Editor’s note: Mark Mix is the president of the National Right to Work Committee.
For nearly a century, American employees, consumers, and business owners have suffered a chain of abuses by the small contingent of International Longshoremen’s Association and International Longshore Warehouse Union officials who largely control our nation’s seaports.
Thanks to the D.C. beltway politicians who have endowed ILA and ILWU chiefs with monopoly bargaining power over how longshore workers are managed and compensated, our port system is inefficient and lumbering by international standards.
As Peter Tirschwell, a veteran journalist specializing in shipping and trade issues, explained in the Journal of Commerce this April, a “long history of toxic labor-management relations, particularly on the West Coast, has led to many of the issues at the heart” of U.S. container flow today:
“Huge cost increases, limited ability to automate terminals, chronic avoidable disruption during contract negotiations, and far lower productivity and working hours compared with ports in Asia and elsewhere around the world are at the core of the issue.”
This year, as household spending rebounds after plummeting during the brief, steep COVID-19 recession, these issues have come into even starker relief.
By early October, “more than 60 container ships carrying clothing, furniture and electronics worth billions of dollars” were “stuck outside Los Angeles and Long Beach terminals, waiting to unload …”
This extraordinary logjam was so alarming that it prompted union-label President Joe Biden to hold an Oct. 13 press conference touting his administration’s “success” in securing commitments from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to begin operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Of course, President Biden’s intervention ignored the straitjacket ILWU-boss work rules that keep productivity on West Coast ports abysmally low at all times and have reportedly slowed operations almost to a halt in recent weeks. Consequently, it was doomed to fail
By Oct. 29, the number of container ships docked outside the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach had soared to over 100! (These two ports combined handle as much as 40% of total U.S. export/import volume every year, and respectively rank No. 328 and No. 333 globally for container port performance, according to the World Bank.)
Even if ILWU-controlled crane operators were transferring containers from ships to trucks diligently, recent interventions by Big Labor legislators in Sacramento would likely ensure a shortage of truckers available to distribute the goods efficiently.
The most onerous of the multiple obstructions to port commerce imposed by union-label Sacramento politicians is A.B. 5, which was adopted in 2019. This outrageous scheme is designed to help union bosses corral Californians into unions by making it virtually impossible for them to work as independent contractors.
Litigation has held up its implementation in the trucking industry, but in the near future it could effectively bar truck owner-operators, even though an estimated 80% of the truckers who serve the L.A. and Long Beach ports are owner-operators. Many drivers who wish to continue being owner-operators have undoubtedly already left the state.
The genuine solution to America’s chronically underperforming ports is to repeal all federal and state laws that authorize and promote Big Labor monopoly control over longshore employees. But the political establishments in Washington and Sacramento are apparently not ready to do anything as sensible as that.
Until then, California may be in danger of getting passed over completely by shippers, who can traverse the Panama Canal and unload in ports located in Right to Work states along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts, where a number of ports are still able to “supplement their unionized labor force with non-union workers” and productivity is far higher.