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US west coast labour talks: There must be a better way

American trade unionists have long argued that nothing is too good for the working class. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union likes to put that maxim to the test

Carriers will welcome the six-year settlement between port employers and dock worker representatives announced this week. But it’s time to move on from ritualised confrontations twice in every decade

A JOURNALIST once accused legendary American union leader Big Bill Haywood of hypocrisy, manifested in a taste for outlandishly oversized cigars. “Nothing’s too good for the working class,” Haywood famously shot back.

Such evidently remains the philosophy animating the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, whose members can take home as much as $200,000 a year once health insurance and pensions are factored in.

Foremen can make up to $300,000, surely placing them firmly among the upper echelons of the most highly remunerated blue-collar employees on the planet.

As in every other country, who should earn how much is a live political issue. Not for nothing is debate over whether train drivers are worth twice as much as nurses, and chief executives hundreds of times more than either, an easy option for producers wishing to get an instant dust up going on talk radio.

But in what remains the world’s richest nation, there is nothing intrinsically outrageous about dockers pulling down a good wedge.

That they do so is largely a consequence of the strength of ILWU’s bargaining position, of which the leadership usually takes maximum advantage every five years, when it renegotiates its contract with the 29 west coast ports represented by the Pacific Maritime Association.

For those who have been in the industry a while and seen the cycle round a few times, the whole affair has taken on a strangely ritualistic quality.

PMA routinely grumbles about the unfathomable iniquity of this alleged labour monopoly, and anguished reports of deadlocked negotiations filter through to an anxious world.

ILWU threatens to go on strike, and sometimes even actually walks out. Then the two parties come to terms, and everybody’s happy. Or rather, happy until it’s time to do it all again.

This time negotiations were unusually elongated, taking more than 13 months. Industrial action — on a scale that could potentially have derailed the peak season, with ramifications for the entire global supply chain — looked imminent. Nobody needed that.

So word of a resolution in the shape of a new six-year agreement, announced in a joint statement this week from PMA’s James McKenna and ILWU president Willie Adams, is good news.

Carriers will be relieved that industrial action of the type seen twice this century has been averted. There is now a degree of certainty, and thus a basis for stable planning between now and in six years’ time.

But from the viewpoint of some seasoned observers, the ILWU did not play its hand as strongly as it could have.

When talks began last May, US west coast ports had all the business they could handle, and then some. Carriers were still printing their own money.

It is probably stretching things to argue that the union could have asked for a 100% pay rise in exchange for an immediate settlement, and the PMA would capitulated then and there. But it isn’t stretching things by much.

Instead, the ILWU spent the next 10 months talking about automation. That may have had a lot of resonance with the rank and file, but is baked in anyway.

One year on, there is no congestion, carriers are running loss-making voyages again, and the PMA is prepared to play hardball.

Industrial action would arguably have done little harm at a time of low demand and might even have helped push up rates again.

Eyes will now turn to next year’s International Longshoremen’s Association negotiations on the east coast, where salaries are more modest and the militancy less strident.

ILA leader Harold Daggett is no pushover, and will be aware that the ongoing shift of traffic to his side of the continent in recent years will augment his clout over the bargaining table.

Despite that trend, the labour agreement for west coast ports is still crucial to US trade, and has often been politicised as a consequence. Bush threatened to send in troops to break thea go-slow in 2002, while Obama ordered mediation in the 2015 strike.

This time round, Biden took the trouble to swing by at the port of Los Angeles while negotiations were ongoing, making a speech that went out of its way to praise ILWU efforts.

Without wanting to invoke Einstein’s definition of madness, it is surely time to ask whether we must keep on going through this process at regular intervals. A non-strike agreement is likely a non-starter. But at the very least, the practice of letting things go to the wire should be discontinued.

Very little purpose is served by leaving talks to the last minute, and next time they should start well in advance of the deadline for getting to yes.

If the employers can live with those inflated salaries — and dock workers can live on them — then the spirit of Bill Haywood can live on.

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