Workers Vanguard No. 1062
20 February 2015
Semi-Lockout on West Coast Ports
Shipping Bosses Escalate Offensive Against ILWU
FEBRUARY 16—Seven months after the expiration of its contract with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), representing West Coast shipping and terminal bosses, is trying to force the union into submission by slashing work for longshoremen. In early January, the employers canceled most night shifts loading and unloading ships. Defying logic, the PMA argued that stopping such work was necessary to “relieve congestion” at ports up and down the coast where unloaded ships are at anchor. For the past two weeks, this semi-lockout has been extended to weekends and holidays, shifts for which longshore workers earn overtime pay. Ranting that the ILWU had orchestrated work slowdowns, a PMA spokesman declared: “What they’re doing amounts to a strike with pay, and we will reduce the extent to which we pay premium rates for such a strike.”
As attested to by no less an authority than the head of the Federal Maritime Commission, the growing gridlock on the docks owes much to the shipping bosses themselves. They invested in building container ships that can carry almost double the load without ensuring that there was adequate rail, trucking and other infrastructure to move the cargo out of the ports. But in truth, the PMA’s howls over congestion are largely an invention. Photos taken by the ILWU show acres of empty space at port terminals where containers could readily be offloaded.
The employers’ purpose is to provoke a sense of crisis in West Coast shipping and blame it on the union. Most of the bourgeois media is on board, trying to stoke a public outcry against “greedy” longshoremen by reporting vastly inflated annual wages and benefits. With members of Congress demanding that Obama “use all tools at his disposal” to end the showdown, including the slave-labor Taft-Hartley law, the Democratic Party president dispatched his labor secretary to broker a settlement. One need look no further than the armed Coast Guard ships that the Obama White House readied to use against the ILWU in its 2011-12 battle with the union-busting EGT grain consortium in Longview, Washington, to dispel any illusions that the Democrats are on the union’s side.
Promoting what it describes as a “generous contract,” the PMA is squeezing union members by denying them work, hoping to provoke disgruntlement in the ranks in order to divide and defeat the ILWU. As the Journal of Commerce (10 February), the industry’s publication of record, commented: “The employers’ strategy is to convince the rank and file that ILWU negotiators do not have their best interests in mind.” The ILWU International leadership has played right into the PMA’s hand. Keeping their membership on the job ever since the July 1 contract expiration, the union bureaucrats have also kept the ranks completely in the dark about negotiations and failed to prepare them for any kind of actual struggle.
Farrell Dobbs, one of the Trotskyist leaders of the 1934 Minneapolis strikes that laid the basis for forging the Teamsters as an industrial union, insisted on the importance of an informed and mobilized membership during contract negotiations, writing in his book Teamster Rebellion (1972):
“It is a mistake under any circumstances for union negotiators to deal with bosses or government mediators on the basis that they have authority to make a compromise. Once a concession has been made under heavy pressure, which comes especially from the boss-controlled government agents, the action can be reversed only with the greatest difficulty, if at all.... Consequently, whenever any question of a compromise arises, negotiators should always say they will have to take the matter back to the union for a decision. This procedure is not only a safeguard against bureaucratic malpractice, it is the best course for union representatives who want to do the right thing.”
Every year, the ILWU memorializes “Bloody Thursday,” the day when striking workers were killed by police trying to break the 1934 West Coast waterfront strike. But the ILWU bureaucracy today, as it has for many decades, foreswears the methods of independent class struggle that forged the union. Far from looking to mobilize the power of the ILWU in alliance with other port unions and workers, the labor misleaders are busy lobbying Democratic Party Congressmen. At the same time, the ILWU International’s split from the AFL-CIO in 2013—the outgrowth of increasingly ugly jurisdictional turf wars—combined with its American-chauvinist rants against “these foreign-owned companies” have only further isolated the longshore union from its potential class allies in the U.S. and internationally.
The Trap of Arbitration, the Bosses’ Tool
The PMA’s latest charge is that the ILWU is threatening to sink the contract talks by demanding the right to unilaterally fire area arbitrators currently appointed by joint ILWU-PMA area committees. While railing against the ILWU, a PMA spokesman pointed to the arbitration system as “an essential check-and-balance against illegal labor actions.” And so it is. The purpose of these purported “neutral” arbitrators is to enforce class peace on behalf of the employers by putting a halt to work actions. According to PMA statistics, from 2008-14, the life of the last contract, there were some 250 disputes involving allegations of work slowdowns or stoppages. The arbitrators ruled against the union in more than 85 percent of these cases.
Of course, no one, including the ILWU ranks, has any idea what the union leaders are demanding, because they’re not saying. Nonetheless, even by the PMA’s own account the ILWU negotiators are merely asking that arbitrators be appointed only for the life of a contract and that both the union and the PMA have the right to veto their reappointment. That is, the ILWU leadership is merely trying to tinker with the system of arbitration, which along with the no-strike provision in the contract has no other purpose than to prevent the union from exercising its power. The idea of a pro-union arbitrator is as big a fraud as the trade-union bureaucracy’s promotion of the capitalist Democratic Party as the “friend of labor.”
At the core of such scams is the lie that the workers have interests in common with the capitalist rulers, whose profits are secured through relentlessly trying to drive up the rate of exploitation of labor. The main weapon that the workers have is to cut off the flow of profits, the bosses’ lifeblood, by withdrawing their labor power in strikes and other actions based on the collective strength and solidarity of their class. Which side prevails in any battle is determined by the relative strength of forces on either side.
The class battles of 1934 that forged a mighty West Coast longshore union were waged in defiance not only of the strikebreaking forces of the capitalist state but also of demands that the workers submit to arbitration. Instead of putting their fate in the hands of an arbitrator, they fought back by mobilizing their class power with such militancy and determination that the maritime strike inspired an avalanche of support from the rest of labor, culminating in the four-day San Francisco general strike (see “Then and Now,” WV Nos. 1050 and 1051, 8 August and 5 September 2014). Stabbed in the back by the labor traitors at the head of the S.F. Central Labor Council who ended the general strike, the longshore workers were forced into the very arbitration process they had repeatedly rejected. But they returned to work armed with confidence in their power as a class.
Through subsequent job actions, longshore workers established work rules and conditions in defiance of the terms of the arbitrated settlement. These actions and further strikes also solidified the union’s control of the hiring halls, a gain of the 1934 strike. From 1934 to 1948, there were four coastwide strikes, more than 20 major port strikes and some 1,300 minor local work stoppages. It was not until after the 1948 strike that the bosses were able to impose a ban on strikes during the life of the contract.
The 1948 Strike: Union-Busting and Anti-Communism
The 1948 strike broke out not long after the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in June 1947. The shipping bosses had seized on one of the act’s provisions, which outlawed the closed shop, in an attempt to dismantle the union hiring hall, but the 1948 ILWU strike spiked this effort. Uniquely, the strike also beat back the Taft-Hartley mandate that union leaders sign anti-Communist affidavits.
After nearly 90 percent of the union membership voted to strike, Harry Truman’s Democratic Party administration ordered an 80-day “cooling off” period under Taft-Hartley. As part of this directive, the National Labor Relations Board put the employers’ final offer to the membership for a vote. Not one ballot was cast by the more than 26,000 longshore workers. When the ILWU put that offer from the bosses to its own vote, it was rejected by close to 97 percent. In the same ballot, 94 percent of the membership also voted against the demand that ILWU president Harry Bridges and other union leaders swear an oath of anti-Communism, rebuking the red scare tactics of the bosses.
The 95-day strike began on 2 September 1948. Throughout, the ILWU ranks maintained a solid front in the face of the employers’ redbaiting frenzy. The threat to the profitability of West Coast shipping did, however, provoke increasing divisions among the employers, then grouped in the Waterfront Employers Association (WEA). The anti-Communist, union-busting war horse who headed the WEA was shunted aside by employers who saw a greater percentage in trying to co-opt the union.
The settlement was heralded as the beginning of a new spirit of cooperation between the ILWU and the shipping bosses. Key was the inclusion of a provision banning any strikes or work stoppages during the life of the contract. A new system of arbitration, which included a coastwide arbitrator chosen jointly by the union and the employers and empowered to make the final decision on any dispute, was put in place. Labor peace was effectively secured. There would not be another ILWU coastwide strike until 1971, 23 years later.
That strike was essentially forced on the Bridges leadership by a union membership seething over massive job losses resulting from the 1960 Mechanization and Modernization Agreement (M&M), which Bridges had negotiated and shoved down the workers’ throats. Although winning a retroactive wage increase, the 1971 strike lost on the central issue of abolishing the “steady men” category introduced with containerization. These skilled workers report directly to stevedoring companies, bypassing and undermining the union hiring hall.
Labor’s Gotta Play Hardball to Win!
The introduction of container shipping in the late 1950s and early ’60s brought a sea change at the ports. The amount of cargo skyrocketed and the man-hour requirements dropped dramatically. The M&M agreement gave the PMA a virtual free hand in eliminating longshore jobs in exchange for a pay guarantee plan for those workers still lucky enough to have a job. The longshore membership of the ILWU was slashed from 65,000 in 1959 to 10,500 in 2001. It now stands at 14,000, reflecting the expansion of West Coast shipping. The present negotiations also take place amid big changes in shipping and automation at the U.S. ports.
The ILWU is today up against even larger conglomerates of shipping magnates who are looking to corner the market with new mega-ships that can carry the equivalent of 19,000 twenty-foot containers. On the ground, the TraPac stevedoring company at the L.A./Long Beach port is building an extensively automated terminal where remote-controlled cranes able to stack containers as well as guided carts that move containers into the yard will do work once handled by longshoremen. Many of these innovations have already been introduced at various ports worldwide.
The ILWU leadership’s answer to increasing automation has been to demand that the union have exclusive jurisdiction over maintenance and repair of equipment. The 2008 contract included language conceding these jobs to the union (except at the few terminals where other unions already did the work). ILWU members have long inspected and repaired the chassis that move containers into and out of the yards. But over the last year, the shipping companies have sold off their chassis to leasing companies who maintain their fleets at off-dock facilities. In its latest contract offer, the PMA accedes to the union’s demand that ILWU members continue to inspect and repair chassis leaving the terminals. But that may well be an empty promise since the trucking and chassis leasing companies have vowed to fight the provision in court.
Although largely skirmishes, such actions as the ILWU has taken at the West Coast ports demonstrate the union’s continued power. At the same time, the ILWU increasingly looks like a man desperately trying to go up a rapidly descending escalator. Merely trying to hold on isn’t going to cut it. Although the PMA may currently be biding its time, claiming to offer “generous” increases in wages and benefits, its appetite was whetted by the ILWU’s recent contract settlements with grain-shipping companies in the Pacific Northwest, which essentially gut the union hiring hall (see “Showdown Brewing at West Coast Ports,” WV No. 1056, 14 November 2014).
The very concentration and centralization of the shipping industry that the ILWU is up against also gives longshore workers enormous potential power. But to realize that power, the ILWU must flex its muscle in a fighting alliance with other port unions, as opposed to the all-sided jurisdictional warfare engaged in by the trade-union misleaders to preserve their piece of a greatly shrunken dues base. A case in point is the mutual backstabbing of the ILWU and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) bureaucrats in the Pacific Northwest. Union electricians crossed the picket lines of ILWU members locked out by United Grain in Washington State two years ago, while the ILWU in cahoots with the PMA has sought to poach IBEW jobs in Portland.
Any serious fight to restore the power of the ILWU must begin with the understanding that the workers have common interests that are irreconcilably counterposed to those of the employers. The answer to jobs lost to automation is to fight to restore the six-hour day, one of the union’s first achievements, at no loss in pay to spread the available work around. There must be a fight to organize the growing mass of unorganized workers at the ports, such as the port truckers and intermodal rail facility workers, who are crucial to the movement of cargo. To build working-class unity, the union must combat the anti-immigrant racism that is wielded to enforce the brutal exploitation of workers, from port trucking to the vast inland warehouses.
What made the difference in the 1934 longshore and Minneapolis truckers strikes—as well as strike battles by auto parts workers in Toledo that same year—was that the workers were politically and organizationally armed by leaders who understood that the only possibility for victory lay in mobilizing their power as a class against the capitalist class enemy. As we wrote in Part Two of “Then and Now”:
“The 1934 strikes showed what militant unions could accomplish in a period of growing class and social discontent. Under a leadership that grasped the class nature of American capitalist society and the social power of those whose labor makes it run, the workers fought against improbable odds and won. These are the kind of battles that will need to be waged today to organize the growing masses of unorganized workers. For the workers to prevail over their exploiters, it is essential to win them to a Marxist political program that links labor’s fight to the building of a multiracial revolutionary workers party capable of leading the struggle to do away with this whole system of wage slavery through socialist revolution.”