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Learning More About Longshoremen And Their Powerful Union


A standoff between dockworkers and shipping lines at 29 West Coast ports is reverberating throughout the United States and well beyond. Cargo congestion has products adrift at sea and produce rotting on docks. It's costing the U.S. economy millions of dollars every day.


The situation is serious enough that President Obama has sent his secretaries of labor and commerce to try to break the deadlock. This morning, we're going to take a closer look at the dockworkers' union. Dockworkers on the East Coast, of course, were portrayed in the classic film "On The Waterfront." For perspective on the West Coast union, we reached Steven Greenhouse, who covered labor issues for The New York Times for two decades.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So we have two powerful forces here: the shipping industry and this very powerful union, the longshoremen's union. And the shipping industry says that the longshoremen have engaged in a slowdown for months and months. Their contract expired in July. The longshoremen are angry that all these months have gone by and there's no contract, so they've slowed down. And now management has locked them out, actually closed down the ports, to say we're not going to give you all this extra overtime and weekend premium because you've slowed down.

MONTAGNE: Tell us a little about the union. What was a longshoreman?

GREENHOUSE: So longshoremen are the people who unload ships. And the longshore unions, both on the East Coast and West Coast, have in many ways more power than many, many other unions because they have the leverage to shut down billions and billions of dollars in commerce by walking out. The 29 West Coast ports supposedly handle about $1 trillion of goods each year.

MONTAGNE: They have lost power over the last few decades, have they not?

GREENHOUSE: Well, yes and no, Renee. You know, we've become a more globalized nation, more globalized world with more and more trade. And to the extent that these unions can shut down the ports through which so much merchandise travels every day - the goods for Walmart, you know, the exports from American wheat farms in North Dakota and Kansas, fruits and vegetables from California - they still have a whole lot of power to really shut things down and place leverage on the shipping companies and the port operators.

MONTAGNE: Has this union not been touched by the sorts of things that have affected other unions - mechanization - you know, in what way have they been shielded from the sorts of things that have affected other unions?

GREENHOUSE: Their numbers have dwindled tremendously because of automation. You know, there are about 14,000 longshoremen on the West Coast. Even though their numbers are fewer, they're still powerful. A lot of American workers, a lot of American labor unions hate increased imports. All the computers and TVs made in China - on a certain level, they're taking away jobs from Americans even though they might make things cheaper for American consumers. But this is all good for the longshoremen because it means more trade, more imports, more jobs, greater need of people to run the cranes to take all these goods off the ships.

MONTAGNE: Well, other unions have realized in this last - certainly this last decade that they needed to give up certain benefits to survive. Have the longshoremen gotten to this point?

GREENHOUSE: The longshoremen are among the royalty of labor. They handle billions and billions, tens of billions, hundreds of billions of dollars in goods. So they have a lot of leverage. When you have a lot of leverage that means you could squeeze the employer to be more generous. So, you know, the West Coast longshoremen average about $35 an hour. Many of them have various wage premiums that lift them to about $50 an hour. But all in all, these workers do very, very well - in ways like airline pilots, you know. They have the power to really shut things down and create havoc for companies and the public.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.

GREENHOUSE: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Steven Greenhouse covered labor for The New York Times for nearly 20 years. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.