Off the Waterfront

News media have abandoned the labor beat and missed a story of global financial import: the looming possibility of a longshoremen's strike at West Coast ports

For the modern social anthropologist, there's no better place for fieldwork than the business convention. A researcher entering the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston to investigate the natural gas industry finds rooms full of stout and comfortable men who spend workdays flogging fuel. Most played football at Texas universities, and now wear golf shirts with an enviable, gregarious ease. Junketing Latin American bankers, meanwhile, sport expensive clothes and bodyguards. During bull markets they bring mistresses; in down years, wives. At tech industry conventions, researchers find hordes of shy obsessives. These subjects are patient, though, and have a funny way with words.

It was therefore with great anthropological anticipation that I approached the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference held in San Francisco last weekend. This is perhaps the most important convention for journalism, which is a business that isn't supposed to act like a business, so I wasn't sure what I'd find. Entering the lobby of the Embarcadero Hyatt Friday I discovered cliques of retiring people struggling to be sociable. They became excitable when conversation turned toward government policies regarding various types of paperwork. In anthropological terms, they seemed similar to computer conference attendees (or the aluminum wonks one always finds at metals industry conventions).

I followed the flocks of journalists into a habitat called "the seminar" in hopes of finding distinctions; sadly, few appeared. Journalists may have their quirks, but lately they seem more and more like modern businessmen and -women. They appear to have drifted, anthropologically speaking, far from the news profession's blue-collar roots. And the more they become like businessmen, I have discovered, the more they cover business.

Of more than 100 seminars at the IRE conference -- an assemblage of the journalism profession's most idealistic members -- there were only two panels that specifically dealt with working stiffs; one addressed workers overseas, the other related to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's failures in regulating business. But many of the seminars, in one way or another, were about covering business.

I asked Todd Johnson, an economist with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics who was manning a booth at the conference, whether he had been approached by any reporters who specifically covered working Joes and Janes. "There was one intern with the Wall Street Journal," he said. "She was wondering that, too, whether there was a labor beat anymore."

It's no secret that few papers cover labor intensively, or from the point of view of workers, anymore. The San Francisco Chronicle, for example, fired its labor editor back in 1970.

"Now, anything about workers is presented on the business page, and done for the benefit of the people who read the business page," says former Chronicle labor editor Dick Meister, who syndicates his own column on labor issues. "It's written for somebody reading it from that point of view: 'Here's what these bastards are doing to us now.'"

Because of the disappearance of the labor beat, daily newspapers and their public miss big stories -- for example, the mass migration of workers into, then out of, San Francisco for the Internet boom wasn't covered as a labor story. As a result, the phenomenon never entered the public mind, except as a curious caricature full of locals cursing the damned "dot-commers."

One of the more glaring examples of major labor news being ignored is currently occurring just 21 blocks from the site of the IRE conference.

While 1,000 or so investigative journalists milled around the Hyatt, local newspapers seemed oblivious to one of the most important financial and economic stories of the year -- very possibly because it is, on its surface, a labor story. At the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) headquarters on Franklin Street, shippers and union members are amid contract negotiations that, economists say, threaten to send tremors through the world financial system. The labor contract under re-negotiation covers 10,500 dockworkers on the U.S. Pacific seaboard and expires June 30. There are loud rumblings of a possible strike or lockout.

"A West Coast shutdown has a huge risk. It could well trigger a crisis in international financial markets as speculators hear the news and just dump Asian currencies and stocks, and then wait to see whether it will be a quick strike -- a day or two -- or something more substantial, and severely hurt those economies," says Stephen Cohen, a UC Berkeley economics professor who is co-director of a research group known as the Berkeley Round Table on the International Economy. "When you start with a financial crisis, all sorts of very unpleasant things follow."

For most of the past 30 years, longshoremen have had good relations with shippers. Since the longshoremen-led San Francisco general strike of 1934, there has been only one West Coast dock-related work stoppage, in 1971. The longshoremen's union even cooperated with the introduction of labor-saving standardized shipping containers in the 1960s and '70s, in exchange for one of the most lucrative labor contracts in the world. Unionized longshore workers now earn between $105,278 and $340,000, depending on job category and hours worked, with part-timers making around $70,000 per year, according to the Washington Post.

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