Fred Frailey's first Darwin Awards

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, November 30, 2012

As you know, Englishman Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was a naturalist who popularized the idea of survival of the fittest. Those species who could evolve and deal with change survive, he said, while those that cannot perish. These two awards honor his memory.

First, to the docks at the Port of Los Angeles. The 800 members of Local 63 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union are perhaps the highest paid clerical workers in the world. To shuffle paper, they are paid $165,000 to work eight and a half months of the year, getting the remaining weeks off. And they have job guarantees.

Still, they are not happy. They rejected an offer from the port that would raise their salaries to $195,000 and this week began picketing one of the nine piers. Other ILWU workers honored the picket signs, and in a wink the strike spread to the other piers and to the adjacent Port of Long Beach.

For self-destructive behavior, this is right up there with the bomber pilot who says “I wonder what this button does?” and pushes it. Container ships were diverted to Oakland and to ports in Mexico. The credibility and reputations of the two ports were battered. And forget efficiency. One wonders what Matt Rose, the CEO of BNSF Railrway, thinks of all this. BNSF and Union Pacific are heavily dependent upon these two ports remaining competitive. After all, in just two years an enlarged Panama Canal will open and efficient deepwater ports on the East Coast will be wooing the ships that now call on the West Coast. The Los Angeles Times says up to 100,000 cargo jobs in Southern California are threatened by the Panama project.

Not even a year ago, a video produced by the Jobs1st Alliance showed dock workers and managers saying together, “Beat the Canal.”

So long, farewell, been good to know you, Local 63. Even if the strike wraps up quickly, the damage has been done.

Now on to the second Darwin Award.

It’s profits are slumping, as is its stock price. Plus, its biggest commodity handled is falling off a cliff. Meanwhile, the economy is barely growing, and unless a miracle occurs in Washington, D.C., at year’s end taxes will rise for most Americans, meaning a recession could be right around the corner.

So what does Norfolk Southern do? Why, it publicly celebrates this week an $18 million investment to upgrade its Lamberts Point export coal transload facility in Norfolk! This would have truly been a landmark achievement 20 or 30 years ago. But with coal loadings off 13 percent during the first three quarters of 2012, compared with 2011, you’ve got to wonder if NS just shot itself in the foot.

In fairness, capital investments of this sort are planned far in advance. Plus, it could be that the export business for Norfolk Southern is holding up better than the loadings for U.S. customers. And NS spokesperson Robin Chapman, unbowed, fires back: “Coal is and will remain an important business for Norfolk Southern. Long after the current economic crises settle down, we expect the worldwide demand for coal to be strong for many years to come, and we are committed to providing superior service to our export coal customers. These upgrades were necessary to maintain that capability.”

Still, the timing couldn’t have been worse. And because the work didn’t start until August, it’s not as if NS didn’t know the coal business was going to the dogs.

Railroads: Be careful what you brag about. These are my first Darwin awards for self-destructive acts, but surely not my last. — Fred W. Frailey

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