Longshore Battle: Bush, Butt Out!

Against the Current, No. 100, September/October 2002

Dianne Feeley

MY BROTHER SAYS it’s a more difficult situation on the waterfront than in 1971, the last time the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) went out on strike.  My brother is a clerk on the Oakland docks, just like my stepfather before him.

But the job my stepfather had back in the 1950s and `60s is long gone. He used to map—with the colored pencils he carried in the pocket of his jacket—where all the cargo was to go as it got loaded on the ship. Now that’s done by non-union personnel, perhaps hundreds of miles away, via computer—and the cargo is all containerized.

In the current round of negotiations the employer group, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), has stated it needs to install the latest technology—already installed in Rotterdam and Singapore—to cut costs and speed cargo handling, eliminating 400-600 jobs.

PMA negotiators claim that they have to cut costs in order to make the West Coast and Hawaiian ports more profitable.  Yet containerization tonnage on the West Coast ports has increased at least 900% over the last four decades.  As the Journal of Commerce noted, “At a modern container port, longshore labor costs account for such a small percentage of costs that a doubling of ILWU wages would barely produce a blip in overall expense.”  (7/1-7/02)

In response to the employer’s demand for technological innovation, the ILWU countered with a demand for the right to perform all the technical jobs. Currently the union performs fifty percent of the planning work with the other fifty percent outsourced to a non-bargaining unit work force.

The chief management negotiator commented to Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times, “Their proposal was developed so it could not possibly be accepted.  On a net basis, their proposal actually adds employees to the work force.”  NYT, 8/13/02)

The last contract ran out at the end of June and negotiations proceed at a snail’s pace. By mutual agreement the contract is extended on a day-by-day basis.  The ILWU has not even called for a strike vote. But over the past several weeks the union has been under incredible pressure to sign a bad contract.

For starters, the largest corporations that use the port—including Payless Shoes, Target, Home Depot, The Gap, Matel and Wal Mart—have formed the West Coast Waterfront Coalition (WCWC) as a way to lobby politicians, recruit other anti-union corporations to the coalition and reinforce the PMA’s intransigence.  (Check the WCWC website for a full list of its members: www. portmod.org/membership/general.htm)

The White House assigned Carlos Bonilla to meet with the WCWC. According to syndicated columnist Stephanie Salter, the Bush administration set up a task force, composed of representatives from the departments of Labor, Transportation, Commerce and Homeland Security, to explore ways to head off a possible strike.  Tom Ridge, Homeland Security chief, called the ILWU President Jim Spinosa “to suggest that any job slow-down or strike would be viewed as a threat to national security.”

Currently on the administration’s table are four different ways Bush might choose to intervene in the case of a strike:

  1. by invoking the Taft-Hartley Act, which would provide for an ninety-day “cooling off” period, thus forcing the longshore workers back to work

  2. by calling on Congress to place the union under the provisions of the Railway Labor Act, which would give the government the right to end a strike and impose a contract

  3. by threatening to declare the union’s coast-wide bargaining structure an illegal monopoly, forcing the longshore workers at each of the twenty-nine ports to bargain separately, thus undermining their ability to maximize their bargaining leverage

  4. by replacing the workers with the National Guard, Green Berets or Navy personnel

Some observers suggest that Bush would love to have another PATCO where he could intervene and throw his weight around, giving the working class a lesson.  He or his advisers would love to have that as his legacy.  Hence much loose talk about national security, which gets mixed up with “economic security.”  If the definition of “security” can be slid over to cover any threat to the nation’s commerce, unions are in deep trouble.  Note that it is Tom Ridge who is making the phone calls to Spinosa.

The union’s strategy seems to be carefully calculated.  It’s true that annually IWLU-represented workers move $260 billion in cargo, representing sixty percent of the nation’s cargo and about seven percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product; but they are only 10,500 workers spread out over twenty-nine ports.

The ILWU knows that longshore workers can’t win this struggle by themselves.  Fortunately they are a union with a long track record of support to other trade union and social justice struggles.

They were there for the Charleston 5—East Coast dockworkers who faced criminal charges for being on or near their picket line when the police charged them. They were there for global justice activists, by demonstrating in Seattle and by refusing to unload an Italian ship in the aftermath of the Italian government’s repression at Genoa.  Over the years they have supported a variety of social justice issues including the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Mobilizing Support

On August 12 thousands of ILWU members and supporters demonstrated in Long Beach, Oakland, Portland, Tacoma and Seattle around the demand that Bush back off from intervening in the negotiations.  As Steve Stallone, ILWU Communications Director, pointed out, management “has had no incentive to negotiate seriously, because they know the government is standing by, ready to act against the union.”  (NYT 8/11/02)

In the Bay Area two organizations are working to publicize and mobilize in support of the ILWU: the Alameda Labor Council and the Dockworkers Solidarity Campaign.  Up and down the West Coast labor councils and individual local unions are passing resolutions, writing letters and getting out the word about the ILWU’s fight.

The California State AFL-CIO is on board and a broad range of social justice organizations are plugging into the activity as well.

Nationally Jobs with Justice is targeting Payless Shoes, one of the members of the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, and raising three demands: stop pushing the federal government to interfere with civil negotiations, get out of the WCWC and let workers and employers negotiate fairly.  On August 28 JwJ held pickets in front of Payless Shoes in thirty cities, asking shoppers to call or write Payless Shoes.  (See www.jwj.org for updates on the campaign).

The AFL-CIO has adopted a resolution of support and set up a national task force.  (See the ILWU web page for sample resolutions and updates: www.ilwu.org).

The International Transport Workers Federation Dockers Section, representing 400,000 port workers in the sea transportation industry in 170 countries, passed a strongly worded resolution in support of the ILWU at their congress in Vancouver, British Columbia this August.  The resolution points out that plans to use troops to operate the ports in case of a strike would be “a most serious violation of ILO [International Labor Organization, of which the United States is a signer] standards.”

The dock union leaders also sent a letter to Bush in which they said, “Negotiations on the future of the longshore industry and issues such as job security and technological change should take place through free collective bargaining between employees and management, without heavy-handed intervention by government officials at the request of corporate executives.”

Many of the international dock unions have contracts with most of the same companies that make up the PMA and face similar situations in their own countries.  In fact just four years ago the Australian government sent federal troops to seize its port facilities.

The Maritime Union of Australia was able to obtain the support of labor unions both nationally and internationally—including the ILWU’s refusal, in May 1998, to work the Neptune Jade, the first and only scab-loaded Australian ship to call on a U.S. port.

A Hard Battle

Longshore workers knew the 2002 negotiations were going to be difficult.  When I visited my brother last Christmas he outlined possible givebacks the employers were going to demand.  High on the list were job elimination and massive cuts in the health care benefits package.

Docks are hazardous work sites where exposure to carcinogenic materials (diesel emission, toxic chemicals, coke dust, etc.) and serious accidents are a fact of daily life. Several of my brother’s coworkers have been injured or killed on the job.

Beginning with the 1934 longshore strike, the ILWU has fought to improve wages, benefits and working conditions, and to eliminate cronyism in the hiring process.  In this context winning implementation of the union hiring hall and thus taking the selection of workers out of the employers’ hands, was a key victory of the 1934 strike.

The ILWU has taken the position that there is no need to make concessions on benefits or to accept the gutting of union jobs. If they are able to back the employers off it will be because of the solidarity they receive from workers in this country and abroad.

If the ILWU is forced out on strike and Bush does implement the Taft-Hartley Act, the dockers can remember the coal miners’ strike of 1978.  President Jimmy Carter invoked Taft-Hartley, but the miners thumbed their noses, and eventually they won.

But Ronald Reagan’s crushing of the air traffic controllers is also a lesson.  If unions don’t want another PATCO—an incident that emboldened employers and chilled unions for a generation—the labor movement better take a stand.

Dianne Feeley is an editor of Against the Current.  Raised in San Francisco, she has childhood memories of being taken down to the “banana docks” to watch bananas—then transported on their stocks—unloaded.  Now, of course, the banana docks are gone and bananas are shipped in boxes as containerized cargo.  She would like to thank Jane Slaughter, and Marcia Neimeijer for their helpful suggestions in commenting on an earlier draft.

ATC 100, September-October 2002