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Press Release

The Stranglehold on American Commerce


"We now have a new dock boss. His name is George W. Bush. Will the workers listen to Boy George? I don't know."
Richard Mead
President, Local 10 San Francisco
Quoted in the New York Times

On top of everything else, President Bush now has another hat to wear: labor mediator.

That’s because yesterday, the president successfully used the Taft-Hartley Act to order 10,500 longshoremen back to work in 29 Western ports. The Act allows court action against strikes and lockouts that "imperil the national health or safety."

Bush had no real choice here. The lockout has persisted for eleven days, costing the economy an estimated $10 billion. Over 200 cargo ships are stacked up in the Pacific, filled with goods needed for the U.S. economy and the war on terrorism, while American exports are languishing on the docks.

The alternative would be to let the lockout continue, costing the economy billions of dollars more. These losses translate directly into lost jobs and reduced opportunity for Americans. Indeed, as these ports handle nearly half of American international trade, a prolonged lockout would gouge our struggling economy. The President captured this in his speech yesterday: "Americans are working hard every day to bring our economy back from recession. This nation simply cannot afford to have hundreds of billions of dollars a year in potential manufacturing and agricultural trade sitting idle."

But, Bush’s decision to intervene is only the beginning. Will the union return to work at full speed, or will it just resume the 50% slowdown that led to this crisis? In order to keep everyone working, the courts are likely to approve an additional 80-day “cooling off” period, which will take the issue through the November elections and upcoming holiday season. It’s good that everyone is getting back to work, but the underlying problem, the heart of the crisis, remains unsolved.

That’s because this fight is not simply about better pay or safer working conditions. Full-time dock workers in the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union (ILWU) earn around $80,000 a year, and the pay scale goes up to $158,000. Even better, the newest contract proposal would provide most longshoremen with six-figure incomes.

Instead, the major issue is technology and the need to make U.S. ports more efficient. Port officials want to implement computer tracking tools to speed cargo handling. These tools are widely used by our competition in Asia and Europe. But the ILWU would rather stick with clipboards and paperwork.

That’s an outrageous position.

It’s outrageous that a union would actively pursue a policy that makes America less competitive than Asia and Europe.

It’s outrageous that, in a time of recession, terrorist threat, and possible war with Iraq, a union would deliberately hinder the business of fellow Americans in order to advance their own narrow goals.

Congress and the President need to examine this question: How have we reached this sad situation where 10,500 well-paid longshoremen can hold the nation’s economy hostage? How can a single aggressive union be allowed to put billions of dollars of commerce and thousands of American jobs at risk? What policies permit a single organization to monopolize the labor markets in America’s Western ports?

At the core, America needs a port system that is able to innovate, adopt the latest technology, and bring American commerce to the world in the most efficient way. Today, the ILWU clearly stands in the way of this necessary future.

President Bush took a difficult step to end the crisis of the last eleven days and to get the Western ports working again. He’s taken the risk of antagonizing Big Labor on the eve of the midterm election. It was the right move, but only the beginning. Let’s hope that the President and Congress will now act to solve the structural problems that have given a single small union this much power over the rest of America.