Words Matter: When a port “Strike” became “Slowdown” we all paid


The word “longshoremen” is an example of slang that’s gone mainstream. It comes from the days of clipper ships. When they showed up in port, the call went out for “men along the shore” to assist with the cargo. It was like a shouted “help wanted” ad for temporary labor—and after a while, it shaped our language.

Other words also describe these workers: “Roustabout” comes from the Mississippi River and “wharfie” from Australia. “Stevedore” originates in Portugal and Spain, Going back to its Latin roots, it means a “man who stuffs.”

Perhaps this legacy of creative linguistics lies behind a recent economic crisis, when longshoremen in west-coast ports went on strike.

Except that they didn’t call it a strike. They called it a “slowdown.”

This was like insisting that there’s an important difference between a longshoreman and a docker (a popular word in Britain). In reality, they’re just two ways to describe the same thing.

In terms of substance, the distinction is meaningless. In the law, however, it matters a lot—and it has allowed longshoremen to manipulate our language in ways that devastate our economy.

We, the people, cannot afford this.

Last year, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and its 14,000 members along the Pacific coast decided to engage in a “slowdown”—an extended period of deliberately reduced productivity. They wanted to improve their contract with port-terminal operators, which is understandable. Instead of entering honest negotiations, however, they embarked upon a conspiracy of economic intimidation.

Their obstruction dragged on for months, disrupting supply chains everywhere. It cost the American economy as much as $400 million per day. That’s real money! Farmers felt the pain sharply, as agricultural exports dropped in half. Some economists say that the intransigence subtracted a full percentage point from U.S. economic output in the fourth quarter of 2014.

It was a strike in everything but its technical name.

If the longshoremen had gone on strike formally—as opposed to the slow-motion strike they launched instead—they would have risked triggering the federal Taft-Hartley law, which might have forced them back to work.

By playing a clever game with language, however, they avoided this legal pitfall. I personally felt it when loyal customers around the world could not buy my pork because the containers sat on the docks and most of the meat spoiled. Ordinary Americans paid for it in lost jobs, wages, and higher consumer prices. People couldn’t get what they had bought and I couldn’t ship what I had sold.

George Orwell, the author of “Animal Farm” and “1984,” once addressed the problem of how abusing our language can corrupt our thought by allowing, for example, the word “pacification” to become a synonym for war. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” warned Orwell.

When a de-facto strike becomes a “slowdown” we’ve wandered into this dangerous territory.

The good news is that the longshoremen approved a new contract in May. Their slow-motion strike ended and they’re back at work, under terms that will last until July 1, 2019.

By then, they may be poised to do even more damage to our economy. If Congress approves the Trans Pacific Partnership and improves our ability to move more products into and out of Asia.

So we can mark our calendars for about four years from now. That’s when Big Labor can hold our economy hostage once again.

This gives us plenty of time to close our linguistic loopholes and prevent special-interest groups from using their privileged positions to exploit the rest of us.

Members of Congress have proposed legislation that would allow the president to intervene in labor disputes at ports, whether they’re called “strikes” or “slowdowns.” It would also empower governors to seek federal injunctions against union pressure tactics.

Another bill would direct the Department of Transportation to collect data on port productivity, giving Congress and the public a better sense of what’s happening along our docks.

Some have suggested updating the Railway Labor Act, which covers railroad and airline unions in an effort to prevent economic disruption in these vital sectors. It might be expanded to include the longshore unions as well.

These are good ideas, deserving public debate and worthy of congressional consideration. The only thing stopping us from taking them up now, when there’s a lot of time before the next crisis, is complacency: We must make sure lawmakers appreciate that this is no time to engage in a work stoppage of their own.

Tim Burrack raises corn, soybeans and pork on a NE Iowa family farm.  He serves as Vice-Chairman and volunteers as a Board Member of Truth About Trade & Technology / Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).

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Tim Burrack

Tim Burrack

Tim grows corn, seed corn, soybeans and produces pork. Has been very involved with Mississippi River lock improvements and has traveled to Brazil to research their river, rail and road infrastructure changes. Tim volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network and is currently serving as Vice Chairman.

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