The High Cost of Labor Strife at U.S. Ports

Cranes move shipping containers at the Port of Long Beach Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. (Allen J. Schaben /Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

Dear Capitolisters,

It seems like eons ago that I first wrote about some of the long-term, systemic problems at U.S. ports, and—spoiler alert—nothing much has changed. In fact, the long-simmering, semi-decennial contract talks between the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) and West Coast port operators has, as I warned last year, officially entered a new phase of bad, with recent months’ work slowdowns turning into a full-on work stoppage right before Easter:

Other recent “work actions”—a euphemism for “not striking but not working in good faith either”—have also occurred, and with increasing regularity. The Journal of Commerce, for example, reported this week that ILWU dockworkers are now targeting the small handful of Los Angeles/Long Beach port terminals that are semiautomated, “red-tagging” cargo-handling equipment there (which deems it unsafe and forces an inspection) and thus further bogging things down. This, as the industry mag FreightWaves humorously explained last week, is par for the course and signals more strife in the weeks ahead: “Labor action at West Coast ports does not have a history of being explicitly confirmed; rather, it takes the form of passive-aggressive behavior that escalates with increasingly implausible deniability.” 

As we’ve discussed repeatedly, labor disputes at U.S. ports occur somewhat regularly (basically every five years or so when the current contract is up), especially out West, and have recently centered on the issue of automation: Port operators and ocean carriers want to use robots, autonomous vehicles, drones, and other cool tech to boost container processing efficiency (“throughput”), while port unions strongly oppose this “job-killing” modernization. And, because the ILWU represents basically all dockworkers on the entire U.S. West Coast (22,000 of them at last count), because those ports are so critical to U.S. trade (especially imports from and exports to Asia), and because both labor law and California politics heavily favor the union, the ILWU been extremely successful in blocking technology that’s widely used around the world (even in places like Europe with strong labor unions): 

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