Rumble On the Docks: Contract Pits Pinstriped Pinheads Against Roughneck Roustabouts

Last July, as Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” played over the speakers in the ballroom of the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood, Fla., Mr. Daggett, a bald bear of a man, appeared on a podium to formally accept the position of ILA president and warn his delegates of the fight to come.

“Investment bankers, pension funds, have invested billions of dollars in our industry,” he said. “And they fully intend to get a return on investment.”

From where Mr. Daggett stood, that meant the new terminal owners would soon be pushing for increased automation on his docks—rail-mounted gantry cranes, which not only move containers off of ships but carry the boxes around the yard, and powerful software that tracks the cargo, allowing truckers to locate their freight with less human assistance.

In case the delegates wondered where Mr. Daggett stood on such innovations, he told them about what he’d seen on a visitto the Port of Rotterdam two decades back: a ship-to-shore crane lifting containers onto railroad cars, smaller cranes at the end of the line lofting containers onto stacks. The entire operation seemed to be run by a handful of computer operators in a glass-enclosed tower.

“There was not one person on that terminal who was there to run that terminal except those men in that tower,” Mr. Daggett said. “If I had a hand grenade, I would have threw it up there.

“It was terrible,” he continued, “I was sick. You gotta believe me, we are against automation in the U.S. on the East Coast and the West Coast.”

The degree to which Mr. Daggett’s explosive imagery should be credited is unclear. Joseph Curto, president of the New York Shipping Association, which represents management in negotiations over local contracts, told us that Mr. Daggett has an inclination toward “colorful language.”

“He’s a strong union leader, and he’s interested in protecting the jurisdiction, better benefits and pay,” Mr. Curto said. “He’s doing all of the things that a strong leader does.”

One source suggested that, Mr. Daggett’s public stance notwithstanding, he knows change is inevitable and is intent on making the best of the situation. “If that technology is eliminating jobs, it’s also creating them somewhere down the line,” the source said. “If automation is going to create jobs, that should go under the union’s jurisdiction.”

In the days before container shipping revolutionized global trade, dockworkers performed grueling work for low pay and uncertain hours. Containers changed that, replacing sheer manpower with mechanized cranes, reducing at once the number of hands needed to work a ship.

As the old longshoremen left the docks, the union’s rank-and-file dwindled, but the jobs that remain pay well. The average longshoreman earned $124,000 last year, according to the USMX, while in New York, one-third of ILA members earned more than $208,000. What’s left is a membership that may be better able to withstand a strike—at least economically—than any other. What’s more, the ILA’s role as the gatekeepers of global trade allow the union to exact an economic toll out of proportion to the size of its membership.

“They’re strategically located in the choke-hold position,” noted David Jaffee, a sociologist at the University of North Florida who studies transport workers. “This is the last stronghold of union power in the U.S., or in the supply chain at least.”