Thursday, January 12, 2017

Mother, should I work in a port?

[The recent New York Times article* reminded me of this photo which I had collated some time ago, appearing in my forthcoming book]
In the earlier days (up to the beginning of the 1960s) general cargo, carried by liner ships, was transported, in various forms of packaging (pallets, boxes, barrels, crates, slings), by relatively small vessels, known as general cargo ships. These were twin-deckers and multi-deckers, i.e. ships with holds (cargo compartments) in a shelf-like arrangement where goods were stowed in small pre-packaged consignments (parcels) according to destination (figure).

This was a very labour-intensive process and, often, ships were known to spend most of their productive time in port, waiting to load or discharge. And although seafaring was great fun in these days [sic], the same cannot be said for casual port work which was rather ill-considered and looked down by society.

As a result of the unpredictability of port work, port management could not possibly employ permanent staff, paying them while idle, and waiting for the next ship to arrive. Labour was thus casual, i.e. employed for as long; as much; and whenever required.

Recruitment of dockers was very different too. Each morning, a number of dockers would present themselves to a union foreman, often a mobster, and he, on the basis of certain ‘criteria’ that had more to do with natural selection rather than anything else, would thumb-in the youngest, the strongest, the favorites of the Union, or those prepared to return a kickback to the Union.
To indicate this ‘preparedness’, the latter dockers used to put a toothpick behind their right ear.[1] The rest would return to their ‘locales’ [sic] and indulge in whatever it was they were indulging in.

Containerization and the new cargo-handling techniques changed all this by taking work away from the waterfront to inland consolidation areas, or to the backyard of the manufacturer who would stuff/strip the container at his own good time. Port labor was thus reduced by 90%, while at the same time labor productivity increased tenfold. Port management had to make generous concessions to docker unions, including the setting up of 'funds' to compensate port workers for the fewer hours they now had to work as a result of automation. In a number of countries, including the US, such 'funds' exist even today, topped up by carriers, and at rates such as $5/ton of cargo handled.

In spite of the reduction in numbers, port union strength has remained largely unchanged and it is not uncommon, in many western ports, to see 'closed shop' salaries well above 100 thousand dollars per year.

Labor 'rigidities' such as the above often lead to large gang sizes, excessive over-manning, little labor mobility and high port user costs. In many ports around the world, the inflexible and monopolistic supply of port labor has effectively discouraged intended private sector activities around the port and has, thus, deprived the latter from one of its main functions, that of being a "growth pole" for the region and the country. 

[1] A beautiful account of the “waterfront” can be watched in Elia Kazan’s 1956 masterpiece “on the waterfront”, with Marlon Brando (soundtrack: Leonard Bernstein), or Mike Newell’s 1997 drama “Donnie Brasco”, with Al Pacino and Johnnie Depp.

* "The Mob’s Last Candy Jar", New York Times, January 8, 2017, p. MB1.

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