More than once has a novice football fan, witnessing the successful employment of the hurry-up two-minute offense by a team that had been trailing but wins the game in the waning seconds, wondered aloud, “Why don’t they just play like that for the other 58 minutes?”
There’s a certain logic to that question, but there’s also a fatal flaw in the reasoning behind it, because it contradicts basic human behavior.
Teams don’t play that way for the same reason that students wait until the night before to start the research paper, why shoppers don’t get their Christmas shopping done until Santa’s sled is airborne, why taxpayers wait until late on April 14 to file their returns and why, ahem, on occasion journalists have been known to push a deadline.
We are procrastinators. It’s our nature to postpone what needs to be done. Work doesn’t just expand to fill the time available (Parkinson’s Law), it gets done only when there’s no more time available.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more in evidence than in the standard collective-bargaining contract negotiation. The parties involved — the labor union and management — know for years in advance when an existing contract is set to expire. They know the short and long-term costs of a strike, to both sides.
And yet, out of tradition, ignorance or dismissal of those costs or some misguided notion that brinksmanship gives one side a bit of leverage, it’s a rare round of bargaining that doesn’t go right up to the deadline, and often beyond it. To settle early is to leave the lingering notion that one side left something on the table and sacrificed advantage, never mind the benefits of not disrupting internal operations, service to customers, workforce morale and the financial wellbeing of both the company and employees.
Which brings us to the recently and tentatively concluded negotiations between the Pacific Maritime Association, representing terminal operators and shipping lines, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, representing workers at 29 West Coast ports.
No one came out of this looking good — not management, not labor, not the port commissions and owners who were shown to have little control or even say over the operation of their facilities.
The customers reliant upon the ports to get goods in and out didn’t fare well either, to the tune of millions of dollars in lost sales, added costs for alternatives (such as air-freight or Canadian ports) and lost market share.
That point was made in a post-settlement statement from the Association of Washington Business: “While we welcome the news of a new five-year agreement, we are mindful that it will take some time for port operations to resume to normal, and also that some effects of the months-long slowdown may be permanent. Some businesses that were forced to find alternate means of importing or exporting material may not resume their previous shipping patterns.”
Much more blunt was the statement from the Agriculture Transportation Coalition, which is worth considering at length because it lays out the problems the PMA, the ILWU and the ports have created for themselves and everyone else.
“If U.S. agriculture is to recover, we will need to see West Coast ports become more efficient, more productive than they were before the contract expired and the disruption initiated,” the statement noted. “U.S. agriculture has taken a beating these past 10 months, as West Coast port disruption has denied many agriculture exporters access to foreign markets. The delays imposed by congested, understaffed and under automated ports have created barriers to our exports. Perishables have been knocked out of markets, and our customers overseas have been forced to find other, non-U.S., sources for their meat, fruit, hay, cotton, rice, nuts, french fries, lumber, and so much more.
“There is nothing that we produce in agriculture here in the U.S. that cannot be sourced elsewhere in the world. If we don’t supply dependably and affordably, we lose that business. Twelve years ago the West Coast ports were shut down and foreign buyers shifted purchases to some of our foreign competitors. In some cases, twelve years later, they still haven’t come back to the U.S. ag producers.”
The trade group added a rebuke to all parties, calling the West Coast ports not up to world-class competitive standards in efficiency and productivity. “We will keep our fingers crossed that both labor and management have learned that their actions will determine if the U.S. will continue to be the world’s leading supplier of agriculture. If they have, then they can look forward to increasing volumes of cargo crossing West Coast docks.”
And if they haven’t?
The shippers have learned a few things too. They’re no more immune to procrastination than anyone else, but financial pain on the scale they’ve endured can wonderfully focus the mind on finding ways to avoid it. They likely won’t wait another five years to see if the lessons have been learned and negotiations go more smoothly.
As for the PMA, the ILWU and the ports (including Tacoma and Seattle), if the operating plan is to clean up the backlog and then say, “let’s do this again in five years,” that would be sticking with tradition. It would also be highly dangerous.
Whatever either side believes it “won” in this round of bargaining already pales in comparison to the reputational hit they’ve taken and the potential long-term consequences. Everyone needs to go back to the bargaining table Monday morning and figure out how they’re going to keep customers and make them happy.
Those customers are already tired of discussions over where the blame for the most recent disruption lies. The peril for management, labor and the port is that when next time rolls around, the customers are no longer around to say “who cares?”