Public Policy
  Analysis, Opinion & Ideas from Steve Harry

Directory

About/Contact

It's time to revisit the National Labor Relations Act

February 19, 2015

 

A contract dispute between West Coast shippers and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union is causing widespread shipping delays on the west coast. "The labor dispute affects 29 West Coast ports, from Tacoma, Wash., to Long Beach, Calif., that handle an estimated $1 trillion in goods annually." (source)

 

February 21 update: A tentative agreement has been reached between the two parties.

 

A similar dispute occurred in 2002, when a 10 day lockout was estimated to cost the U.S. economy $1 billion a day. (source) This time, a total shutdown could - could - cost $1.9 billion a day. (source) That is a lot of money to piss away. $2 billion is what Michigan spends on corrections in a whole year.

 

"The giant container ships that are the United States' pipeline of material to and from Asia are sitting idle in the ocean off of the West coast," (source) and the effects are already being felt. "Honda said it will slow production . . . at plants in Ohio, Indiana and Canada because of shortages of 'several critical parts . . .' " (source)

 

"At the Port of Oakland, truck drivers can spend up to three days waiting in line before hauling one container out of the yard . . .  Before the slowdowns, a truck driver might be able to average . . . five containers a day." (The Wall Street Journal, 2/16/2015)

 

"The North American Meat Institute said its industry is losing $85 million every week while cuts of meat and poultry sit in freezers, waiting to be shipped overseas."  Washington apple growers "are dumping unused apples into canyons. " (source)

 

The dockworkers union is small, but powerful. "For decades these 'lords of the docks' have been paid like blue-collar royalty. Their current contract pays $26 to $41 an hour, with free healthcare for members. Some earn six figures with overtime." (source)

 

There is a long history of costly strikes in the U.S. Here are a few:

  • On May 1, 1949 in Hawaii, 2,000 members of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) - the same union responsible for the current slowdown - walked off their jobs over a pay dispute. "The strike, which lasted 178 days, came as the state was recovering from a 1946 statewide strike by plantation workers."

  • On 12/6/1954 in Pittsburgh, 760 delivery-truck drivers and helpers belonging to the Teamsters agreed to end their walkout against five of the city's biggest department stores after 52 weeks of picketing and violence.

  • The UAW strike against GM in 1970 lasted 67 days. It cost GM $1 billion in profits, the workers $765 million in wages, the federal government $1 billion in taxes – plus $30 million in state welfare benefits and some $375 million in retail sales in Michigan alone. (The Automobile Age, page 280) (I was intake supervisor at Ingham County Department of Social Services during the strike.)

  • Another Hawaii strike, the great West Coast dock strike of 1971 spanned 134 days. "Store shelves slowly went bare, businesses crumbled and people lost their jobs. But one of the rarest commodities at that time was toilet paper because residents hoarded rolls as supplies began to dwindle."

  • The baseball strike of 1994 was the longest and costliest work stoppage in the history of professional sports. Many view the strike as a huge waste of time, since no real modifications were put into effect. It lasted 234 days, resulted in more than $1 billion in losses, and deprived the nation of a World Series.

  • Strikes in 1998 by 9,200 workers in Flint, Michigan forced GM to shut down almost all of its North American production and temporarily lay off 192,000 workers, while its outside suppliers laid off thousands. Wall Street analysts estimated GM's after-tax losses at more than $2 billion.

  • A four-week Machinists strike against Boeing in October 2005 cost the company $1.5 billion.

  • The 2007–2008 Writers Guild of America strike, more commonly known as the Writers' Strike, cost the economy of Los Angeles an estimated $1.5 billion.

  • A 53-day strike against Boeing by 27,000 members of the the Machinist union in 2008 cost more than $2 billion.

 

We don't often see losses due to strikes and slow-downs approaching $2 billion a day, however. This is a blow to the economy comparable to this winter's record-breaking snowfalls in the Midwest and East. Unlike nature's wrath, however, the damage caused by collective bargaining is something we can stop: simply repeal the National Labor Relations Act, which forces employers to recognize and bargain with unions.

 

By passing the National Labor Relations Act, Congress legitimized and institutionalized hostile confrontation in labor relations, an area of commerce that, like others, should be entirely peaceful and free from conflict. No law requires “bargaining” for commercial transactions other than labor contracts, and yet there is no violence and turmoil in those areas. Food processors are not required to "bargain" with farmers. Walmart is not required to "bargain" with suppliers. Grocers are not required to "bargain" with shoppers. These parties choose or choose not to do business with each other - no hard feelings. Neither is forced to accept terms it feels are unfair.

The right to collective bargaining is unlike other “rights” that Americans cherish. For one thing, it is not a Constitutional right; there is no mention of collective bargaining in the U.S. Constitution. It also differs from other rights - like the right to free speech, the right to bear arms, the right worship in the way we choose - in that it does not ban government interference. Take a look at the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

It is stating that in regard to religion, speech and association, the government should just stay away - leave us be. And those rights do not require anything of other parties. The National Labor Relations Act, on the other hand, requires an employer to bargain with a union and creates a government agency, the National Labor Relations Board, to enforce compliance. In effect, the Act is a reduction of rights. Forcing an employer to bargain with a union takes away his freedom to run his business as he sees fit. He must meet with union representatives and listen to their demands, even when he already knows what they want and doesn’t intend to go along.

The NLRA also takes away the employer’s right to “bargain” with workers not currently employed by him. His current employees have formed a union presumably because they are not satisfied with the terms offered. There may be plenty of workers in the area who would be happy with those terms, but the employer cannot consider them. He must deal exclusively with the union: the current employees. His right to consider other workers is denied as are the rights of those other workers, who - we must assume - are either jobless or working at a lower wage than this employer is offering. The less well-off workers get the shaft. Government intervention that hurts one group in order to help another is morally wrong.

There are those who would argue that the right to bargain collectively is a basic human right, but there is no such thing; in a democracy, rights are defined by the people. Employers were not forced to bargain with unions until 1935, with passage of the National Labor Relations Act.

In a democracy, we can correct our mistakes.

Send comments to stevenrharry@gmail.com.

 

Previous stories: