Talk Story


Tuesday, October 8, 2002

Can the U.S. afford
a dock strike and
an Iraq attack?

THE shipping stoppage wasn't visible at our local grocery Sunday evening. There was a dearth of medium yellow onions but plenty of the red, jumbo white and Maui varieties. Otherwise, the aisles bulged with accustomed plenty.

By contrast, I remember a trip I made to Cuba, another island "workers' paradise," as a journalist in the late 1970s. After more than 15 years of trade embargo, one Havana store we visited had only a few cans of condensed milk and three or four dozen eggs to offer customers, who waited in line, ration cards in hand.

Port closures are serious business and this latest one is threatening to bump the invasion of Iraq into second spot in the national consciousness. Already, manufacturing operations that depend on just-in- time delivery of parts have shut down, such as the huge General Motors-Toyota assembly plant in Fremont, Calif.

The sticking point is control. Shipping company and port managers want to download shipping information into their computers rather than have International Longshore and Warehouse Union clerks enter it manually. The union wants staffing level guarantees and expanded jurisdiction.

Such impasses are nothing new. Every manager strives to use technology to cut costs. More efficient and productive companies compete better, boosting revenues for both salaries and the bottom line. In the end, becoming more efficient pays off for both stockholders and workers.

History has imbued passion into such struggles. The quintessential American manager was John D. Rockefeller. According to his biographer Ron Chernow, "He was a fine boss if workers abided by his rules, but if they did something foolish, like show interest in a union, they promptly forfeited his sympathy."

A 1915 strike to gain union recognition at Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Co. resulted in the Ludlow Massacre, when National Guardsmen shot up and burned the tents of striking workers and their families. Two women and 11 children died, martyrs to the cause of organized labor.

TODAY, it's the mission of union leaders, like the ILWU's Steve Stallone, to wrangle the biggest piece of the pie possible for workers. West Coast ILWU members are already the best-paid blue-collar workers in the country, with longshoremen averaging $82,895, clerks $118,844 and foremen $157,352.

After talks broke down over the weekend, Joe Miniace, president and CEO of the Pacific Maritime Association, said the ILWU turned down the offer of lifetime job guarantees, $1 billion in pension enhancements, a proposed 90-day contract extension and putting a federal mediator in control of the talks.

After the first week, the cost of the shutdown reportedly reached $2 billion dollars a day, a figure that will continue to rise as the ports remain shut. So many ships are anchored off the Los Angeles coast that observers say it looks like D-Day. Just the existing backlog will take six weeks to clear.

An unintended consequence of this impasse is that it strengthens the president's case against contract provisions covering job security and working conditions in the Homeland Security Act.

THE COST of invading Iraq in 1990-'91 was $61.1 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service. Our allies paid $48.4 billion, leaving us with a $12.7 billion tab.

House Democrats estimate that ousting Saddam will cost up to $59.8 billion if it takes two months and 250,000 troops. That's more than the federal government spends annually on education and health research combined, critics say.

This time, allies aren't standing in line to pay a share. As Samuel Berger, President Clinton's national security adviser, said, "If it's a coalition of one, it's a bill-payer of one."

The question George W. Bush must answer: Can we afford both a dock strike and an invasion of Iraq?

John Flanagan is the Star-Bulletin's contributing editor.
He can be reached at:

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