Life in the Age of Electronics

On The Waterfront

A West Coast longshore workers strike is looking likely. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which represents the dock workers and clerks at the ports from Long Beach to Seattle, is stuck in contract talks with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents the major shipping lines, over who's going to pay what for health care benefits.

All that stuff on the shelves at Walmart and Target -- big surprise -- is made across the big water in the sweatshops of Asia. Somehow it has to get to Walmart and Target. In the global economy, the transportation section of the economy -- shipping, trucking, warehousing, railroads -- plays a key role. It's relatively easy to move a factory from Chicago or Buffalo to Mexico or Indonesia; it's hard to move 280 million consumers. So the big retailers are stuck having to deal with transportation workers.

Shipping, like every other part of the economy, has been undergoing a technology revolution; and, as a result, an upheaval in the way it is organized and run. The big modern container ships are so big that they can't get through the Panama Canal. Which means goods destined for the U.S. must pass through the west coast docks. The west coast ports, and especially the ports of Los Angeles, are the gateways to the malls of America.

A lot is at stake. According to Edna Bonacich, a researcher at the University of California - Riverside, a one week strike on the west coast docks would cost American business $5 billion. A two-week strike would cost them $20 billion. Modern manufacturing relies on "just-in-time" production; modern retailing relies on "just-in-time" goods. That is, there aren't lots and lots of computer chips or shoes sitting in warehouses -- the factories and stores count on a smoothly flowing distribution pipeline to keep the assembly line and shelves primed. An interruption of more than just a few days quickly disrupts the global assembly line.

More information on globalization, the transportation industry, and the strike situation

September 11 provided the cover for a big advance in the building a police state begun under Clinton and U.S. administrations before him. Now just about anything that threatens the interest of capitalism is being passed off as a security threat. In the inside-out logic of the Bush regime, a humming U.S. economy needs working docks, therefore a longshore strike would be a security threat. As would any effort by workers and people without to defend their rights or secure basics like housing, food, health care, etc. The Bush administration is considering its options. These include the invoking a range of laws to break a strike, up to and including using the U.S. Navy to work the docks -- a wartime measure, but, after all, we are in a war against terror.

Beyond the current looming strike, the march of technology proceeds apace. The shipping companies and the giant retailers who pull their strings want deregulated, strike-free, smooth-running ports. Like the Liverpool "dockers" and the Australian "dockers" before them, the workers of the ILWU stand in the way. The ILWU faces a future of automated docks. But blocking new technology that relieves people of dangerous, dull or dirty work is no answer. The problem is an economic system that blocks new technology from being used for the benefit of all, and instead uses new technology to terrorize people with a future of poverty.

The west coast dock situation demands that we defend what the ILWU has won. It also demands that we fight not just against each new brick of the police state, but for a new economy free of the terror of poverty. The whole situation points to a need for a political party to represent our class -- like the Labor Party.

Jim Davis

Additional information on the west coast dock situation

David Bacon, "Bush Threatens Dockers' Right To Strike"

International Longshore and Warehouse Union

Pacific Maritime Association
(This is the trade association that represents the shippers)

West Coast Waterfront Coalition
(This is the association of shipping customers whose businesses depend on the steady flow of goods through the ports. Its members include Gap, Home Depot, Target, Walmart, etc.)

League writings on globalization
League writings on September 11
People's Tribune/Tribuno del Pueblo editorial: Police state is aimed at the poor

In a talk at a globalization conference in Chicago last May, Edna Bonacich, a researcher at the University of California - Riverside, described the trans-Pacific shipping industry. The next bit is from notes I took at the conference -- jd

In the drive to cut costs, much of the transportation sector has been de-regulated. Most shipping lines register their ships under "flags of convenience", like Panama or Liberia, where enforcing maritime laws is difficult. The boats are basically floating sweatshops. The use of standard-sized containers going back to the 1960s (pioneered, by the way, by the U.S. Navy to make it easier to move stuff in wartime), coupled with advanced computer and imaging technology, have led to largely automated docks (which is actually the case in the Rotterdam port in Holland). Boats can be unloaded so fast that shore leave for the handful of predominantly Filipino or Chinese sailors is a thing of the past, making them virtual prisoners on the boats for months at a time. In the most important port of L.A., the goods are loaded onto trucks driven by "independent contractors" -- code words for low paid, high-stressed, often undocumented workers, "sweatshops on wheels" -- and hauled up I-10 to the giant warehouse complexes of the Inland Empire. There, the goods are sorted by close-to-minimum wage workers for trucks or rail destined to the Walmarts and Targets of the heartland. And there still are a lot of factories in the U.S. that depends on parts and materials from Asia. In the middle, are the relative handful of unionized, well-paid ILWU workers running the cranes and processing the paperwork at the docks.

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