They Work Hard for the Money

(AP/Mel Evans)

Cargo containers are stacked on the deck of the Mediterranean Shipping Company's vessel at Port Newark in Newark, New Jersey.

As work becomes increasingly a matter of machines building or moving other machines, workers either lose their jobs or—if they are fortunate enough to keep their jobs—become vastly more productive. Productivity surged in the U.S. during the early years of the current downturn when companies laid off workers by the millions and replaced them with machines. Revenues per employee at the S&P 500, the Wall Street Journal reported, rose from $378,000 in 2007 to $420,000 in 2010.

And yet, the wages and benefits of employed Americans experienced no corresponding increase as workers’ productivity rose. Indeed, over the past quarter-century, as economists Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon have reported, all productivity gains have gone to the wealthiest ten percent of Americans. In the quarter-century following World War II, by contrast, productivity and median household income both rose by 102 percent—but that quarter-century was the only period in American history when unions were strong.

One of the few industries where the remaining workers are thriving today is longshore work. Alan Feuer’s evocative story of life on the New York and New Jersey docks, which ran in Sunday’s New York Times, recounted how a legendarily corrupt union—the East Coast longshoremen who were the subject of the classic film On The Waterfront—has adopted to a new era of mechanization, where giant cranes hoist giant containers on and off ships. For all the clannishness and cronyism of the union, it has been compelled to follow the lead of the West Coast longshoremen—a scrupulously clean union with a radical pedigree—in acceding to a mechanization of work that has greatly reduced the number of workers on the docks, at the same time greatly increasing the pay of the remaining workers (who now work with computers rather than the hooks and pulleys of 50 years ago).

Feuer’s story concludes with the observations of Twiggy Richardson, who started as a marine carpenter 47 years ago and today oversees the computerized monitoring of the containers as they move from ship to truck or rail. “Eventually there’ll be only one guy up here, with cables in his ears and nose, and wires in his behind, running the whole thing,” Richardson said. “Sounds crazy, I know, but that’s where it’s headed.”

If the quote sounded somewhat familiar to historians of work on the docks, that’s because it echoes a remark of the legendary Harry Bridges—the radical organizer who led the shutdown of West Coast ports in 1934 (which in turn led to the San Francisco General Strike) and then served as the first president of the West Coast Longshoremen until the late 1970s. In 1960, Bridges saw that cranes and containers were the future of longshore work (he didn’t foresee the computers, but it wouldn’t have surprised him) and agreed to radically reduce staffing on the docks—provided the members of his unions would share in the productivity gains and that, as the workforce was reduced by attrition, the laid-off members would received generous pensions. “At this rate,” Bridges said, “by the year 2000 there will be one longshoreman left on the docks. But he’s going to be the best paid son of a bitch in the United States.” Today, unionized longshore workers make more than $100,000 annually, in what are the highest-paid blue-collar jobs in the nation. They number, however, in the tens of thousands—not the hundreds of thousands who worked the docks in the mid-20th century.

But of all the workers who labor in sectors that have been mechanized during the past half-century, sectors that have seen their productivity soar even as the number of their workers has plummeted, only unionized longshoremen and unionized steelworkers have experienced such wage gains (the steelworkers don’t get longshore-level wages, but at U.S. Steel and Arcelor Mittal, veteran steelworkers do make about $70,000 annually for operating the highly sophisticated machinery that makes today’s steel). The irony here is that the usual critics of unions complain that these workers are overpaid at the same time they criticize unions for standing in the way of technological progress because it costs jobs. But the longshore unions (the West Coast union particularly) and the United Steelworkers both struck deals enabling the technological upgrading and workforce upskilling and downsizing of their industries, so long as the workers shared in the benefits. They are the very model of adaptive, forward-looking unions. And as wages fall in virtually every other industry where productivity is soaring, they make the case why a mechanizing, high-tech economy in particular needs unions: Without them, American workers will grow more and more productive and get nothing out of it.