Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Longshore Unions Provide Rich Benefits for Members

3/20/15 - If you were asked to list some types of people with jobs that pay over $100,000 per year, you might mention doctors, lawyers, and software engineers. Would you think to name dock workers? While many transit employees throughout the West Coast have been laid off or have seen their wages cut due to a recent increase in global trade, longshoremen (the laborers who move goods from the ship to the shore) have generally been able to protect their wages. In their article, Chris Kirkham and Andrew Khouri investigate the ways by which half of longshoremen on the West Coast make over $100,000 per year.

Not only do these many of these longshoremen make about $20 per hour on the low end, they earn even more on overtime and night shifts. It all comes down to the power of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. As witnessed during last month's shutdowns up and down the West Coast, those who control the ports seem to control international trade. Even now that contract negotiations have been completed and the ports are open once again, it is predicted that the docks won't be back to normal for up to three months, and many businesses may never get back the money they lost during the port closure.

Although many members of the longshoremen union make well over $100,000 and all members receive free healthcare benefits, union spokesman Craig Merrilees claims that there are thousands of “casual workers” who are unable to get full-time work and don't get the benefits provided for union members. Merrilees states that these workers often spend years, without such benefits, trying to become a member of the union. Unfortunately, the Pacific Maritime Association, through which the wage statistics for union longshoremen were received, refused Kirkham's and Khouri's requests for the wage statistics of non-members, so Merrilees' assertions could be neither confirmed nor denied.

Longshoremen and the ILWU have a kind of monopoly on the ports. Not only did the port union leaders successfully create a contract in 1930 that linked most of the West Coast ports together, the unions have over the years been able to negotiate for better pay and benefits in the midst of technological improvements. Even the advent of such innovations as shipping containers, which require far fewer workers to transport, have led to better pensions and richer buyouts for those workers who are laid off due to the new technology.

The ILWU knows how to work the system. That appears to be how longshoremen are making so much money in a field where most workers make $10 - $11 per hour. When billions of dollars worth of goods pass through a set of ports each year, those people working the ports control the goods. The unions seem to be able to negotiate whatever contract they want, because companies need the ports in order to have any kind of international trade.

Slowly but surely, the unions may be losing their control. As computers systems and machines come in and replace employees, especially those doing clerical work, the unions may have trouble keeping benefits and high wages. While goods can be produced in other countries, and manufacturing can be easily outsourced, ports are a constant, unable to be moved somewhere with lower wages. Despite this, Kirkham's and Khouri's sources are confident that the high wages in the current low-wage transportation industry will not last. It's only a matter of time before technology and innovation force a change.

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