Just When You Start To Forget Why Unions Became Unpopular …

From the NYT, on a labor dispute at a port in the state of Washington:

About 500 longshoremen stormed the new $200 million terminal in Longview before sunrise Thursday, carrying baseball bats, smashing windows, damaging rail cars and dumping tons of grain from the cars, police and company officials said.

That reminds me that one of the forgotten efficiencies bestowed by the containerization revolution after WWII in which sealed standardized steel boxes that could be carried by truck, rail, and ship became the norm. Containerization made it much harder for stevedores to steal some of the cargo. Theft had been a traditional perk of working on the docks. Wikipedia explains:

Improved cargo security is also an important benefit of containerization. The cargo is not visible to the casual viewer and thus is less likely to be stolen; the doors of the containers are usually sealed so that tampering is more evident. Some containers are fitted with electronic monitoring devices and can be remotely monitored for changes in air pressure, which happens when the doors are opened. This reduced the thefts that had long plagued the shipping industry.

By the way, as a commenter points out, the American engineer who invented the modern container, Keith W. Tantlinger, just died. Here`s his NYT obituary, which does a good job of explaining both the importance of his particular innovations, and how precisely they made an old idea idea a giant success.

Until the mid-1950s, however, seaborne cargo transport had changed little since the day man first lashed together a raft, stocked it with trade goods and set out for distant shores. For centuries, on waterfronts worldwide, goods as diverse as flour, coffee, whiskey and mail were literally manhandled — loaded by longshoremen onto ships in sacks and crates and barrels and, at the other end, loaded off again. 

The method was expensive and took time. In 1954, Mr. Levinson’s book reports, the cargo ship Warrior left Brooklyn for Germany carrying 194,582 separate items. These had arrived at the Brooklyn docks in 1,156 separate shipments. 

Containerization unified the process, letting a single shipper move merchandise across land and sea. In 1958, The New York Times described the new technology this way: 

“A trailer is loaded, for example, in Springfield, Mo. It travels by road to New York or San Francisco, sealed, virtually damage-proof and theft-proof. By ship it goes to France or to Japan, eliminating warehousing, stacking and sorting. Each ship takes on her cargo with a few hundred lifts, compared to 5,000 individual lifts by the old method.”

Also, now that I`m on the topic of longshoremen, one of the odder economic facts is that America`s busiest port is Los Angeles / Long Beach, despite LA being a high cost urban area, traffic for trucks being bad, and the port being notoriously unionized and corrupt (e.g., the scene in Tarantino`s Reservoir Dogs where the head gangsters get the vicious ex-con Mr. Blond a job at the port that he doesn`t have to show up for as a reward for taking the rap and not ratting them out). And LA / Long Beach isn`t even a real harbor — it`s just created by breakwaters. I guess the other potential dominant ports are even worse. San Francisco used to be the dominant West Coast port due to its superb natural location, but I guess Harry Bridges, the San Francisco-based Communist boss of the ILWU, permanently wrecked San Francisco Bay.

But even with the extra costs imposed by the LA / LB port, the cost of intercontinental shipping is a minor aspect of the cost of imported goods today. Tantlinger`s invention broke down the natural tariff barriers of oceans that protected American manufacturers.