Workers Vanguard No. 1056

14 November 2014


Shipping Bosses Accuse ILWU of Tying Up Docks

Showdown Brewing at West Coast Ports

10 NOVEMBER—For over four months, some 14,000 members of the West Coast International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) have been working without a contract. Now, the shipping and terminal bosses organized in the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) are screaming that the ILWU has “orchestrated work slowdowns” that are “crippling” ports from Seattle and Tacoma to Los Angeles/Long Beach. Charging that the union reneged on its agreement that “normal operations at West Coast ports would continue until an agreement could be reached,” the PMA is demanding an extension of the previous contract. The ILWU slammed the PMA’s claim as “a bold-faced lie,” pointing out that the union has never agreed to a definition of “normal operations.” What the union is up against is the “normal,” relentless drive of the companies to maximize profits by increasing productivity through attacks on hard-won union work rules and job conditions.

An ILWU press release issued today puts the blame on the bosses for creating the bottleneck at L.A./Long Beach through mismanaging port operations and undermanning the work at a time of increased volume. The squeeze on longshore labor is a matter of life and death. As the press release stated: “West Coast longshore work is extremely hazardous, with higher fatality rates than the work of firefighters or police officers, according to U.S. Department of Labor figures. The biggest factor causing accidents on the docks is the employers’ constant demand for increased production.”

With ships stacking up at ports that handle nearly 80 percent of container shipping on the West Coast, a group of more than 100 retail and transportation companies fired off a letter to President Barack Obama demanding that the government “use all of its available options” to head off the growing confrontation. They called for everything from sending in a federal mediator to invoking the union-busting Taft-Hartley law in the event of a strike or lockout. During the 2002 contract negotiations, the PMA locked out longshoremen for 11 days after accusing the ILWU of engaging in a “slowdown.” The Republican Bush administration—which had earlier warned that a strike would “threaten national security” and drawn up plans to militarize the docks—brought down Taft-Hartley, forcing longshoremen back to work under conditions dictated by the PMA.

There should be no illusion that things are different with a Democrat in the White House. Contrary to the trade-union bureaucracy’s promotion of the Democrats as the allies of labor, they represent the interests of American capitalism no less than the Republicans. That Obama will stand with the PMA is as obvious as the flotilla of armed Coast Guard ships his administration had readied to use in the ILWU’s 2011-12 battle against the union-busting EGT grain consortium in Longview, Washington. Federal mediators and other agencies like the National Labor Relations Board are merely the government’s advance men whose purpose is to bring the unions to heel.

The showdown between the PMA and the ILWU could become a critical class battle in which all labor has a stake. The ILWU has enormous potential social power. With the offshoring of much manufacturing and the just-in-time delivery system, a strike would quickly paralyze whole sectors of the U.S. economy. But the union has been weakened and is increasingly isolated as it faces a confrontation with the powerful conglomerate of shipping and terminal operators—and behind them the forces of the capitalist state.

Union Hiring Hall Under Attack

For months, the contract negotiations were portrayed as the smoothest in years. In late August, an agreement was announced on health benefits, which had been seen as a major hurdle. Details were left unsaid, and looming on the horizon in 2018 is a whopping $150 million annual Obamacare tax on the ILWU’s so-called “Cadillac” health plan. Even now, the union’s membership is left in the dark as to what’s on the table. Nevertheless, there are warning signs. A backdrop to the present confrontation is the ILWU’s recent contract agreement with major grain terminals in the Pacific Northwest, which are not part of the PMA. After a lengthy battle in which ILWU members working at United Grain in Vancouver, Washington, and Columbia Grain in Portland, Oregon, were locked out for well over a year while scabs did their jobs, the settlement essentially guts the union hiring hall.

The hiring hall was a key gain of the momentous 1934 West Coast longshore strike. Under the previous hated “shape-up” system, corrupt and brutal gang bosses in the service of the companies had total power to select who among the men desperately gathered at the ports each morning would be allowed to work. To win union control over hiring, the longshoremen fought an all-out battle against the companies, the cops and National Guard troops. The implementation of the rotary dispatch system was designed to equalize work opportunity among longshoremen, with the union having the decisive say in the system.

Ever since, this system has been a thorn in the side of West Coast shipping, terminal and export trade bosses, who bristle at the fact that they don’t have the same hiring prerogatives as employers in almost every other industry or workplace in capitalist America. In the 1960s, following the introduction of container shipping, the PMA got a foot in the door with a contract provision allowing for “steady men.” These skilled workers bypass the hiring hall, reporting directly to stevedoring companies. They are paid a premium and are also guaranteed a minimum of work each month. This subversion of the hiring hall has long been a dagger pointed at the heart of the union.

In longshore operations, “steady men” are restricted to crane operators, mechanics and certain heavy equipment operators. But the recent grain contracts give those companies the right to hire unlimited steady workers for all job categories at their terminals. Management has sole discretion over whether additional workers will be ordered on a day-to-day basis for terminal work. The hall crews formerly required for work on river barges have been eliminated, although gangs from the hall will still be dispatched to load the ships. However, if the hall cannot supply adequate “qualified” labor, management has the right to hire non-ILWU labor or use supervisors to do the work. The key terminal job of operating the console that controls the flow of grain was ceded to management, as was the job overseeing the loading of ships.

One of the gains of the mass struggles that built the ILWU was the six-hour day. Now, even the eight-hour day (long the norm) is a thing of the past in grain, as the companies are allowed to extend shifts up to 12 hours, an ominous threat to health and safety. At the same time, provisions allowing longshoremen to “stand by” (stop work) if they feel their safety is threatened have been vitiated. Not only is management allowed to work their jobs if the matter is not immediately resolved, but the workers can be subject to discipline up to and including firing if an arbitrator rules the safety claim was not made “in good faith.”

The trendsetter for these agreements was the 2012 contract at the new, multimillion-dollar EGT terminal in Longview. Early in the battle against EGT’s union-busting offensive, ILWU members and their allies fought back in class-struggle actions, the likes of which had not been seen in this country in years. But in the face of massive fines, the ILWU International backed off. With military forces mobilized by the Obama administration to escort the first shipment of scab grain out of the terminal, an agreement was signed. Subverting the hiring hall, it gave EGT complete control over which ILWU members would be approved to work at its terminal. In the new grain agreements, workers dispatched from the hall are not subject to company pre-approval, nor are there fines and other penalties for unauthorized work stoppages as at EGT. But this is small consolation.

No doubt the PMA sees the grain agreements as an opening to press its own advantage against the ILWU. Pointing to the tie-up at the container ports, an article in the shipping industry’s publication of record, the Journal of Commerce (5 November), argues that the grain companies “found a solution to the problems generated by such tactics” with contracts that “in effect give control of the hiring hall to the employers.”

What made the difference in the 1934 longshore strike that won the hiring hall—as well as the victory of other strikes that year by Minneapolis Teamsters and Toledo auto parts workers—was a leadership committed to a class-struggle policy. As we wrote in Part One of our article “Then and Now” (WV Nos. 1050 and 1051, 8 August and 5 September) contrasting these strikes with today’s devastation of organized labor:

“Unlike other strikes at the time, the militancy of the workers was not restrained by leaders who promoted the lie of a ‘partnership’ between labor and capital. Instead, the mass strength and solidarity of the workers was organized and politically directed by leaders who rejected any notion that the bosses are ‘reasonable’ or their state ‘neutral.’ Understanding the forces of the class enemy that would be arrayed against any union struggle, the leaders of these strikes were prepared for class war. And it was no easy fight.”

Not the Time to Be Making New Enemies

In August 2013, on the eve of the AFL-CIO’s convention, the ILWU split from the federation. At the time, ILWU International president Robert McEllrath pointed to escalating attacks on the West Coast longshore union by AFL-CIO affiliates. These charges were all too true. One of the more notorious examples was the strikebreaking role played by the Operating Engineers Local 701, which supplied scab labor during the ILWU’s fight against EGT.

Other attacks have come as part of the dirty game of jurisdictional warfare pitting union against union in a scramble to defend their own shrinking turf. Here the ILWU bureaucracy’s hands are no cleaner than those of the AFL-CIO tops. Faced with the PMA’s drive to increasingly mechanize operations on the docks, the ILWU leadership’s answer is to claim jurisdiction over maintenance and other mechanical service jobs, a number of which are currently done by the IAM machinists and other unions.

Turning its back on any fight to mobilize unity in action of all unions at the ports, including the East and Gulf Coast ILA longshoremen, the ILWU has only greased the skids for more backstabbing by the trade-union bureaucrats by splitting from the AFL-CIO. In a recent strike by some 130 recycling workers, organized by ILWU Local 6, at Oakland’s Waste Management plant, Teamsters truck drivers at the facility scabbed, herded across the picket lines by their union bureaucrats! ILWU Local 6 members chanted “Remember 2007,” referring to when they honored locked-out Teamsters pickets at the same facility. The bureaucrats’ alibi was that the Local 6 strike was not officially sanctioned by the Teamsters Joint Council or the Alameda Labor Council, the latter reportedly arguing that “sanction” could not be given to a union not affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

The strikebreaking actions of the Teamsters against mainly Latino immigrant workers, many of them women, fighting for a meager increase in their poverty-level wages were a crime against all labor. But the ILWU tops have done likewise, ordering their members to cross the picket lines of overwhelmingly immigrant, unorganized and viciously exploited port truckers in Oakland and more recently at the L.A./Long Beach port. Now locked in a showdown with the PMA, the ILWU finds itself with few friends and many real and potential enemies. Faced with the backstabbing moves of the trade-union misleaders, all workers had better understand that if a union with the strength of the ILWU goes down, it will be a savage body blow to labor as a whole.

For a Class-Struggle Leadership!

In his letter of disaffiliation from the AFL-CIO, McEllrath pointed to the ILWU’s “long and proud history of militant independence inside and outside the House of Labor.” The notion of the ILWU as the last remaining bastion of labor militancy is one readily belied by the actual history and practice of its leadership. In fact, the last coastwide ILWU strike was in 1971, more than 40 years ago. That strike was largely foisted on the union leadership, then under ILWU founder Harry Bridges, by a membership seething over the massive loss of jobs under the 1960 Mechanization and Modernization Agreement that he had negotiated and rammed down their throats.

Key to reversing the erosion of the ILWU as an industrial power on the West Coast docks is defense of the union hiring hall. That means a fight to bring all the steady men back to the hall, with equal pay for equal work at the highest rate of pay. The answer to the job loss threatened by the increasing automation of the ports is to return to one of the union’s first achievements, the six-hour day, at no loss in pay to spread the available work among all longshoremen. There must be a fight to organize the port truckers, who are crucial to the movement of cargo. As a key link in the vast global cargo chain, the largely immigrant port truckers, many of whom have experiences in class battles and other struggles in their home countries, have tremendous potential social power to take on the trucking companies and, behind them, the international shipping and terminal bosses. Such an organizing effort, combined with the fight for a shorter workweek at no loss in pay, would also forge bonds with the black and Latino poor by opening up good-paying union jobs.

The road forward lies in the struggle to build a class-struggle labor leadership that will fight in opposition to the aims and interests of American capitalism, its government and political parties. For the workers to prevail over their exploiters, it is essential that labor’s fight be linked to the building of a multiracial revolutionary workers party capable of leading the struggle to do away with this entire system of wage slavery through socialist revolution. When those who labor rule, the means of production will be taken out of the hands of the rapacious capitalist owners and made the collective property of society, ultimately on an international scale. Then, advances in automation and other technology, which are now wielded as a club against the workers’ jobs and livelihoods, will be used to reduce their workload and vastly improve the conditions of life for the population as a whole.