Labor Pains: Because Being in a Union can be Painful

Longshoremen Strike May Come to the East and Gulf Coasts

No one likes being late to the party. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s (ILWU) recent strike at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach may have ended earlier this month, but their East and Gulf Coast brethren from the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) apparently want their slice of the strike pie, too. The ILA’s 200-member wage committee recently voted to authorize a strike if their current bargaining negotiations fail to produce a union-friendly contract by December 29.

The strike could affect more than 14,500 ILA members. The geographical range of these workers includes American ports from Maine to Texas—a much larger range than ILWU’s California strike, which only affected two ports, albeit two of the largest in the country.

Economically, this strike could be devastating. One risk management firm is reporting that the strike would mean “inventory depletion, rerouting, hoarding, and price speculation ripple through supply chains of global companies.” Trade associations and business federations have also chimed in, noting that millions of American jobs will be adversely affected by a strike.

The contract negotiations have broken down over the question of a cap on “container royalties.” These fees were introduced in the 1960s to cushion union jobs threatened by automation and technological advances. Since then, the royalties have become a de facto form of compensation—regardless of whether a worker’s job is threatened by technology. Today, they average $15,500 per ILA worker per year and cost the East Coast and Gulf port industry over $211 million last year alone.

Port management wants to cap these fees, which have skyrocketed by as much as 500 percent at some locations in the last fourteen years. Considering that ILA members average a $120,000 annual salary, before overtime and benefits, it’s hard to believe that longshoremen desperately need the royalty rate to rise any further.

The ILA sees things differently. They want these fees to keep growing—and the faster the better. Self-interest may be at play here: the union gets ten percent of each royalty, which led to $21 million additional revenue in 2011.

It remains to be seen whether the 14,500 ILA members actually want this strike, or whether they’re being forced into it by the 200 members of their wage board—who comprise a mere 1.3 percent of total ILA membership. But one thing is certain: Without a secret ballot vote on strikes, these workers aren’t able to freely disagree with the union bosses who are pushing them off the docks and leaving them adrift at sea.

Categories: AFL-CIOCenter for Union Facts