Sunday, September 26, 2004

And related to the write-up just posted on the west coast dock situation two years ago (should be just below), the Wall Street Journal carried a news story by Margot Cohen last week (9/22/04) "Wave of the Future: China, Vietnam Supplant Philippines as Port of Call For Finding Low-Cost Crews". In the previous post I referred to a talk by Edna Bonacich that included info about the nature of sailor labor. This article brings that aspect of global transportation up-to-date.

"The shipping industry is searching the world for new sources of seafarers. Pressured to cut costs and boost competitiveness, shipowners are looking for ordinary seamen -- known as 'ratings' -- who are willing to work for lower salaries and endure tougher conditions than their current crews are. That search is taking owners everywhere from China, Vietnam and Myanmar to Latvia, Georgia and Ukraine."

"About a third of seamen come from just one nation: the Philippines. Thanks, in part, to their superior English and compatibility with other nationalities on board, Philippine seamen have come to dominate this labor market over the past 15 years. But over the years, the Filipinos' unions have secured pay raises for their members that shipowners find increasingly burdensome."

[So what was once low cost labor supplier (in this case the Phillippines) becomes even too expensive (we're talking $1100 - 1500 per month, including overtime and benefits), and so the search is on for even cheaper labor. However, the situation is more complex than just finding workers with modern sailing skills. Language is important -- English is the esperanto of the shipping industry so sailors without that skill are at a disadvantage. And also, given crews of mixed countries of origin, the ability to culturally mix is important too. The nature of the labor requires cooperation at the point of production (or transportation as the case may be).]

"And so, once again, owners are searching for new crews, just as they have done many times in the past: In the 1970s, European ratings were largely replaced by Indians who were, in turn, displaced by Filipinos in the 1980s. In the early 1990s, the collapse of the Iron Curtain left the global shipping industry flush with well-trained and experienced seamen from Eastern Europe, who now account for about 25% of ratings. Now, as their own economies improve, the pickings are getting slimmer."

[An index of the swath cut by globalization...]

So here is an aspect of the network of globalization -- the links expressed by the shipping industry, and within that link, the detail of the workers, and the network of their relations to each other.


The following is a column I wrote a couple of years ago as a strike was looming on the West Coast docks in the U.S. The world economy, as a network, is connected in many ways, not the least of which is the transportation system which moves goods from producer to market; or market to consumer. The digital transport system is a part of this (i.e., the Internet and other digital communication systems). Older forms are still key components also, for moving about those things which cannot be digitally rendered.

A West Coast longshore workers strike is looking likely. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which represents the dock workers and clerks at the ports from Long Beach to Seattle, is stuck in contract talks with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents the major shipping lines, over who's going to pay what for health care benefits.

All that stuff on the shelves at Walmart and Target -- big surprise -- is made across the big water in the sweatshops of Asia. Somehow it has to get to Walmart and Target. In the global economy, the transportation section of the economy -- shipping, trucking, warehousing, railroads -- plays a key role. It's relatively easy to move a factory from Chicago or Buffalo to Mexico or Indonesia; it's hard to move 280 million consumers. So the big retailers are stuck having to deal with transportation workers.

Shipping, like every other part of the economy, has been undergoing a technology revolution; and, as a result, an upheaval in the way it is organized and run. The big modern container ships are so big that they can't get through the Panama Canal. Which means goods destined for the U.S. must pass through the west coast docks. The west coast ports, and especially the ports of Los Angeles, are the gateways to the malls of America.

A lot is at stake. According to Edna Bonacich, a researcher at the University of California - Riverside, a one week strike on the west coast docks would cost American business $5 billion. A two-week strike would cost them $20 billion. Modern manufacturing relies on "just-in-time" production; modern retailing relies on "just-in-time" goods. That is, there aren't lots and lots of computer chips or shoes sitting in warehouses -- the factories and stores count on a smoothly flowing distribution pipeline to keep the assembly line and shelves primed. An interruption of more than just a few days quickly disrupts the global assembly line.

September 11 provided the cover for a big advance in the building a police state begun under Clinton and U.S. administrations before him. Now just about anything that threatens the interest of capitalism is being passed off as a security threat. In the inside-out logic of the Bush regime, a humming U.S. economy needs working docks, therefore a longshore strike would be a security threat. As would any effort by workers and people without to defend their rights or secure basics like housing, food, health care, etc. The Bush administration is considering its options. These include the invoking a range of laws to break a strike, up to and including using the U.S. Navy to work the docks -- a wartime measure, but, after all, we are in a war against terror.

Beyond the current looming strike, the march of technology proceeds apace. The shipping companies and the giant retailers who pull their strings want deregulated, strike-free, smooth-running ports. Like the Liverpool "dockers" and the Australian "dockers" before them, the workers of the ILWU stand in the way. The ILWU faces a future of automated docks. But blocking new technology that relieves people of dangerous, dull or dirty work is no answer. The problem is an economic system that blocks new technology from being used for the benefit of all, and instead uses new technology to terrorize people with a future of poverty.

The west coast dock situation demands that we defend what the ILWU has won. It also demands that we fight not just against each new brick of the police state, but for a new economy free of the terror of poverty. The whole situation points to a need for a political party to represent our class -- like the Labor Party.

Jim Davis

Additional information on the west coast dock situation

David Bacon, "Bush Threatens Dockers' Right To Strike"

International Longshore and Warehouse Union

Pacific Maritime Association
(This is the trade association that represents the shippers)

West Coast Waterfront Coalition

(This is the association of shipping customers whose businesses depend on the steady flow of goods through the ports. Its members include Gap, Home Depot, Target, Walmart, etc.)

In a talk at a globalization conference in Chicago last May [2002], Edna Bonacich, a researcher at the University of California - Riverside, described the trans-Pacific shipping industry. The next bit is from notes I took at the conference -- jd
In the drive to cut costs, much of the transportation sector has been de-regulated. Most shipping lines register their ships under "flags of convenience", like Panama or Liberia, where enforcing maritime laws is difficult. The boats are basically floating sweatshops. The use of standard-sized containers going back to the 1960s (pioneered, by the way, by the U.S. Navy to make it easier to move stuff in wartime), coupled with advanced computer and imaging technology, have led to largely automated docks (which is actually the case in the Rotterdam port in Holland). Boats can be unloaded so fast that shore leave for the handful of predominantly Filipino or Chinese sailors is a thing of the past, making them virtual prisoners on the boats for months at a time. In the most important port of L.A., the goods are loaded onto trucks driven by "independent contractors" -- code words for low paid, high-stressed, often undocumented workers, "sweatshops on wheels" -- and hauled up I-10 to the giant warehouse complexes of the Inland Empire. There, the goods are sorted by close-to-minimum wage workers for trucks or rail destined to the Walmarts and Targets of the heartland. And there still are a lot of factories in the U.S. that depends on parts and materials from Asia. In the middle, are the relative handful of unionized, well-paid ILWU workers running the cranes and processing the paperwork at the docks.