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Economic Dignity

What the Longshore Union Strike Was All About

by DAVID MACARAY

When the story first broke, when those 800 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 63 Office Clerical Unit walked off their jobs and effectively shut down the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, it was treated by the media as your stereotypical union money-grab.

The LA Times gleefully reported that the ILWU was already making $165,000 a year, but incredibly, had turned down a company offer of $195,00, plus 11 weeks paid vacation, plus generous pension improvements.  According to the media, this was a whopper of a contract offer, yet the union selfishly decided to go on strike rather than accept it.

Naturally, given the recessionary times we live in and the manner in which the story was reported, any blue-collar pilgrim struggling to make it on $50,000 a year—or any white-collar mandarin with a smug, built-in contempt for organized labor—is going to go ape-shit.  A bunch of glorified paper-pushers with high school diplomas are turning down an offer of almost $200,000?  What on earth could they be thinking?

But the initial reports were stunningly inaccurate.  One reason for that inaccuracy was institutional carelessness.  Because the media are in such a hurry to get their stories in print or on the air, they don’t have the time to research the facts.  Another reason the media automatically take management’s side is a bit more venal.  The mainstream media are owned by mega-corporations, and any overwhelmingly anti-union story is always in demand.

As a former union negotiator, I’m familiar with how companies portray their contract offers when trying curry favor with the public, and that story isn’t pretty.  Knowing that the media is gullible, a company will—instead of isolating actual wages from other expenses—purposely throw everything into one hopper and then reconfigure it as an hourly (or annual) rate.

For example, let’s say the median rate is $20 per hour.  Because the company is more interested in winning the public relations battle than providing the facts, they will not simply announce that, at $20 per hour, the annual median income works out to $41,600.  But that’s too pedestrian a figure to get a rise out of the public.  Instead, they’ll try to portray workers as ungrateful and greedy.

They’ll add holidays, sick leave, vacations, overtime, call time, and shift differential.  They’ll add the long-term actuarial costs of pensions, health insurance and inflation, the costs of cafeteria chits, safety shoes, and laundry fees.  And then, in order to give this bloated sum a magnificent send-off, they’ll convert the whole thing into an hourly wage, so that when a naïve reporter asks how much the workers are making, the company can answer “$78 per hour,” and the public can go berserk.

That median vs. hourly rate is another management scam.  Companies misrepresent their payrolls.  Say you have a lop-sided progression ladder consisting of two job rates:  $32 per hour, and $18 per hour.  There are 40 workers on this progression ladder, 38 of whom earn $18 per hour, and 2—the two at the very top—who earn $32 per hour.  Management will tell the media the “average” pay is $25 per hour (32 plus 18, divided by 2).

Some truths about this ILWU shutdown:  First, the strike wasn’t about money.  These logistical workers earn about $41 per hour, a solid middle-class income.  Second, it wasn’t “spontaneous.”  They’ve been working without a contract for two and a half years, since June, 2010. Third, and most importantly, the strike was about job security—not their own, but that of future employees.

Anyone who’s been paying attention to the economy knows that the biggest labor story of the last quarter-century is the loss of American jobs, particularly those that pay decent wages.  Realizing they had the necessary clout to make themselves heard, the ILWU took it upon themselves to insist that this job drain end now, at least in the shipping business.  They were looking to save future American jobs, not line their pockets.

Instead of regarding this strike as an exercise in greed or self-interest, we should regard it for what it was—an attempt to provide the American worker with economic dignity.  And who else, besides a labor union, is going to concern itself with a worker’s dignity?  The Chamber of Commerce?  The World Bank?  Wall Street??  The ILWU should be applauded for drawing attention to what has become a national disgrace.

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd edition), was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net