Finding Workplace Power: Position in the Workplace Can Trump Size, Density

John Sweeney, John Wilhelm, James Hoffa, Andrew Stern

May 2005

The 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 workplaces 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.

Port truck drivers have been able to translate informal organization into actions that big shippers have to pay attention to. Photo: David Bacon.

But while these supply chains are becoming hyper-efficient, they are also increasingly exposed to potential disruption.


“There 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.”

And 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. And 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 being concentrated in one giant port, Los Angeles/Long Beach.

Traveling through congested ports and rail lines, this system has become increasingly over-stretched and fragile, placing more potential power in the hands of workers.




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For instance, a two-hour walk-out by a mere 100 train dispatchers in Fort Worth, Texas on March 2 snarled traffic up and down the 32,000 miles of track—all the way up to Seattle—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 three-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. Striking troqueros 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. Union strategists need to be discussing not only what will make the labor movement larger, but what is a workable strategy for using the strength already in hand.