Finding Workplace Power




T

he
recent AFL-CIO debates have generated much smoke and thunder. What’s
lacking is a short- to medium-term strategy that gets at how workers
and unions can tap the strength they find on the job. Unions and
workers have always had the power to stop the wheels of industry.
But with traditional “all-out” strikes on the decline
in the United States, the labor movement has had to find new ways
to exercise this power. 


One
of these places can be found in what the business press calls “the
logistics revolution”—the expanding system of docks, railways,
trucking barns, intermodal yards, warehouses, distribution centers,
dispatch offices, and other work- places that keep massive amounts
of goods flowing into retail outlets. 


Wal-Mart,
the nation’s largest retailer and employer, pushed its way
into market dominance in large part due to its mastering of this
revolution, according to a paper by Tom Reifer, a researcher specializing
in logistics. Making use of technologies that track goods all the
way from the factory to the point of sale (including the world’s
largest privately-owned satellite communications network), Wal-Mart
has refined its “just-in-time” distribution much as manufacturers
have refined lean or “just-in-time” production. Suppliers
and competing retailers have been forced to adopt, in part or in
whole, similar systems. But while these supply chains are becoming
hyper-efficient, they are also increasingly exposed to potential
disruption. 



Chokepoints=Power 



T

here
is power and leverage to be had in this sector,” observed Edna
Bonachich, professor of sociology at UC Riverside, in comments about
the rail and trucking industries (


Labor
Notes


,

April 2004). “The corporations have created
extended supply chains and depend on timely delivery. Inventory
has been cut to the bone, so that any blockage in the system can
cause them major problems.” 


More
and more goods are coming into this country—mostly from Pacific
Rim countries like China. Textile imports from China alone, for
instance, increased more than 63 percent in 2004, according to a
U.S. Commerce Department report. This trade is flowing into more
concentrated points. 


By
2002, 80 percent of all Asian cargo (over 50 percent of total imports)
was coming into the United States through container ships unloading
in West Coast ports. The great bulk of this West Coast traffic is
further concentrated in one giant port, Los Angeles/Long Beach.
Traveling through congested ports and rail lines, this system has
become ove-stretched and fragile, placing more potential power in
the hands of workers. 



Size
Not The Issue 



F

or
instance, a two-hour walk-out by 100 train dispatchers in Fort Worth,
Texas on March 2, snarled traffic up and down the 32,000 miles of
track operated by BNSF Railways, one of the nation’s largest
rail carriers. 


BNSF
had tried to unilaterally implement changes in paid leave and comp
time in its contract with the dispatchers’ union, the American
Train Dispatchers Association. Instead of rolling over, workers
at the Network Operations Center walked and BNSF trains stopped
all over the country. 


According
to company reports, close to 50 percent of rail traffic was stopped
in the Pacific Northwest—thousands of miles from the Texas-based
dispatch center. Similarly, commuter trains operated by the railroad
in Chicago, Seattle, and Tacoma, Washington were shut down, stranding
passengers throughout all three cities.



This
kind of disruption is not limited to the rails, as Hawaiian members
of the Inland Boatmen’s Union showed in 2004. Following a fight
over pension, health care, and staffing levels in contract negotiations,
fewer than 70 tugboat operators launched a 3-day strike that shut
down virtually all shipping to the import-dependent islands. With
many companies forced to send freight by air, management quickly
folded and signed a four-year contract.  


High
diesel prices last spring pushed port truck drivers across the country
into action. These mostly immigrant short-haul drivers typically
either lease or own a single truck. Often called troqueros, as many
of them are Latino, they have borderline poverty incomes after all
costs are deducted.  


Despite
legal hurdles that have stifled union drives in the past, these
drivers have been able to translate often informal and sporadic
organization—held together by word-of-mouth, CB, and informal
meetings—into actions that big shippers have to pay attention
to. 


In
May 2004, California’s Los Angeles/Long Beach and Oakland ports,
along with the Stockton, California rail/truck intermodal yard,
were closed for short periods because of troqueros’ pickets.
A second round of uncoordinated walk- outs that summer disrupted
ports and intermodal yards along the East Coast and in the Midwest,
including Miami, Charleston, New Orleans, Hampton Roads, Norfolk,
Houston, and Detroit. 


As
diesel fuel prices creep back up to the $2.50 per gallon range,
some are expecting more actions. Reports from Truckers Unite, a
port driver advocacy group, tell of walkouts by 20-50 drivers at
sites in the Los Angeles area in mid- April. Strikers at Road Transport
reportedly won pay increases of 5-10 percent on April 12. 


Much
has been made about union size in the recent AFL-CIO debates. But
the ease of workplace disruption in logistics—and possibly
other unexplored points in the economy—amplifies the strength
of smaller groups of workers. Activists need to be discussing not
only what will make the labor movement larger, but also what is
a workable strategy for using the strength already in hand.





Chris Kutalik
is co-editor of



Labor Notes