Guardian voices: The labor agreement that changed SF

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This year marks the 53rd anniversary of the beginnings of  negotiations between the International Longshoreman’s and Warehouseman’s Union and the Pacific Maritime Association over what came to be known as the “Mechanization and Modernization Agreement.”  Signed in October, 1960, after months of talks,  the “M and M agreement” transformed San Francisco’s economy forever, moving its founding industry -- shipping and trans shipping -- to the East Bay, opening up the land once devoted to maritime uses to real estate development, and setting off the modern political era of San Francisco.

The agreement allowed containerization to come into the San Francisco Bay, making obsolete  the finger piers along San Francisco’s waterfront and the ILWU’s “gangs” that worked on them, hand-loading “break bulk” cargo into the holds of cargo ships. The new technology of shipping cargo in a single  container that could be transported by truck, train, and ship without unloading  transformed maritime trade.

During World War II, shipbuilding and shipping were  fundamental in the effort to move billions of tons of supplies and millions of troops across the global battlefield. In both cases the  San Francisco Bay was ground zero in that in that effort.

Kaiser and Bechtel, two Bay Area-based construction companies, wildly successful in undertaking huge construction projects during the New Deal, were urged to build ships during the war. Kaiser in Richmond and Bechtel in Sausalito constructed  huge shipyards that  built cargo ships by the hundreds, bringing tens of thousands of workers to the Bay Area and changing the demographics of the region for ever. These huge industrial centers didn’t last after the war, and while they transformed who lived in the region, they didn’t really have a lasting economic impact.

But wartime changes in cargo handling did.

For as long as San Francisco had been a city, it depended on its port as the base of its economy. The Gold Rush happened here in part because we had a port and the world rushed in on ships. The enduring fortunes were made during that period by merchants and shipping companies were totally dependent on shipping and cargo handling.

At the heart of the maritime economy was the longshoreman who, by hand, loaded and unloaded ships’ holds. The demand for speed during WWII saw the then-revolutionary introduction of the fork lift truck on the piers of San Francisco, replacing hands with a machine for the first time in the history of the San Francisco waterfront.

But that was only the beginning. New ship designs and new shipping techniques were invented to meet the needs of global war. Since most of the Pacific islands that were the military objectives of the war had no ports or piers, ships were designed that could land directly on a beach and unload preloaded trucks.  Preloaded containers were simply stacked on the decks of Liberty ships, avoiding the need to load the cargo below decks.  By the Korean War these containers were in such regular use by the Army that ships were modified to carry only them, replacing below-deck cargo entirely.

Since ports and piers had been major targets during the war and required extensive rebuilding in both Europe and Asia,  new cargo handling techniques were built into these new facilities, making US ports, undamaged by the war, outmoded and old fashioned.  If US ports were to keep up they had to be modernized.  But who would pay for these new facilities: the shipping business or the government?

San Francisco was still governed by an unbroken line of Republican Mayors during this key period: the anti-New Deal, pro-Mussolini Angelo Rossi; the shipping line owner and anti- ILWU leader Roger Lapham; the pro-real-estate development Elmer Robinson; and finally, the last Republican Mayor of San Francisco, the pro-urban-renewal stalwart George Christopher. These four had no desire to rebuild the waterfront and make the ILWU even stronger. Indeed, Robinson and his successor Christopher had a vision of the waterfront as prime real estate, not working waterfront.

And so, with no commitment to the maritime industry from the city’s leadership and with technological change making the status quo impossible to maintain, Harry Bridges and the leadership of the ILWU cut the best deal they could for their existing members: the 1960 M and M agreement, which gave all existing longshore workers lifetime jobs and very good pay -- but sealed the fate of San Francisco waterfront.

By 1962 the Port of Oakland had built its first container facility, and that same year, the first containership, the S.S. Elizabethport, docked and begin loading. By the mid 1970’s, the ILWU was no longer a force in the San Francesco labor movement, its leadership taken by the Building Trades unions  whose  numbers increased as the development boom, fueled by land made vacant by the loss of the maritime industry, grew.

For the rest of the Bay Area, it was San Francisco’s model of waterfront as real estate development that was followed, not Oakland’s investment in cargo shipping. By 1965, development of the Bay was so intense that the McAteer-Petris Act was passed, creating the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, a regional body aimed at limiting the powers of local governments (like San Francisco) in filling and over-developing the Bay.

The 8 Washington battle, the struggle over the Hunters Point shipyard, and the looming battle over the use of a port pier for the Warriors arena all have their history deeply rooted in the 1960 M and M agreement.

In this second decade of the 21st century, our greatest challenge is creating and sustaining meaningful employment. Would our prospects be better if we had somehow been able to keep some maritime uses at the port? Would families in Bay View-Hunters Point be more able to buy homes in their own neighborhood if the same kinds of jobs that allowed their grandparents to buy theirs still existed? Would the boom-or-bust cycle of our real-estate dependent local economy been so disruptive if we had a more steady state base of a maritime sector -- which kept the Great Depression from being so devastating in San Francisco in the1930s?

These questions are real -- and should show that the shape of our economy is made by us and the decisions we make, locally, not solely by techological change, global trends or the far-too-palsied invisible hand of the free market.