Shoring Up the Middle

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

LOS ANGELES -- In the spring of 1923, a sick and frustrated Lenin penned an article for Pravda titled "Better Fewer, But Better." The state he had willed into existence was mass-producing communists who knew nothing of communism. Better that the state should take its time, Lenin counseled, and turn out fewer but higher-quality commissars.

In fact, the genius of the Soviet system was precisely its capacity to mass-produce thugs. One system that has taken Lenin's words to heart, however, is American manufacturing. Each year, our factories employ a smaller and smaller share of American workers, but each year the value of their output continues to rise.

The dollar value of American-made goods today is three times what it was in the mid-1950s, The Post's Peter S. Goodman reported on Labor Day. Conversely, the percentage of American workers employed in manufacturing is a little less than a third of the level at mid-century: 10 percent today, 34 percent in 1950. Employers have outsourced such labor-intensive industries as clothing and textiles, retaining the manufacture of high-value products for their domestic factories.

America builds ever-more-innovative products, but ever-fewer Americans share in that bounty. We generate millions of jobs in lower-paying service-sector work even as the number of manufacturing workers continues to shrink (19 million in 1979, 14 million today). Nor do manufacturing jobs, immersed in the cauldron of global competition, offer anything near the security and middle-class living standards that many of them used to. With millions of digitizable service-sector jobs (many requiring college educations) subject to global competition as well, it's no wonder that the income of the typical American household has been flat even as national productivity rates continue to rise.

Rebuilding mass prosperity in America will require two epochal shifts in the way our nation does business. First, non-manufacturing jobs not subject to global competition -- in transportation, construction, health care, sales -- must be upgraded and upskilled the way many of their counterparts in manufacturing have. Second, the workers in those jobs must regain the power to bargain for decent wages, a power that's eroded as the union movement has shrunk from representing close to 40 percent of private-sector workers in mid-century to just 7 percent today.

To see the difference that these two conditions can make, turn your attention to one small but critical corner of the U.S. economy: the adjoining ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Forty percent of all imports to the United States come through these ports, including the vast majority of goods from Asia. They are unloaded by the best-paid blue-collar workers in Los Angeles, the longshoremen. They are then taken away by some of the more poorly paid workers in Los Angeles, the port truck drivers.

Unlike their counterparts on the East and Gulf Coasts, the West Coast longshoremen belong to a powerful, incorruptible and visionary union, the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU), led from the 1930s through the 1970s by the legendary Harry Bridges. No one knows whether Bridges -- that rarity of rarities, an American union leader who actually was a communist -- had "Better Fewer, But Better" in mind, but in the late 1950s, he devised a plan to mechanize the West Coast ports. The swarm of musclemen who had unloaded ships were replaced by a much smaller group of dock workers operating giant cranes. Port productivity and profitability soared, and the union's agreement with the port operators and shippers ensured that those profits would be shared with its fewer but richer members. The ILWU local at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports has just 7,000 members, but they are among the very few blue-collar American workers with annual incomes frequently exceeding $100,000.

Port truckers, by contrast, outnumber the longshoremen roughly 3 to 1 and are lucky if their incomes reach one-third of the dockworkers'. Through the magic of trucking deregulation and the power that companies such as Wal-Mart exert over their supply chain, the truckers are all "independent contractors." Most of them are driving older, polluting rigs that they struggle to pay off, and they are working without benefits. Their efforts to form unions have repeatedly failed, for the simple reason that few of them can actually claim to have employers.

Later this month -- at the prompting of community activists furious at having to breathe Los Angeles's deadliest air, the Teamsters Union, port drivers and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- the city's Harbor Commission is likely to pass regulations requiring cleaner trucks, a change that advocates have devised to reshape the industry into one featuring large, hence unionizable, employers. It's the kind of effort that other communities, industries and government officials must heed if the American middle class is to have something more promising than a glorious past.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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