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Longshore workers keep their grip on the global supply network

The supply chain is more flexible and resilient than ever, but one union still has the power to slow it down – for now

In “The other Silicon Valley,” Al Jazeera takes a look at how California’s tech boom affects the working class. This is part six of a seven-part series.

Along the West Coast, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and its nearly 14,000 regional members can still throw a wrench in the global supply chain through their influence over major ports. In that regard, they are virtually unique among the country’s labor unions.

They maintain that power in the face of the declining strength of labor nationwide and despite the growing sophistication and resilience of the global logistics industry.

Over the past two decades, companies have adopted practices that help them identify and resolve inefficiencies in manufacturing and shipping by automatically reconfiguring supply chains whenever there’s an operational slowdown at one point on the network.

Manufacturers once assembled complex products such as cars from their components on site. Now companies like Toyota are beginning to recognize the value of modular assembly in cutting costs, meaning that they take in partially assembled sections from various suppliers and fit them together.

The result is a global web of manufacturers and distributors that is increasingly resistant to natural disasters and worker unrest. If any one of the network’s many nodes temporarily fails, the chain of production can be rerouted, usually with ease. For workers, this reduces the leverage of most strike threats.

“The global supply chain, especially for manufactured goods, is increasingly just head-spinningly complex. It’s almost like nesting dolls at each stage of the supply chain,” said Miriam Posner, a professor in digital humanities at UCLA. “It’s also quite modular. In order to contain any risk, many of the nodes on the supply chain are fairly discrete. There are so many of them, it’s quite difficult for labor organizers to organize up the supply chain.”

ILWU members after participating in a march to support the union’s negotiations with the Pacific Maritime Association at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, California, in January 2015.
Bob Riha Jr. / Reuters / Landov

But once manufactured goods have been pieced together, there are only so many ways to bring them into the United States. Although ports along the Gulf Coast and the East Coast have begun to chip away at the West Coast ports’ share, almost half the containerized imports to the U.S. arrive through the facilities along the Pacific. That makes it very difficult to bring a large number of goods into the country without having them pass through ILWU hands.

“They have been able to secure just about all of the ports from Prince Rupert now, really, to Panama, with their recent organizing of the pilots. So it’s very difficult to avoid a port that’s controlled by the ILWU on the West Coast,” said Peter Hall, an expert in port cities and logistics at Simon Fraser University in Canada. Panama Canal pilots voted to join the ILWU in 2011.

That’s a lot of muscle, and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) — the coalition representing management in negotiations with the ILWU — has accused the union of using it to drastically slow down the docks from late 2014 to early 2015.

The backlog resulting from that alleged slowdown, which the ILWU has described as the product of concerns over safety and congestion rather than a concerted labor action, occurred during a months-long contract dispute between the ILWU and the PMA over issues such as health care and the arbitration process for resolving disagreements. The ILWU and PMA eventually reached a tentative contract agreement in February, and the union may give final approval to the new contract this week.

The matter has been resolved, but the holdup had a ripple effect that some retailers are still feeling. The department store chain Macy’s recently posted a 13 percent drop in quarterly profits, which one business analyst from the firm Stifel said was due in part to the slowdown. An earlier halt in port activity, the result of a 10-day PMA lockout in 2002, may have “cost the U.S. economy close to $1 billion a day and [taken] months to recover from,” according to the National Retail Federation.

Its hold on the ports is not the only source of the ILWU’s power, said union spokesman Craig Merilees. The union, he said, has a strong, united internal culture, which makes it possible to hold together an open-ended strike without defections.

He said the union builds solidarity through ensuring that members are “cognizant of its history” and by making sure that members have a democratic voice in union decisions, which helps build “loyalty, commitment and a sense of ownership.”

“The lesson about the importance of maintaining vigilance — and being clearheaded about the fundamental conflicts between the interests of workers and investors and owners — is something that remains part of the culture of the workforce,” said Merilees.

Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of labor history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said jurisdiction over the ports is key to maintaining ILWU power. Not surprisingly, that’s the main issue the union has to negotiate and be prepared to strike over every time it must work out a new contract.

“In every ILWU negotiation, the crucial question is always what workers will be covered by the ILWU contract,” said Lichtenstein. “And given all sort of technical and organizational changes, there’s always the possibility of saying … this work can be done by people who aren’t members of the union."

Automation also poses a perennial challenge for the ILWU. The union has been trying to protect its workforce in the face of new labor-saving technologies since at least 1960, when it signed that year’s Mechanization and Modernization Agreement, intended in part to preserve the job security of registered union members in the face of new shipping practices. A more recent labor dispute in 2002 revolved around attempts to have computers do work previously done by unionized clerks.

The key issue, said Lichtenstein, is making sure that ILWU workers are still centrally positioned when it comes to the functioning of the ports.

“If cargo can still be unloaded even with an ILWU strike, which is true in a lot of other industries, then the union has lost its power,” he said.

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