Earlier this week, Politico published an article entitled, “Are West Coast longshoremen spoiling Christmas?” The article details how the on-going labor dispute between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), the group representing port employers, is slowing down cargo shipments going through West Coast ports. The slowdown—which PMA argues is deliberate on the part of ILWU—has made popular Christmas items harder to find. In addition to spoiling food, dock warehouses are piling up with unshipped Zoomer Dinos, Longchamp Totes, or Samsung LED flat-screen TVs.
As SHIFT has reported, the two parties are struggling to reach an agreement for a new labor contract. A significant factor preventing a successful negotiation is the increase of healthcare costs associated with Obamacare. The ILWU is “fighting to keep its current health care benefits despite the estimated annual $190 million increase to their plans under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that neither side in the negotiations wants to absorb.”
In November, PMA accused ILWU of deliberately slowing down work and causing port traffic specifically at the ports of Seattle, Tacoma, Los Angeles and Long Beach (which handle nearly 80 percent of all containerized cargo along the West Coast). Though the ILWU denies the accusations, the facts speak for themselves. In early November, port workers in Seattle and Tacoma “refused to work but just a few hours a day, causing a big backup at both ports. It’s so bad at the terminals in Tacoma that they are no longer accepting exports.”
Yet, responding to Politico’s report, the Washington State Labor Council (WSLC) fervently defended the ILWU via its online news outlet, the Stand. Referring to PMA’s allegations as a “smear campaign” and attributing the media’s reports to journalists who aren’t interested in writing about “complex issues,” the WSLC downplayed ILWU’s culpability in port slowdowns.
Instead, the Stand article points to “shippers’ own short-sighted cost-cutting changes” as the cause for the unshipped merchandise piling up in dock warehouses. However, though the article explains which cost-cutting changes are affecting ILWU’s ability to move products, it fails to mention that workers in Seattle and Tacoma refused (at least in the past) to work more than few hours a day.
The Stand article also fails to mention what the Politico article refers to as “‘work to rule,’ a labor tactic in which dock workers are encouraged to follow written company production rules as literally as possible, bypassing the many everyday shortcuts typically taken to get a job done in the real world.” Politico writes,
“Workers comply maximally with the rulebook in order to comply minimally with the practical imperatives of speed and efficiency. If a don’t-do-it-if-it’s-stupid exception isn’t spelled out in the rulebook, you follow the not-really-necessary rule anyway, because, well, hey, it says here I’m supposed to.”
Though given the opportunity, ILWU does not deny it’s engaging in work to rule—which is probably why the Stand failed to mention it.
So, it appears, the question “Are West Coast longshoremen spoiling Christmas?” is still relevant.