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Off the Waterfront 

News media have abandoned the labor beat and missed a story of global financial import: the looming possibility of a longshoremen's strike at West Coast ports

Wednesday, Jun 5 2002
For the modern social anthropologist, there's no better place for fieldwork than the business convention. A researcher entering the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston to investigate the natural gas industry finds rooms full of stout and comfortable men who spend workdays flogging fuel. Most played football at Texas universities, and now wear golf shirts with an enviable, gregarious ease. Junketing Latin American bankers, meanwhile, sport expensive clothes and bodyguards. During bull markets they bring mistresses; in down years, wives. At tech industry conventions, researchers find hordes of shy obsessives. These subjects are patient, though, and have a funny way with words.

It was therefore with great anthropological anticipation that I approached the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference held in San Francisco last weekend. This is perhaps the most important convention for journalism, which is a business that isn't supposed to act like a business, so I wasn't sure what I'd find. Entering the lobby of the Embarcadero Hyatt Friday I discovered cliques of retiring people struggling to be sociable. They became excitable when conversation turned toward government policies regarding various types of paperwork. In anthropological terms, they seemed similar to computer conference attendees (or the aluminum wonks one always finds at metals industry conventions).

I followed the flocks of journalists into a habitat called "the seminar" in hopes of finding distinctions; sadly, few appeared. Journalists may have their quirks, but lately they seem more and more like modern businessmen and -women. They appear to have drifted, anthropologically speaking, far from the news profession's blue-collar roots. And the more they become like businessmen, I have discovered, the more they cover business.

Of more than 100 seminars at the IRE conference -- an assemblage of the journalism profession's most idealistic members -- there were only two panels that specifically dealt with working stiffs; one addressed workers overseas, the other related to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's failures in regulating business. But many of the seminars, in one way or another, were about covering business.

I asked Todd Johnson, an economist with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics who was manning a booth at the conference, whether he had been approached by any reporters who specifically covered working Joes and Janes. "There was one intern with the Wall Street Journal," he said. "She was wondering that, too, whether there was a labor beat anymore."

It's no secret that few papers cover labor intensively, or from the point of view of workers, anymore. The San Francisco Chronicle, for example, fired its labor editor back in 1970.

"Now, anything about workers is presented on the business page, and done for the benefit of the people who read the business page," says former Chronicle labor editor Dick Meister, who syndicates his own column on labor issues. "It's written for somebody reading it from that point of view: 'Here's what these bastards are doing to us now.'"

Because of the disappearance of the labor beat, daily newspapers and their public miss big stories -- for example, the mass migration of workers into, then out of, San Francisco for the Internet boom wasn't covered as a labor story. As a result, the phenomenon never entered the public mind, except as a curious caricature full of locals cursing the damned "dot-commers."

One of the more glaring examples of major labor news being ignored is currently occurring just 21 blocks from the site of the IRE conference.

While 1,000 or so investigative journalists milled around the Hyatt, local newspapers seemed oblivious to one of the most important financial and economic stories of the year -- very possibly because it is, on its surface, a labor story. At the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) headquarters on Franklin Street, shippers and union members are amid contract negotiations that, economists say, threaten to send tremors through the world financial system. The labor contract under re-negotiation covers 10,500 dockworkers on the U.S. Pacific seaboard and expires June 30. There are loud rumblings of a possible strike or lockout.

"A West Coast shutdown has a huge risk. It could well trigger a crisis in international financial markets as speculators hear the news and just dump Asian currencies and stocks, and then wait to see whether it will be a quick strike -- a day or two -- or something more substantial, and severely hurt those economies," says Stephen Cohen, a UC Berkeley economics professor who is co-director of a research group known as the Berkeley Round Table on the International Economy. "When you start with a financial crisis, all sorts of very unpleasant things follow."

For most of the past 30 years, longshoremen have had good relations with shippers. Since the longshoremen-led San Francisco general strike of 1934, there has been only one West Coast dock-related work stoppage, in 1971. The longshoremen's union even cooperated with the introduction of labor-saving standardized shipping containers in the 1960s and '70s, in exchange for one of the most lucrative labor contracts in the world. Unionized longshore workers now earn between $105,278 and $340,000, depending on job category and hours worked, with part-timers making around $70,000 per year, according to the Washington Post.

Relations have been more contentious since 1996, when the Pacific Maritime Association brought in a president who came from the managed-health-care industry and who was dedicated to cutting costs. In 1999, workers initiated an undeclared strike, slowing work so much that shipping customers urged management negotiators to rescind demands for work force-reducing technological change. Workers won large increases in pensions and wages, and shippers didn't get technological efficiency that would cut costs, says Robin Lanier, director of the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, a trade group.

"The slowdowns were very disruptive," Lanier says. "Trade was getting through, but it was backing up ships and trade. Importers and exporters who used the ports got upset because of the slowdowns, and exerted pressure on the terminal operators to reach an agreement as soon as possible to make it go away."

The maritime association and the longshoremen's union have agreed not to speak to journalists during the current round of negotiations. But Lanier is under no such restriction, and he says things will be different in this negotiating round. Under the current contract, shippers are unable to use the kind of electronic tracking technology that companies such as FedEx and UPS have made commonplace. Instead, positions are reserved to do work that would be made instantly obsolete if simple technological upgrades were made. (For example, when ships reach port, dockworkers must now re-enter electronic manifests into computers, because there is no way to transfer the cargo lists from ship computers to shore computers. Similarly, rather than using bar codes and other types of standard warehousing technology, longshoremen now keep track of containers by driving around the docks in pickup trucks.)

The union, for its part, has told its members that the technology issue is a ruse masking a subtle effort by the maritime association to bust the union. Primary among shipper demands is that the union discontinue the old hiring-hall-and-chalkboard system of worker dispatching -- which requires workers to physically show up at a union hall before reporting to the job -- in favor of an automatic telephone dispatch system. Shippers say a revised system would mean workers could spend more time on the job; the union says it would be weakened by such a system, which could create the impression that hiring authority had been removed from union hands.

If the negotiations fail and a strike is called, the financial fallout would be large and, perhaps, global in scope. "Most people don't quite recognize that this is a pretty contentious set of negotiations," says Jack Kyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. "I've seen reports that the effect of a lockout would be $1 billion to $2 billion a day."

After a day's strike, New York financiers holding debt in Taiwan and Singapore might begin to sell, says Cohen, the Berkeley economist. Such a round of debt-dumping could start an astonishing number of financial dominoes tumbling. As financiers sold off their Asian investments, the value of the affected countries' currencies would begin to plummet as a result. Asian companies, whose income would drop sharply if they couldn't get their goods to the all-important American market via the West Coast, might teeter. Asian countries could begin raising interest rates in hopes of keeping investors from selling off more Asian stocks and bonds. But the high interest rates would make it impossible for Asian companies to borrow locally, and they would fail. If this cycle continued for too long, Cohen says, the entire global financial system could be at risk of cracking.

In the U.S., meanwhile, the raw-materials stocks of companies in states all over the west and Midwest -- many of which have recently adopted super-efficient "just in time" manufacturing techniques that allow just a tiny inventory of supplies to be kept on reserve -- would begin to dwindle. Very soon after a West Coast dock strike began, many U.S. manufacturers would cease operations.

"I wish these clowns a lot of luck," says Cohen, referring to both the longshoremen and the shippers now negotiating in San Francisco. The longshoremen are "far from poverty-stricken, and the shipping companies aren't exactly mom-and-pop businesses, so they can both sit it out."

Cohen's not so sure about the rest of us.

"The risk of collateral damage is hugely disproportionate," he says.

For all the economic portent of the dock negotiations, they also represent a new chapter of an important political and social story, especially here in San Francisco. Three-quarters of a century ago, under the leadership of charismatic union president Harry Bridges, San Francisco longshoremen really were oppressed laborers who rebelled and briefly shut the city down. They subsequently became one of the country's more democratic and progressive labor unions, and at the same time won theretofore unheard-of concessions from management.

Now, though, West Coast dockworkers are the labor movement's aristocrats; their leaders pay lip service to a laundry list of foreign and domestic leftist causes, while in reality behaving like any other narrowly focused interest group. Shippers, meanwhile, are talking about moving more goods through the Panama Canal, setting up distribution operations along the American Gulf Coast -- in short, changing trade routes so that West Coast longshoremen become a Rust Belt union along the lines of the Midwest's long-beleaguered steelworkers.

"To use a Harry Bridges-ism, they're [the longshoremen] after pork chops," says former Chronicle labor editor Dick Meister, who believes the Bay Area public will probably never read much in the way of daily newspaper stories about the apex and decline of the ILWU, the last of the nation's great labor unions. So far, the Chronicle has carried just a short story announcing that the shippers and longshoremen had entered negotiations. The possible global repercussions of a dockworker strike, and the domestic fallout if West Coast longshoremen reach too far and drive significant amounts of business to other ports, have gone undiscussed.

"You won't get much [coverage] until they're actually walking the picket line," Meister says.

But by the time regional newspaper editors are forced to pull somebody off the business desk and send him to ILWU headquarters, it might be too late. San Francisco's biggest-ever business story will be well under way, and there won't be a reporter to spare.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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