Profit, control and Wal-Mart equals union-busting

As the battle over the longshore contract with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) intensifies, corporate America is chomping at the bit at the prospect of even greater profits, if it can bust the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) currently in contract negotiations.

Wal-Mart is one of the leading retail and commercial corporations in the 50-member West Coast Waterfront Coalition which have been playing a key role in the industry’s campaign to draw the Bush Administration into the contract negotiations on the side of the employers.

Others in the coalition include such non-union corporate giants as Home Depot, Toyota, Gap, Mattel, Chiquita Brands, Best Buy, etc. Most of these corporations pay minimum wages, with no benefits to American workers, and many times less in wages and working conditions to their workers in third world countries.

An Associated Press report, August 14, that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. registered $2.04 billion profit for the three months ending July 31 this year, made clear that this profit margin is not enough.

But these corporations are never satisfied with their profit margin. The coalition has been active in issuing statements saying that a strike by the ILWU would “threaten the national economy” and disrupt the flow of goods to commercial enterprises.

Longshore workers handle 10 times the amount of cargo they did decades ago, but now have one-twentieth the people to do the work. And those numbers continue to decline as more ILWU clerks’ jobs are outsourced to inland areas like Utah, Nebraska and Arizona, or offshore to India, Singapore and Bangladesh.

In India, the Journal of Commerce says, ocean carriers are setting up service centers where computer-literate college graduates can be hired for $6-7000 a year compared to $30-40,000 in lower-cost U.S. cities, and over $60,000 in port cities where the ILWU has organized office workers.

The New York Times reports that the Singapore Port Authority has introduced an auto-piloted crane. A single operator at its computer system manages up to six cranes, directing them to fetch containers from a stockyard. That will certainly boost productivity and add substantially to company profits, but it will not add to the work force.

And that is the basis for the lack of trust in PMA President Miniace’s claim that being more competitive will create more jobs for longshore workers.

The claim, however, provided a convenient cover for Mr. Miniace to try to portray the longshore workers as “unreasonable” for rejecting his offer of new technology, a small wage increase, a two-tier medical plan, and no pension improvements as “making the ports more competitive, meaning additional jobs at the docks.” Miniace told The New York Times (8/13) that “under his proposal, jobs would dip by 400 over three years and then increase, surpassing current levels in 2007.”

The ILWU’s call for jurisdiction for the jobs of ship planners, who map cargo placement on ships, and certain jobs that are now management jobs, and the return of the outsourced jobs, would help to stanch the loss of clerks’ jobs and place some democratic control at the ports.

It would also mean that corporations like Wal-Mart, as well as the big shipping and stevedoring companies, might have to settle for a little less than a $2 billion profit for the quarter, but, as the man in the White House says, “we all have to make sacrifices for the good of the country.”

Herb Kaye is a retired seaman and teamster and frequent contributor to the People’s Weekly World/Nuestro Mundo.