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Struggle on the Waterfront

Robert Irminger
Date Published: 
February 14, 2003

The 11day lockout at the beginning on September 27 of West Coast longshoremen of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) by the employers group of shipping and stevedoring companies, the Pacific Maritime Association(PMA), represented a significant departure in labor and class relations on the waterfront of all 29 West Coast ports.

The mobilizing of significant sections of the capitalist class through the West Coast Waterfront Coalition (WCWC), a group of retailers and manufacturers that reads like a who’s who of corporate America, and the direct intervention of the Bush administration in the person of Tom Ridge, highlighted the forces arrayed against the 10,500 members of the longshore division of the ILWU. These workers are in a key position in the US economy—40% of the value of US GDP passes through West Coast ports. This has a profound affect on the economies of the Pacific Rim and ultimately the entire capitalist edifice. The independence and militant traditions of the union are a threat to business as usual.

The political atmosphere post 9-11 provided the masters of international capital the opportunity to launch a full-fledged assault against these dockers, one in a series of attacks against dock workers around the world over the last two decades. Longshore unions in Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Brazil, Netherlands, South Africa, India, and other countries have all faced attacks on the gains they have won over years of struggle by the same corporate entities arrayed against the ILWU. To provide an understanding of the nature of the workers organization given expression by the ILWU, a little history is needed.

Militant history

In 1934, during a West Coast strike of maritime workers, longshoremen left the employee-controlled “fink” union and joined the New York-based International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA). Three years later, during the formation of what was soon to become the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), amid a wave of militant strikes throughout the country, the West Coast longshoremen broke with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) affiliated ILA and joined the CIO, forming the ILWU.

The most important demand of the 1934 strike—as well as all subsequent strikes through 1948—was union control of hiring through a hiring hall that allocated work on the principle that those with the least hours worked were the first to get work. This would eliminate the hated “shape up,” where men (at that time it was all men) were picked by a shipping company boss based on favoritism or graft. Another key element which later strengthened the hand of the ILWU was a contract in which all the West Coast ports bargained together with the group of shipping and stevedoring companies that eventually became, in 1949, the PMA.

In 1960, an agreement was reached by the ILWU and the PMA that introduced the technology of containerization onto the waterfront. No longer were ships at dock for days while being unloaded by gangs of men with cargo hooks and cranes moving pallets of goods from holds into trucks for delivery to warehouses. Now containers, like so many Lego pieces, were placed directly on trucks and trains for much speedier delivery. The turn around time for ships was reduced from days to hours.

Containerization in turn helped reduce the longshore workforce from close to 100,000 at the beginning of the agreement to the 10,500 today. In exchange for the job loss and the concomitant huge growth in profits for the employers, the ILWU got lifetime medical benefits, generous pensions, and wages and working conditions that became the envy of workers throughout the US.

There was significant dissatisfaction with this agreement and the parallel implementation of “steady men,” those who no longer went to the hiring hall for their job, but worked for only one employer. Many members saw this as a breach in the solidarity that had been forged in the years from 1934 to 1948. A strike in the summer of 1971, which occurred after Taft-Hartley had been imposed, was a result of frustration over the results of the Modernization and Mechanization Agreement. The strike was inconclusive.

In the 31 years since, there has been no coast-wide work stoppage, except one-day solidarity actions, such as the April 1999 shutdown in support of political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal, the Nov. 30 1999 shutdown to support the WTO demonstrations in Seattle, and two one-day actions as part of an international campaign in support of the Liverpool dockers.

These are only the most recent examples of solidarity actions—in 1937, dock workers refused to load ships with scrap metal for imperialist Japan during the Japanese invasion and occupation of Manchuria at the request of the Chinese community of San Francisco. The willingness of the ILWU to take such actions, as well as demand contract language that allows them to halt work to resolve grievances (particularly those that effect safety), are yet two more reasons why the PMA would like to see the ILWU brought to heel.

Employers attack

Six years ago, the PMA hired a new director, Joe Miniace, who had no experience in maritime, but had spent much of his career attacking the wages and conditions of healthcare workers. By 2002, with an aggressively anti-labor Bush administration and the political climate generated by the war against terrorism, Miniace and the PMA were ready to make their move.

Several factors combined to weaken the ILWU’s bargaining position: 1) the creation of the West Coast Waterfront Coalition (WCWC), which brought retailers and manufacturers on the side of dock companies; 2) direct threats from Homeland Security director Ridge to ILWU president Jim Spinosa, indicating that a work stoppage would be considered a threat to national security, and 3) pending legislation that would define the ILWU’s coast-wide bargaining a “monopoly,” which would force the union to bargain port by port. Additionally, lawmakers indicated that legislation would be drafted placing the union under the Railway Labor Act, making it even easier for the government to intervene.

The 2002 negotiations between ILWU and PMA began two months before the June 30 expiration of the contract. On July 1st, with little progress being made, there was an agreement to extend the contract on a day-to-day basis. The PMA was asking for major reductions in health benefits and pensions, as well as drastic cuts in the workforce due to the implementation of new technology. By Labor Day, relations between both sides had deteriorated to the point that the ILWU refused to continue the one-day extensions.

During the course of the year, five longshoremen had been killed on the job. This was a result of speed-ups on the docks due to PMA’s warning to the WCWC that they could expect up to a two-week work stoppage in the fall. Late summer and early fall are the busiest time of year on the docks as goods from Asia destined for Christmas season retailers flow through the ports. As retailers and manufacturers increased the amount of goods being shipped, the busy docks became even busier and the five fatal accidents were the result.

The ILWU then said that they would follow their safety code to rule to prevent further accidents. The PMA claimed it was a slowdown and on September 27, they imposed a two-day lockout on the workers. On the morning of the 29th, as the workers tried to go back to work, the lockout was re-imposed. Even though the lockout was the result of employer action, the media almost unanimously portrayed the port closures as the responsibility of the union. In many cases the lockout was referred to as a strike, and there was constant exaggerations of longshoremen’s income and the cost to the national economy.

The PMA claimed the average wage at $140,000 and that the work stoppage cost the national economy one billion dollars per day. These numbers were uncritically accepted by the media. The ILWU estimated that the average longshore wage was $60-80,000, while the billion-dollar figure, especially in the first two weeks of the lockout, was disputed by several mainstream economists. Nonetheless there was no dispute that there was a potential massive economic disruption if the stoppage lasted for more than a couple of weeks.

Bush steps in

Immediately following the lockout, there were many call for the imposition of the Taft-Hartley Act, a 1947 law that allows government intervention in labor disputes, if there is a perceived threat to the national economy, by forcing workers back to work for an eighty-day period. Since its passage, Taft-Hartley has been imposed 29 times on coal miners, longshoremen, and many other groups of workers. The 1971 West Coast strike was, however, the last time it was used against the ILWU. Never have contract negotiations under the gun of Taft-Hartley produced an agreement. Union power is fundamentally undermined when their legal ability to withhold labor is removed. As was the case in 1971, a strike often occurs after the act expires.

When PMA locked out the longshore workers, the Bush administration brought in the director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS), Peter Hurtgen, a Republican appointed by the Bush administration, to mediate. Rich Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, who had been closely monitoring the negotiations, started sitting in on a regular basis. The series of demonstrations and rallies opposing the PMA, the Bush administration, and the Taft-Hartley act that the ILWU had organized up and down the coast during the spring and summer came to a halt.

An agreement on maintenance of benefits was shortly announced, then one on jurisdiction and technology, though no details were provided by either side. Near the end of November the mediator said that if an agreement was not reached by Thanksgiving, negotiations would be moved to Washington, DC. Just before the holiday break, a tentative agreement was reached, hailed by both sides as a “win-win” resolution to the conflict. This was met with puzzlement by those who had been following negotiations. With so much at stake, how could both sides be winners? Some dock workers noted that there was not even the usual griping by the employers about the terms of the agreement.

As details started to emerge with the release of the agreement, or memorandum of understanding (MOU), it became clear that key questions had not been resolved in favor of the union. The procedure governing the implementation of technology was governed by a process that would inevitably lead to arbitration. In addition, the process of picking the coast-wide arbitrator, the final authority in determining jurisdiction, would fall to the government through the FMCS.

Political space

The agreement lasts for six years, twice the normal length, preventing the union from taking strike action if the implementation of new technology leads to a greater loss of jobs than the projected 400. The longshore division membership will vote on this contract the week of Jan. 6-13. The leadership of the union and the AFL-CIO has endorsed it along with 90% of the delegates to the longshore caucus.

In its attempt to ward off the combined government-employer assault, the ILWU sent rank and file members across the country to stump for the Democrats during the November elections. They hired a public relations firm to spin their image in the media. What they didn’t do was mobilize the membership and reach out to the constituency that they had developed over the years with their social justice actions.

A political space, encouraging alliances with non-traditional allies such as environmental, social justice and the (misnamed) anti-globalization movement, had been opened up in the AFL-CIO with the election of John Sweeney to the leadership in 1995. It reached its apogee during the Seattle protests but was then diverted to an anti-China position during the IMF-WB protests in Washington, DC in April of 2000. That political room to maneuver was further narrowed by the events of September 11.

The ILWU had an opportunity to reverse this trend and galvanize the trade union movement, including the international dockers unions, as well as all the activists and militants who took to the streets to oppose war, racism and the alphabet soup of trade agreements. Unfortunately it appears that the leadership has opted for business as usual, relying on the Democratic Party and high-priced spin doctors.

The ILWU membership may yet surprise us with the rejection of this agreement, but if, as seems likely, they accept it, the consequences of imposing Taft-Hartley may soon be felt in other labor negotiations approaching in the year ahead, further eroding the chances of a meaningful revival of the American trade union movement.

About the Author
Robert Irminger has been a member of the Inlandboatmen’s union, marine division of the ILWU, for 21 years.