperate to ease the traffic jam, the PMA identified new technology as its top priority when contract negotiations with the union began in May in San Francisco. As the talks dragged on, an unprecedented surge of cargo hit the ports, fueling frustration on both sides and contributing to several gruesome accidents over the summer.

The simmering tensions boiled over Sept. 3, when Long Beach longshoreman Rudy Acosta was crushed and killed by a massive top handler (basically a forklift on steroids).

News of the tragedy brought negotiations to a standstill. The union ordered longshoremen in Long Beach to follow all safety regulations to the letter, and disputes ignited in ports up and down the coast. The PMA demanded that the union "cease destructive labor actions," while the union accused the PMA of "manufacturing a crisis" to sabotage the contract talks.

On Sept. 26, ILWU officials in San Francisco ordered local chapters to "work safely in strict accordance with all provisions of the Pacific Coast Marine Safety Code and all federal and state health and safety regulations."

Productivity at the ports plummeted. Longshoremen loading the Hanjin Malta in Terminal 6, who usually move 20 containers per hour, only managed seven per hour on the Sunday morning shift. "The ILWU is engaging in a coordinated work action designed to cause economic damage to our member companies," spluttered PMA chief Miniace in San Francisco. "We will not tolerate the union's calculated work actions."

On Sunday, Sept. 29, the PMA shut down the ports coastwise, locking the longshoremen out from their jobs and triggering one of the biggest industrial crises in decades.

Unlike the vast majority of workplace confrontations, this one is not about wages, and it's not about conditions. It's really about who controls the waterfront in the future--the longshoremen or the shipping industry.

The PMA is willing to make all sorts of guarantees that today's longshore clerks will not lose their jobs to barcode scanners. But as the clerks retire--and employers are offering them generous incentives to do just that--the PMA wants to replace them with technology that it controls.

The union says it's open to innovation. It recognizes that technology will displace clerks. But it insists that any new jobs created by the technology be under the control of the union. Otherwise, it fears its power will be gradually eroded as automation transfers more jobs away from the waterfront. "Management's strategy is to do away with the union piece by piece until it can run the ports with no union workers at all," an ILWU press release declared on Monday.

"I've been here 35 years," explains crane operator Stephen Hanson, whose father was a longshoreman. "When I leave here, I want to leave it as good as it was left to me. I want to leave to my children the same opportunities that were left for me."

Hanson is not just speaking metaphorically. To longshoremen, waterfront jobs are considered a sacred trust, to be handed down from generation to generation. A surprising number of longshoremen--perhaps as many as half--are the children or grandchildren of dockworkers.

"This is our livelihood," explains ILWU's Sundet. "This is our job. We've been out here for generations. We built the waterfront. We created this industry. It's ours."

The longshoremen suspect that technology is simply a Trojan horse that conceals the PMA's ultimate goal--destroying the union. "The PMA is trying to break the union," says labor historian Munk. "They've made no bones that the union is too powerful. They wanted to teach them a lesson, so they locked them out."

The PMA denies that, of course. It says it is willing to recognize the union's jurisdiction over duties that longshoremen now perform, even if the nature of those duties evolves. But it is adamant that the union's jurisdiction not be expanded. "It is simply not appropriate to give the union jurisdiction over jobs that are held by other unions or that are management jobs," declares PMA spokesman Jason Greenwald.

The problem is that new technology will blur the traditional definition of "waterfront jobs," as the work evolves from chalking containers on the docks in Astoria to tapping keyboards in an office in Denver.

As the crisis on the docks heads into its third week, it remains unclear how the two sides will resolve their differences. Many observers predict that the dispute will only strengthen the union's grip on the waterfront. Ironically, the longshoremen, with their proud tradition of solidarity, are probably better equipped to withstand a prolonged shutdown than the shippers, who must ultimately bow to the bottom line. And the mounting pressure from farmers and manufacturers to re-open the ports rests primarily on the PMA, which locked the gates in the first place.

"If [the longshoremen] have the same spirit and solidarity as they did in '34, they're going to win," says Munk. "They faced much greater odds then."

In the long run, however, the war along the shore is a stark illustration both of what's great about unions--their ability to improve wages and conditions--and of what's wrong: their instinctive protection of jobs in the face of technological advances that make those jobs unnecessary.

Originally published in WILLAMETTE WEEK 10/9/2002