Wednesday, June 05, 2002

Shipping containers revolutionized the shipping business in the 1960s. An entire standard-size container could be moved from a ship onto a train or a truck-bed and moved along, rather than repacking the contents from the ships hold into the truck or car's interior. That saved money for the shipping industry as a whole, but there were other benefits. Prices dropped for consumers. Unsightly dock areas could be smaller per ton shipped, because a ship is unloaded faster. Less energy (and likely pollution) can be expended moving each ton for a number of reasons. Theft costs were much reduced and fewer warehouses required at docks (ref).

The longshoremens who used to pack and unpack boats and fill those disappeared warehouses suffered most from the revolution. In the UK over 20 years dock jobs fell from 80,000 to 11,400. In some countries the loss of jobs was extremely sudden, because those countries prevented container technology from being used for a while, then suddenly relented, giving much less time to adjust. Longshoremen unions negotiated all kinds of work preservation shemes. Sometimes these involved regulated amounts of workers per ton shipped, but if containers were being used many of those workers would stand idle. Eventually some of this sorted itself out and the longshoremen found other jobs, perhaps painfully. By 1997, general longshoremen were paid an average of $96,865.

Today it's happening again on the West Coast, only the scary new technology is computers. Ship manifests could be moved electronically between ship and dock, but that is not allowed by labour contracts which have guaranteed jobs to $113,808/year clerks. Inventory in dock may not be electronically tracked - longshoremen must be hired to drive around in trucks. Dock workers may not be electronically dispatched to where they're needed - they need to meet at the union daily before being assigned. Dispatching inflexibility results in spot labour shortages which are on the increase, exacerbated because it's difficult to get into the longshoremen's union. A local dockworker strike is possible according to the sfweekly article, which could cost the local economy much, with costs spread widely and lasting long as investment drops in West Coast shipping. Shipping companies even route through the Panama Canal in order to avoid the West Coast. It's hard to feel sorry for anybody involved, but it's a crying shame to waste so much.

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