As the 2021 Christmas season approached, shortages of goods began to appear throughout the American
economy. From Christmas toys to clothing and auto parts, shortages of imported products were forcing factories to idle, store
shelves to sit empty and consumers to panic.
As the question of what was in short supply arose across the nation, another question was being asked:
What was causing this economic crisis?
President Joe Biden, who had bragged about running “the most pro-union administration in history,”
wouldn’t admit that longshoremen’s unions were holding the nation hostage by refusing to allow the use of automated
equipment to unload container ships and get the goods onto trucks faster.
While the United States is the world’s largest importer, its major ports at Los Angeles and
Long Beach in California, rank a dismal 328 and 333, respectively, in the World Bank’s Container Port Performance
Index. That constitutes nightmare inefficiency that is worse than in most developing countries. Not one U.S.
port made it into the top 50 for speed and efficiency. In contrast, Japan’s Yokohama port ranks No. 1.
In October of 2021, nearly 100 container ships were waiting off the Los Angeles coastline to be
unloaded. The longer they waited, the more prices for imported goods rose, clobbering consumers.
That same month, President Biden announced a “gamechanger,” saying the ports of Los Angeles
and Long Beach would stay open more hours for a “90-day sprint” to Christmas. The simple truth was and is: Most ports
around the world operate 24/7. So why haven’t ports in the United States been doing the same? Port operators here haven’t
done that in the past because union contracts require paying higher hourly rates for night and weekend labor. Dockworker
salaries already average $171,000 a year. Biden’s announcement was a concession from port operators, not the unions.
But Biden’s announced increased hours won’t fix the bottlenecks! The added hours
will boost cargo movement by less than 10%, or an estimated 3,500 containers a week. The real problem is the unions’
tooth-and-nail opposition to laborsaving equipment. If the unions keep out modern automated loading/unloading
equipment, union workers would continue to earn their high salaries and their even-higher overtime
The labor union situation at our U.S. ports reminds me of a story told to me by a great-uncle who
worked at a now-defunct Boston newspaper in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The unionized newspaper bought and installed new printing
presses that could roll out daily newspapers at a much higher rate than with its outdated old presses. This would mean fewer
hours and less overtime for the unionized printing press operators. These newspaper printing presses operated with huge rolls of paper
and as the workers walked by the long line of paper running through the printing press, they would flick lighted cigarettes
onto the paper, burning holes in it causing it to tear, thus necessitating a shut-down of the line until the roll of paper
could be reattached. The workers wanted the company to believe that the new presses were defective and would reinstall the
older, inefficient printing presses which would mean more overtime and more pay for the unionized workers.
Getting back to today’s problem, cranes in automated ports operate at least twice as fast as the
cranes in America’s outdated and inefficient ports. Biden’s port envoy John Porcari let the truth out when he said, it’s “your
grandfather’s infrastructure that we’re working with.”
But the labor unions won’t have it any other way. The International Longshoremen’s Association
contract, which extends to 2024, blocks the use of automation technology. Willie Adams, president of the International
Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents West Coast workers, says automated cargo handling equipment will not be
And here’s a big lie, straight from the Biden Administration Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
He said dysfunctional ports are “one more example of why we need to pass the infrastructure bill.”
And the lie is that the $17 billion for ports in the infrastructure bill is mostly for emissions
reductions, repairs and dredging – not for any new automated cargo handling equipment . Nothing is allocated for
labor-saving automation. In fact, section 102 of Biden’s Build Back Better Bill expressly prohibits the use of funds provided
there to be used for automation.
Labor unions and the Democratic Party, along with Joe Biden, are joined at the hip. Biden is bought,
paid for and controlled by the unions. Some 98.8% of union money spent on the 2020 presidential contest went to Biden. Now
it’s payback time.
Biden could take action, but he won’t. Despite pushing for trillions in new spending, Biden is
choosing not to automate American ports. He’s kowtowing to his union backers. That means keeping America’s ports dysfunctional.
It’s a drag on the overall economy.
The Biden Build Back Better infrastructure bill is crammed with pro-union
including an extra $4,500 sweetener available only to consumers who buy a union-made electric vehicle and a
whopping $14,000 tax credit to homeowners who install energy-saving devices and electrical equipment, provided the
contractor doing the job is unionized; otherwise, zip. Organized labor is spending millions on advertising to get
the bill passed. And with all that, Biden and his Democratic cohorts are doing nothing to
upgrade our ports! Heaven forbid the Democrats anger the unions. After all, a port upgrade would reduce the union workers’
Previously, I’ve written about the negative impact of the unholy relationship between the Democratic
Party in Massachusetts and the public labor unions in the state – one result being a very high cost of living in the Bay
State. This shipping backlog issue at our ports is just
one more manifestation of the same issue.
“There are many causes of the current supply shortages, from too few truckers to shutdowns in Asia
due to COVID. But one problem is fixable - our obsolete ports. If only Biden had the will to
act.” (Ref. 2)
To be sure, modernizing equipment at our ports is not the only action needing to end the import
crisis. But, it is one important step in eliminating or reducing the problem. Ending the collusion between labor unions and
the Democratic Party which has, in part, led to the crisis should be a high priority, but obviously not one that is likely
to be favored by the Biden administration or the Democratic Party leadership.
As supply-chain woes have wreaked havoc on the global economy, the one chokepoint that has stood out
is - America’s woefully inefficient ports.
To be clear, port congestion isn’t the whole story. As the pandemic ebbed, consumer demand for goods
soared. Imports surged and warehouses filled up. Labor shortages put trucking and rail networks under stress. Disruptions to
the flow of critical components - such as truck chassis and shipping containers - clogged cargo facilities. As bottlenecks
proliferated throughout the economy, ports bore the brunt.
Even so, U.S. ports have exhibited glaring shortcomings for years. Not one cracked the top 50 in last
year’s Container Port Performance Index. Moving a container off a large ship in L.A. takes twice as long as it does in
Shanghai. And while Asian ports generally run 24/7 (or 168 hours a week), many in the U.S. run just 112 hours a week, with
nights and weekends off.
A crucial reason for this has been organized labor. Unions representing longshoremen have been
remarkably effective in advancing their members’ interests - gains that have come at the expense of other workers and the
general public. The average wage is nearing $200,000 a year for dockworkers at West Coast ports, much more for foremen,
leading terminal operators to limit hours to avoid overtime. Fearful that jobs might disappear or migrate to offices from
the docks, unions have also resisted the kind of automation that is standard overseas. The result has been serious turnaround
delays even before the recent swell of pressure on capacity.
While automation won’t make sense at every port, its potential benefits are plain. It could make
shipping goods faster, safer, greener and cheaper. It could ease congestion, boost economic growth and reduce consumer prices.
A study by McKinsey & Co. found that, done prudently, automating ports could slash operating costs by up to 55% and boost
productivity by up to 35%. Yes, some workers will be displaced. But if history is any guide, better technology will expand
the total number of jobs that ports create long-term.
One might think that a historic supply-chain disruption would prod policy makers to take up this
cause, but there’s little sign of it. In this area, as in others, President Joe Biden has shown greater concern for
union labor than for the wider public. His plan to get West Coast ports running 24/7, which he hailed as a potential
“game changer,” was in fact a small-time pilot program that had nothing to do with technology; the ports involved simply
agreed to pay more overtime. While one provision in the infrastructure bill Congress was debating would offer $3.5
billion to invest in zero-emissions technology at ports, it specifically prohibits investment in automation.
The Biden administration is quite simply prioritizing union labor over other workers and American
consumers at large. That needs to change - but if it does, few investments would offer as much potential to grow the nation’s
- Biden caves to unions, sabotaging consumers, Betsy McCaughey, Boston Herald: Page 15,
25 October 2021.
- To please unions, Biden refuses to automate ports — fueling supply-chain woes, Betsy McCaughey,
New York Post, 18 October 2021.
- Massachusetts: Democratic, Unionized and Very Expensive, David Burton, Son of Eliyahu:
2 July 2013.
- Massachusetts: Democratic, Unionized and Very Expensive - Part 2, David Burton, Son of Eliyahu:
15 August 2013.
- America’s Jammed-Up Ports Need Help, Bloomberg Opinion editorial board, The Washington
26 October 2021.