Automation and the Longshoremen: A West Coast Solution

On October 18 management and labor reached an agreement which, when ratified by the local unions, will ensure harmony between the longshoremen and the West Coast maritime employers until 1966. WILLIAM GLAZIER,administrative assistant to the national officers of the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemens Union, here explains the complicated issues which had to be resolved by the new contract.


AMERICANS in all walks of life are increasingly aware that a technological revolution is sweeping American industry. Automation has become a magic word, and if we are to believe what we are told, it holds out the promise of fantastic increases in productivity and in the capacity of the economy to support a higher standard of living, a promise of less backbreaking toil on the job, of more leisure and a better life for all. But revolutionizing industry is necessarily a disruptive process, imposing enormous strains upon labor-management relations.

Last year almost two million organized workers were either on strike or engaged in tense negotiations with employers over disputes arising from the introduction of new methods and new machines. Conflicts over automation all boil down to the same thing: how new labor-displacing machines are being introduced and what unions are demanding to minimize their impact on the workers.

Last year’s steel strike and the East Coast dockers’ strike were both in part the result of differences over how to handle the major technological changes now going on in these industries. The same can be said for the railroads’ campaign against featherbedding. American industry’s enormous investment in new and more advanced plant and equipment since World War II is now beginning to bear fruit, and we are witnessing only the beginning of the painful adjustment of industrial relations to a radically changing environment at the place of work.

Probably one of the most interesting and novel approaches to the many complex problems arising out of technical change is that evolving in the West Coast longshore industry. The collective bargaining agreement reached on August 10, 1959, between the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union, and especially the provisions on mechanization, is of important significance for labor and business leaders throughout America.

More than ten years ago, in an article entitled “Conflict on the Waterfront,” by Clark Kerr and Lloyd Fisher, the Atlantic reported on the transformation of labor relations that had taken place on the West Coast waterfront. This was the beginning of a new era in labor-management relations in the Pacific ports and the end of one of the most turbulent and combative episodes in American labor history. The white-capped West Coast longshoremen and their cocky, Australian-born leader, Harry Bridges, had been synonymous, to most people, with violent and unrestrained labor power interlarded with radical political views. On the other side, the men then dominating the old shipowners’ association made no secret of their determination to stamp out the union by whatever means they could employ.

Yet, in the decade since 1949, the shipowners, joined together in the reorganized Pacific Maritime Association, and the ILWU have not only successfully maintained the lull in the fighting but have moved ahead to negotiate major collective bargaining improvements without a single coastwise shutdown. Longshore wages for the standard six-hour straight-time day have risen to S2.82 an hour; the normal work shift has been reduced to a guaranteed eight hours; an elaborate medical and dental care program has been instituted; and vacations and pensions are being enjoyed for the first time.

The West Coast longshoremen, with incomes averaging about $6500 in 1959, have done well under the “new look.” The shipowners and operators have also prospered as trade expanded on the foundation of increasingly stable labormanagement relations.

By now the revolution in industrial relations which the Atlantic reported so accurately a decade ago has lost its novelty, and the union and the employers are at the present time tackling the technological changes in cargo handling which are dramatically beginning to remake the whole face of the longshore industry.

The aim is to create a framework within which the industry can bring about an increase in productivity by introducing new methods and new machines, while at the same time guaranteeing the workers on the docks and in the ships’ holds their job security, along with a share of the benefits from technical progress. By comparison, both the widely publicized decision by the meat-packing unions and the Armour company to investigate the problems created by technological unemployment and the joint study committees set up in the steel industry are much more limited.

It has generally been the position of management that sharing the benefits of technological change, as agreed to by the West Coast longshore employers, is as much outside the scope of union bargaining as are the investment decisions which bring the new machines into being. A recent survey conducted among the presidents of selected nationwide firms revealed that 75 per cent feel that “The company is entitled to all of the savings resulting from the introduction of labor-saving equipment”; and fewer than 10 per cent of them believe that the company is obligated to compensate workers displaced by mechanization.

Labor’s own thinking in this area seems to be confined almost exclusively to proposals for moderating the impact of labor-displacing machines, lew, if any, national unions have affirmatively accepted technological change as part of a program of sharing the benefits. This explains why Arthur Viat, West Coast regional director of the Federal Conciliation Service, recently commented that the ILWU-PMA plan “will affect the course of labor relations in the United States for years to come.”

IN 1957 the ILWU conducted a survey in each major West Coast port to determine how rapidly new methods of cargo handling were coming into the industry and what the effect was upon the longshoremen’s work opportunities and earnings. The union survey found that, although new methods — in the form of large-size van and container loads, the increased use of bulk handling of cargoes, which were formerly manhandled in sacks and drums, and the employment of new and more powerful lifts and other equipment, both shoreside and in the ship’s hold were impressive in moving many more tons of cargo with fewer man-hours of labor, they had not swept the industry, and their impact upon the men was far from catastrophic. The signs, however, were clear: this was the pattern for the future.

Meeting at Portland, Oregon, in October, 1957, representatives of the longshore locals spent five days examining the many implications of the new mechanized methods. And they were bluntly informed by the union leadership that their own refusal to modify port working rules on such matters as the number of men on a job, the pace of work, and similar conditions had helped drive the shippers to the new labor-displacing methods.

These were no trivial changes longshoremen were facing. One thousand tons of general cargo, handled in the conventional manner of loading or discharging a ship, customarily requires 120 to 150 gang-hours of labor. (Longshore ship gangs on the West Coast normally consist of about 12 men.) The same cargo, completely unitized—particularly by loading it in large vans or containers at the place of origin —might require 10 to 30 ganghours. In addition, the gangs could, theoretically at least, be cut to one half or one third their present size. The result would be fewer men working fewer hours and stowing more tons of cargo.

West Coast longshoremen, unlike factory workers, are accustomed to unique freedom. They enjoy a choice of working or not working on any day without jeopardizing their employment. Each is ensured an equal share of all the available work and the right to select jobs as they are posted in the hiring and dispatch hall or to replace himself simply by calling the hall for a substitute.

Customarily, longshoremen find their job security in a combination of controls which place as many men as possible on each job and for as long as possible. In an industry where the “factory” is here today and sails tomorrow, today’s job is squeezed for everything it will produce. Who knows when the next ship will dock and how much work it will furnish? Not surprisingly longshoremen have been unyielding against machines. Every labor-displacing innovation in cargo handling is a challenge to job control and job security, and arguments that the new methods lessen the backbreaking toil have fallen on deaf ears.

To the shipowners, the savings in labor costs from mechanization are only one part of the benefits of technical change. Minimizing the hours which a ship spends in port is the key to profitable ship operations. A ship is a floating warehouse, and when it is not at sea, costs continue and earnings go down. Speedier loading and discharge not only improve the ship’s turn-around time, but in the long run will increase the number of trips a vessel can make each year. The savings in capital investment and the increase in earnings resulting from speedier turn-around could well be impressive.

As far as the public interest is concerned, quite apart from the general benefit the community receives from improved productivity in any segment of American industry, there is the taxpayers’ enormous direct investment in the maritime industry. In San Francisco, for example, over 40 per cent of the general cargo flowing through the port is either for the military or for various subsidized foreign aid programs; in these instances, savings in cargo costs from improved productivity would be passed on to the federal government.

THE question put to the union delegates at the Portland caucus was: “Do we want to stick with our present policy of guerrilla resistance [to change], or do we want to adopt a more flexible policy in order to buy specific benefits in return?” It was acknowledged by the ILWU officers that the union did have the economic strength and the cohesion to resist and delay mechanization within certain limits. But was this the wisest policy to pursue? ILWU President Harry Bridges argued that, whether the men liked it or not, changes were going to take place “the easy way or the hard way.” He insisted that the union would be in the best possible negotiating position if a flexible approach was adopted before mechanization spread further. But he predicted that the strength and the resources of the union would be dissipated in costly losing battles if a rigid hold-the-line program was adhered to. After hours of debate the men voted unanimously to explore with the employers the benefits to be gained if they were to adopt a cooperative policy for orderly introduction of new mechanical methods and changes in working rules.

As a result of the union-management discussions which followed the caucus, an informal understanding was reached before the end of 1957, giving the employers a free hand to mechanize, with appropriate changes in the working rules, while the union was guaranteed that the registered work force would be maintained less normal attrition — and that there would be a sharing with this work force of a portion of the savings resulting from increases in productivity. The longshoremen put it simply: “No layoffs, and a bite out of the machine.”

The employers really had one goal — latitude under the contract to introduce new mechanized methods and to utilize them efficiently. The union’s objectives were more numerous, They included guarantees against individual speedup, breaching of safety rules, layoffs, and reduction in take-home pay. The union also hoped in the long run to use the mechanization agreement in order to reduce the length of the work shift and to establish a guaranteed work opportunity or to support a guaranteed wage. Noticeably absent, however, were the customary union demands for retraining programs, unemployment benefits, severance pay, and aid in finding new employment or in relocating displaced workers and their families. None of these are necessary, because layoffs are no threat.

However, the PMA and the ILWU soon discovered that it was easier to agree in principle to share the benefits of increased productivity than it was to figure out how to measure those elusive mechanization benefits. With all the good will in the world, and with the aid of a productivity study in the port of San Francisco conducted by a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, the answers still continued to elude negotiators on both sides as the contract came to an end on June 15, 1959, a year and a half after the basic principles had been agreed to.

The employers’ association, pushed by those leaders in the industry who were already introducing new methods, was anxious to get a firm agreement which would unfreeze the working rules on these new operations. Postponement of the issue would have meant another year of expensive guerrilla fighting. The union leaders, however, were committed to getting a share of the machine in 1959, and they weren’t ready to sell a liberalization of work rules for a few cents more in wages.

After several months of intensive bargaining, an agreement was finally reached, despite the absence of the requisite measurement data. The PMA, conceding that the time had passed for more talk, proposed to establish a million-dollar fund (approximately one per cent of the annual industry payroll) as the down payment on the men’s share of the benefits that would flow from new methods.

The final mechanization agreement provided that the parties would have one year, to June 15, 1960, to continue their studies of “actual changes made by labor-saving machinery, changed methods of operation, or proposed changes in working rules and contract restrictions.” In addition, the down payment into the mechanization fund had been increased to one and a half million dollars, which the union accepted as payment for all the changes made, or to be made, prior to June, 1960.

The one and a half million is really the first installment of a “sharing the benefits of mechanization” fund. It has been agreed that the fund will be put on a continuing basis once the PMA and the ILWU agree on a formula which measures the changes in productivity and determines each employer’s contribution to the mechanization fund. The employers further agreed to maintain the 1958 registered regular work force less the normal attrition of about 2 per cent a year. This means no layoffs, despite the introduction of laborsaving machines.

Under the decasualization system which has existed on the West Coast waterfront since 1934, each fully registered longshoreman gets an equal share of all the work available. When shipping is booming and the work pie is big, each man’s slice increases; when the pie is smaller, each of the roughly equal individual slices is smaller. Men are not laid off when business declines; they remain on the rolls, dividing up the poverty as they once did the prosperity.

It is this unique system which permits the industry to guarantee continued employment. The men are employees of the whole industry, and the impact of declining work opportunities because of any one company’s introduction of new methods is spread through the whole work force. Furthermore, in most ports there is a pool of extra men drawn from the unemployed of other industries. Although large in numbers, this group does only about 10 per cent of the work on the coast. They will not participate in the benefits of the mechanization program, and the chances are that in the future their work opportunities will be reduced, unless the mechanization program happens to coincide with an overall increase in shipping.

The registered men, although guaranteed against layoff by the mechanization agreement, are, of course, not guaranteed against a reduction in their earnings or in the work available to them. To meet this, the union is proposing that the fund be used, as far as possible, to maintain 35 hours of work each week. When, as a result of mechanization, work falls below this level, the present retirement age of 65 would be progressively lowered to 62, with full pensions. These earlier retirements, financed by the fund until the men become eligible for their regular pensions at age 65, would increase the work opportunities for the younger men. Should this prove inadequate, the fund would then be used for supplementing wages.

As to work rules, in the first year of the contract the employers are free, after negotiation and agreement or arbitration, to make whatever operational changes they think necessary. This right, however, is restricted exclusively to changes related to new labor-saving devices; the working rules and practices on all conventional operations have been frozen for the time being.

The effect of this important restriction will be to permit the necessary modifications in rules to come about in an orderly and piecemeal fashion, relating the demands upon the men for change to a new practice, which, in turn, is contributing directly into the coast mechanization fund.

ALTHOITGH it is clear that the ILWU-PMA approach reflects certain unique features in the structure and operation of this industry, it bears comparison with the policies followed by John L. Lewis and the miners.

A good many years ago the United Mine Workers adopted a policy of actively encouraging the modernization of the coal mines in exchange for better wages, hours, and conditions. In the last decade, the mining of bituminous coal has undergone an amazing transformation as the result of the startling rate at which mechanization has taken place in the industry. In 1950 a miner was producing 6.77 tons of coal each day; in 1958 the national average was just under 12 tons. Meanwhile, over the years the miners have established one of the highest hourly wages of any industrial workers in the world. Along with high wages came an elaborate pension and medical care program, improved working conditions, and reduced hours. But the approximately 400,000 miners employed in the bituminous coal industry in 1942 have today been reduced to 200,000, and production is not too much below what it was ten years ago. Lewis himself has accepted shrinking employment and a declining union membership as the price of technological advance.

In both the West Coast longshore industry and in the coal mines, the increase in labor productivity comes about from mechanization; new machines are taking over tasks formerly performed by hand, but a man is still required to control and operate the machine. However, in auto and steel production, in the chemical and petroleum industries, and in many offices all over the country automated processes are being introduced which are self-regulatory and which eliminate human control. Another machine does the job of machine operation and supervision.

It really matters little to the individual worker whether the process displacing. him is called mechanization or automation or is merely better planning on the part of management. The specter of unemployment comes into the work place when changes are introduced. What is novel about automation is the increased scale and speed of labor displacement.

There are few union leaders who do not recognize that technical advance is the key to raising living standards; but unharnessed technological change possesses a vast potential for social catastrophe, The pattern resulting from the introduction of more advanced and automated production processes is a pattern of growing discrepancy between growth in production and growth in employment. Jobs in manufacturing are not keeping pace with man-hour increases in productivity, to the misfortune of both new recruits and established workers. This helps to explain why some unions, by insisting upon prior consultation by management before new and more technically advanced methods are introduced, hope to control the rate at which new machinery is introduced, and thereby to minimize the impact upon their members.

THERE is no point in ignoring the serious questions which are raised by suggestions to control technology. A recent round-table discussion was directed in part to the proposal that there be “some kind of public appraisal, planning and control of the most powerful, dangerous and influential products of technology.” The proposal was sharply attacked by Clark Kerr, president of the University of California, as “impossible,” “unwise,” and “one of the greatest potential attacks on freedom of thought I have ever heard about.”

On the other hand, it is widely charged that a major showdown is shaping up precisely because the unions are trying to halt or severely slow down the trend toward more efficient ways of doing and making things. Yet, if labor were to adopt the John L. Lewis policy, what would management offer as a quid pro quo?

Education and retraining to handle new jobs, moving displaced workers to other company plants or helping them find jobs elsewhere, instituting or increasing severance pay — these are the kinds of policies which have been proposed or instituted in a few of the firms already embarked on automation programs. It is doubtful, however, whether these even begin to meet the problem of job security as the average rank-and-file worker sees it; nor do such policies hold out the promise of any direct sharing of the benefits of technical change with the workers most affected.

For example, we have to anticipate, until it is demonstrated to the contrary, that the new and more highly skilled jobs created by introducing an automated process will not be filled by retraining the semiskilled workers who have been displaced. These new positions will most likely be filled by retraining and promoting the top skilled men of the old production line, supplemented by new skilled men. Upward transfers outside of this small group will probably be few. Most of the employees who formerly filled the many semiskilled jobs which were eliminated will be laid off; a few will be demoted to jobs as materials handlers.

The pat formula repeats that automation will enable management to cut costs and prices and thus expand sales and output. New jobs will be created as a result, and more goods will become available at lower prices. In this way, it is contended, workers and the whole nation will eventually benefit. But there is no good reason to expect this to happen under all market situations or in all phases of the business cycle. Improved productivity can result in any one of numerous combinations of price, production, profit, and wage movements. The trouble lies with the more general economic arrangements of our society, which do not include machinery to deal with technical changes smoothly and without creating unemployment. We can only hope for an expanding economy, which would provide a balance between growing productive capacity and the demand for goods at a level high enough to maintain full employment.

Changing tools and changing techniques are shaping and reshaping our society. To what extent will today’s union movement inhibit or accelerate this process? Can we anticipate that, as technological change makes work itself more repetitious and boring, a union, through its role in helping determine the conditions at the place of work, might offer workers the means of rediscovering themselves as creative, productive human beings? And in what manner can we hope to impose social considerations on this evolution which are broader than the current thinking of labor and management in this field?

One conclusion, at least, appears to be abundantly clear: the labor movement has the initial responsibility to originate the kind of creative thinking called for by the technological revolution.