What the Longshoremen's Strike Was Really About

LONG BEACH, CA - NOVEMBER 29:  Members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 Office Clerical Unit walk a pi
LONG BEACH, CA - NOVEMBER 29: Members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 Office Clerical Unit walk a picket line near APM Terminals, halting cargo at the busiest seaport complex in the nation on November 29, 2012 in Long Beach, California. The strike is the largest work stoppage at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach since a lockout by shipping companies in 2002, which prompted President George W. Bush to intervene with a court injunction to resolve the standoff. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

When the story first broke, when those 800 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 63 Office Clerical Unit walked off their jobs and effectively shut down the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, it was treated by the media as your stereotypical union money-grab.

The media gleefully reported that the ILWU was already making $165,000 a year, but incredibly, had turned down a company offer of $195,000, plus 11 weeks paid vacation, plus generous pension improvements. According to the news reports, this was one whopper of a contract offer, yet the union selfishly and stupidly had decided to go on strike rather than accept it.

Naturally, given the recessionary times we live in and the manner in which the story was reported, any blue-collar pilgrim struggling to make it on $50,000 a year -- or any white-collar mandarin with a smug, built-in contempt for organized labor -- is going to go berserk. A bunch of glorified paper-pushers with high school diplomas are turning down an offer of almost $200,000? What on earth could they be thinking?

But the initial reports were stunningly inaccurate. One reason for that inaccuracy was institutional carelessness; the media are in such a hurry to get their stories in print or on the air, they don't have the time to research the facts. Another reason the media automatically took management's side is a bit more venal. The mainstream media are owned by large corporations. Any overwhelmingly anti-union or anti-worker or anti-tax story is always welcome.

As a former negotiator, I'm familiar with how companies portray contract offers when trying to curry favor with the public. During a wage dispute, instead of isolating actual wages from other expenses, a company will purposely throw everything into one hopper and then reconfigure it as an hourly (or annual) rate.

For example, say the median rate is $20 per hour. Instead of announcing that, at $20 per hour, the annual median income works out to $41,600, they will add holiday pay, sick leave, vacations, overtime, call time, and shift differential. They will add the long-term actuarial costs of pensions, health insurance and inflation, the costs of cafeteria chits, safety shoes, and laundry fees.

And then, in order to give this bloated sum a magnificent send-off, they will convert the whole thing into an hourly wage, so that when a naïve reporter asks how much the workers are making, the company can answer "$78 per hour," and the public can go berserk.

That median vs. hourly rate is another bit of fudging. Companies often misrepresent their payrolls. Say you have a lop-sided progression ladder consisting of two job rates: $32 per hour, and $18 per hour. There are 40 workers on this progression ladder, 38 of whom earn $18 per hour, and two -- the two at the very top -- who earn $32 per hour. Management will tell the media the "average" pay is $25 per hour (32 plus 18, divided by two).

Some truths about this ILWU shutdown: First, the strike wasn't about money. These logistical workers earn about $41 per hour, a solid middle-class income. Second, it wasn't "spontaneous." They've been working without a contract for two and a half years, since June 2010. Third, and most importantly, the strike was about job security -- not their own, but that of future employees.

Anyone who's been paying attention to the economy knows that the biggest labor story of the last quarter-century is the loss of American jobs, particularly those that pay decent wages. Realizing they had the necessary clout to make themselves heard, the ILWU took it upon themselves to insist that this job drain end now, at least in the shipping business. They were looking to save future American jobs, not line their pockets.

Instead of regarding this strike as an exercise in greed or self-interest, we should regard it for what it was -- an attempt to provide the American worker with economic dignity. And who else, besides a labor union, is going to concern itself with a worker's dignity? The Chamber of Commerce? The World Bank? Wall Street?? The ILWU should be applauded for drawing attention to what has become a national disgrace.

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor," 2nd edition), was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net