OAKLAND, CALIF. -- To American unions, globalization is a nefarious force that has wiped out the jobs of millions of well-paid blue-collar workers.
But the members of one union have played the global-trading system as well as any international investor: the longshoremen. They wield so much power that they have managed to obtain cradle-to-grave benefits and salaries to make many white-collar college graduates envious. For the longshoremen, globalization has been nothing but a blessing.
Full-time West Coast dockworkers who load and unload ships make on average nearly $100,000 a year, while clerks who keep track of cargo movements average $120,000. Not only does the medical coverage for active longshoremen require no out-of-pocket expenses, but the same holds true for retirees.
The benefits package, according to management, averages $42,000 a year, more than many Americans make in a year.
One other benefit: They get a paid day off to celebrate the birth of their Marxist founder, Harry Bridges.
There is a simple explanation why the longshoremen have benefited so much from globalization. They control the chokepoints that can halt the flow of imports and exports that American consumers and businesses depend on. In other words, the 10,500 longshoremen on the West Coast have the power to paralyze the $300 billion in cargo that flows through these ports every year.
In the past, management has often surrendered to the demands of dockworkers instead of enduring a strike or slowdown. This time, officials with the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents port operators and shipping lines, shut 29 ports last week and locked out the workers after complaining that the workers were engaged in a slowdown. The association wants the right to introduce new technology to speed cargo handling, while the International Longshore and Warehouse Union wants the remaining jobs to be under its jurisdiction.
The longshoremen hold an unusually strong hand. "They are one of the highest-paid blue-collar groups because of their strategic location in terms of controlling where goods funnel from ports to the nation's roads and railroads," said Howard Kimeldorf, a University of Michigan professor who wrote a book on dockworkers. "They have enormous bargaining clout because they have the power to stop all those goods."
Because of their handsome pay, the longshoremen can easily endure a prolonged work stoppage. Management is hard-put to use strikebreakers to replace them, not wanting to risk using inexperienced people to operate cranes that move containers half the size of railroad cars.
If workers at U.S. Steel or Caterpillar strike, it is easy for those companies' customers to buy steel or tractors from competitors. But if the longshoremen walk out, shipping lines cannot divert their cargo to other ports. Mexico's ports and roads cannot handle the cargo, Canadian longshoremen won't unload the diverted ships and East Coast ports are unavailable because the Panama Canal is too small to handle the huge Pacific ships.
In the past, retailers, farmers and manufacturers, who rely on trade, often pushed management to settle quickly by capitulating to the longshoremen. The just-in-time delivery system used by many factories and retailers leaves little margin for delay.
The longshoremen have also benefited from an unusual solidarity. New workers must takes courses about the union's history. And besides getting a day off for the union's founder, they also get to take Bloody Thursday, commemorating the day during a 1934 strike when two longshoremen were killed in San Francisco. The painted outlines of where the workers fell remain a longshoremen's shrine.