Seventy-four years ago, longshoremen on the West Coast walked off the job to protest the imposition of an "open shop" by shipping and stevedoring firms. The strike, known variously as the West Coast Longshoremen’s Strike and the West Coast Waterfront Strike, soon sparked a sympathy strike from sailors and then a general strike in San Francisco that shut down the city for four days and culminated with "Bloody Thursday".
On Thursday, July 5th, the owners tried to forcibly open the ports. Police fired tear gas into the crowd of picketers, then charged in on horseback where they were met with rocks and spent gas canisters. Both sides retreated and regrouped several times. In the evening, after strikers tipped over a squad car, police opened fire, killing a striker and sympathizer. July 5th remains a holiday for West Coast longshoremen to this day.
The strike was a watershed event in labor history. The West Coast longshoremen, under the leadership of Harry Bridges, split from the more conservative, East Coast-based International Longshoremen’s Association and formed the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).
The strike, along with similar strikes in Minneapolis and Toledo that year, also helped to bring about the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
While unions have seen their clout wane in recent years, the ILWU remains a potent force for labor and often a thorn in the side for the ruling class. In 2002, they forced Bush to invoke the dreaded Taft-Hartley Act to force an end to a union slow down and this past May Day they stayed home to protest the War.
A big part of the reason that the ILWU can ensure a high standard of living for its members and maintain its often militant independence is that it doesn’t face the same threats as many unionized workers -- you can’t move ports oversees. Or can you?
The ILWU’s strike of 1971 brought the union face-to-face with a new reality of the modern world – containers. Container shipping made it easier to simply transfer US-bound cargo to ports in Canada or Mexico, where they could be unloaded and trucked to the US.
The union won a partial victory in the strike, however, because Canadian ILWU longshoremen refused to unload ships heading for the US and American teamsters refused to ship goods from Mexican ports.
But Rome marches on.
A provision of NAFTA requires that all roads in the US, Mexico and Canada are open to truckers from all three nations. Because of opposition by teamsters and many in Congress, the full implementation of this provision was delayed for several years. (In 2001 Bush vetoed, incredibly, a bill that would require Mexican trucks to meet the same safety standards as American and Canadian trucks). While Canadian trucks were allowed full access to American highways, Mexican trucks were limited to within twenty miles of the border. Loads destined beyond this area were transferred to American trucks.
In September of last year, the Bush Administration launched a one-year pilot program to allow full access for Mexican trucks. The Senate immediately voted to withhold money need for the program from the Department of Transportation.
The use of Mexican truckers will, of course, result in huge savings for shippers. This passage from the investment website, seekingalpha.com, gives you a good idea:
The average US driver earns $.40 per mile, while the average. Mexican driver earns $.18 per mile. Based on 2007 results, I estimate that CLDN (a shipping company ~ eds) could realize a maximum of roughly $25 million annually by using all Mexican drivers for freight originating in Mexico. Even if CLDN is only able to recognize half of the potential savings, a $12.5m perpetuity discounted by their cost of capital (~12%) is worth $104m which, compared to the market cap of $218m, is significant.
But beside the immediate impact to the earning power of American (or even Canadian) truckers, is the long-term impact on longshoremen and the ILWU.
The Kansas City SmartPort is a state-of-the-art transshipment hub located in the heart of North America. The SmartPort is at the center of rail lines and highways that spread to all North American ports, including the recently upgraded port of Lazaro Cardenas (which has an exclusive rail access with Kansas City Southern Railroad) and the planned Punta Colonet in Mexico.
Nobody, save a few nuts who endlessly worry about "American sovereignty", expects teamsters and ILWU’ers to be supplanted overnight. But the implementation of NAFTA and the slow motion re-orientation of our nations shipment grid – away from coastal cities, to Mexico and up through Texas should give every working person pause.