Workers Vanguard No. 1069

29 May 2015


ILWU Contract

Shipping Bosses Buy Labor Peace, Undermine Union

Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) voted up a new five-year contract with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) with 82 percent in favor. By the standards of union contracts these days, when it is considered a “victory” for the union simply to survive, the ILWU contract might appear a veritable pot of gold. In addition to a wage increase totaling $6.50 an hour by the contract’s end and small increases in pensions, there were no cuts to the union’s health plan, which has no co-pay. This means that the ILWU will not have to shoulder the cost of the $150 million a year tax, mandated for so-called “Cadillac” plans under Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which goes into effect in 2018. But as the old saying goes, all that glitters isn’t gold.

Vast changes are posed in the shipping industry with the widening of the Panama Canal, the consolidation of shippers into ever-larger conglomerates operating ships able to carry up to almost double the number of containers and the installation of automated cranes and yard vehicles at the largest terminals in the U.S. Throwing a little money the ILWU’s way, the PMA simply opted to buy itself some time, and five years of labor peace, to see how things shape up. Meanwhile, the shipping bosses obtained provisions that will continue to erode the fighting capacity of the ILWU by heightening already existing divisions in the union. This includes contract language aimed at stopping the ILWU from honoring picket lines of its own members!

With the onset of container shipping, the union was divided in 1959 between A-men who get the first choice of available work and B-men who only get to pick from among the unfilled jobs and are not accorded union membership. The widespread automation accompanying containerization slashed the workforce by a factor of ten and brought yet another division, the “steady men.” A layer of highly paid skilled workers, consisting largely of crane operators and mechanics, the steady men work directly for individual stevedoring companies, bypassing and undermining the ILWU hiring hall that is the embodiment of the union’s power. Later, the workforce was further divided by a category of “casual” workers, who only get work when the A and B lists have been exhausted and have no benefits or union rights. These divisions are a danger to the very existence of the ILWU.

Under the new agreement, casuals and other longshoremen with less work experience will not get the full wage increase, widening the divide between those first entering the industry and the A-men. Mechanics, on the other hand, get a larger increase. It is also widely rumored that the walking bosses—who are organized in their own ILWU locals and are responsible for overseeing union work at different terminals—got a massive wage increase. If so, this is a blatant attempt to bribe the walking bosses into becoming company men. In 1919, a strike by the Riggers’ and Stevedores’ Union, which represented longshore workers in San Francisco, was defeated and the union smashed after the gang bosses of that day split off from the union in the course of the strike. They formed the notorious “blue book” company union that ran the hated “shape up” system, under which corrupt gang bosses in league with the shippers called the shots on who would get work on the docks.

Longshore workers and their union allies literally laid down their lives in the class battles of 1934 to smash the “blue book” and win union control of hiring (see “Then and Now,” WV Nos. 1050 and 1051, 8 August and 5 September 2014). The hiring hall and ILWU-run job dispatch were designed to equalize work opportunity among all longshoremen. This system has been increasingly subverted since the 1960-61 Mechanization and Modernization Agreement negotiated by the ILWU’s historic leader, Harry Bridges. In addition, the coastwide unity of the ILWU has been undermined by unequal manning scales at different ports, creating resentment and tensions between ILWU locals as well as opening the door for the shipping bosses to play port against port.

Any struggle to restore the fighting power of the ILWU must begin with bringing the steady men back to the hall and championing union rights, pay and benefits at the highest rate for all longshore workers. Equal pay for equal work! For equal manning scales, at the highest level, at all West Coast ports!

Picket Lines Mean Don’t Cross!

A “letter of understanding” attached to the new agreement mandates that any picket line set up by an ILWU affiliate will not be considered “bona fide” unless representatives of the union and the shipping bosses both attend a meeting, within 24 hours, of the joint PMA-ILWU port labor relations committee. In short, this agreement sets up longshore workers in container shipping, where the union’s power is concentrated, to scab on ILWU locals and affiliates that have far less leverage. A letter from the San Francisco regional director of the Inland Boatmen’s Union of the Pacific (IBU) addressed the fundamental labor principle at stake:

“It is a basic right of our members to honor union picket lines. If any ILWU affiliates’ members are willing to stand up and fight for their contract, and they choose to go out on strike, we can’t let somebody outside our organization, union or employer, decide our picket line is not valid, and not worthy of support. Union members have a fundamental responsibility to honor other unions’ picket lines—that is what we can do—that is what we have done.”

It was the mobilization of the union’s muscle in container shipping that led to the IBU’s affiliation with the ILWU in 1980, following a West Coast port shutdown protesting the arrest of the then-president and secretary-treasurer of the IBU for refusing to obey a strikebreaking order. More recently, in 2011 ports throughout the Pacific Northwest were shut down to back up the fight of ILWU Local 21 in Longview, Washington, against a union-busting offensive by the giant Export Grain Terminal (EGT) consortium. But that action was short lived as the ILWU International bureaucracy retreated in the face of relentless state repression.

While the union preserved its jobs at the EGT terminal, driving out scabs from the Operating Engineers union, the resulting contract was a major setback. It set the stage for other grain terminal operators in the Pacific Northwest to demand the same terms. Those outfits later succeeded in imposing a contract settlement that guts the union hiring hall and institutes deadly dangerous 12-hour shifts while eliminating provisions allowing the union to stop work when the safety of its members is threatened.

Throughout the showdown with the grain terminal bosses who locked out longshoremen for over a year, the ILWU leadership impotently stood by as scabs took over longshore jobs and unions like the IBEW electrical workers crossed ILWU picket lines. To protest such backstabbing by AFL-CIO affiliates, ILWU International president Robert McEllrath opted to open the union up to further attacks by splitting from the AFL-CIO. In arguing for this suicidal move, McEllrath wrote that “the ILWU sees the honoring of picket lines as a fundamental principle that can’t be compromised.” In fact, ILWU bureaucrats have ordered their members to cross picket lines set up by the overwhelmingly immigrant and unorganized port truckers at both the L.A./Long Beach and Oakland ports.

Nor is the ILWU bureaucracy any stranger to the dirty game of pitting union against union in a scramble to defend its own shrinking turf. It was the sainted Harry Bridges who first gave the companies free rein to automate on terms favorable to the bosses, giving up thousands of jobs in exchange for guaranteed income for the remaining longshoremen. With another round of automation looming, Bridges’ heirs are banking the union’s future on claiming exclusive ILWU jurisdiction over waterfront maintenance and repair jobs.

This was reflected in the new contract language giving ILWU mechanics the right to inspect and repair chassis leaving the terminals, a provision that is likely to be tied up for years in legal challenges. Many other jobs now claimed by the ILWU are currently done by other unions like the IBEW and IAM machinists. The new contract further opens the door for inter-union war on the docks by removing a “memorandum of understanding” over jurisdiction between the ILWU and the Teamsters, which has been in the ILWU’s master contract since 1961.

Which Way Forward for the ILWU?

Amid the wreckage of other industrial unions, the ILWU still stands as a potential powerhouse of organized labor. This has nothing to do with the myth that until recently the ILWU maintained the militant traditions on which it was founded. Rather, it is the union’s pivotal position in container shipping, where it has its hands on the levers of global trade, that has enabled it to maintain top wages and benefits. But that power has been sapped by the ILWU misleaders, who tie the workers’ interests to the profitability of American capitalism and the electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party. It is precisely these class-collaborationist policies that have led to disaster for other former powerhouses of American labor.

Look no further than the ravaged remains of the United Auto Workers (UAW), which was once the symbol of industrial unionism in this country. After decades of givebacks, the union-busting 2009 bailout of the Detroit auto bosses, engineered by the Obama administration with the complicity of the UAW tops, slashed tens of thousands of jobs and halved the pay of new hires under a two-tier wage system. While the Big Three auto bosses are now swimming in profits, the pay of many UAW members is on a par with the starvation wages of the masses of unorganized manufacturing workers. It is this example that the shipping industry’s publication of record, the Journal of Commerce, points to as a “model” for dealing with the ILWU.

In a report on its annual TPM conference of trans-Pacific global shipping companies, the Journal of Commerce (13 March) argued that the industry bosses must use the showdown over the contract at the West Coast ports to “spur action”:

“Congress and the White House must evaluate all options to avoid a repeat of the recent situation. Our economy respects collective bargaining, but surely we can find a better way to represent the interests of thousands without threatening the livelihoods of millions. Overall U.S. labor and management work well together, and there are multiple examples. Ford and the United Auto Workers found ways to work together during the depths of the recession, and Ford has emerged as one of the most successful and innovative car companies in the world. The stakeholders should settle for nothing less here.

“Once we’ve modernized our labor contract system, we can get on with the work of modernizing our ports.”

That is, over the mutilated body, and possibly the corpse, of the ILWU!

During the recent negotiations, the PMA manufactured a crisis in West Coast shipping, slashing work shifts and then blaming the union for gridlock at the ports. The aim was to get the Obama administration to intervene. The White House obliged by sending in its Labor Secretary, who threatened that if a deal wasn’t made negotiations would move to Washington, D.C. Now, the head of the PMA, James McKenna, argues that the disruption of shipping during contract talks demonstrates that labor relations are not “sustainable.” The truth of the matter is that the ILWU bureaucracy barely flexed the union’s baby finger, the effect of minimal job actions paling in comparison to the congestion caused by the PMA’s semi-lockout of the union.

Throughout the contract battle, the ILWU International ranted against “foreign-owned companies” for supposedly endangering the union and the American economy. Such patriotism only serves to shackle the union to the interests of U.S. imperialism, further isolating the ILWU from its class allies. Nowhere is it clearer that the workers’ fight is international than on the docks, the portals to the world capitalist market. But rather than building a fighting alliance of all port unions both in the U.S. and internationally among the millions of workers in the global cargo chain, the ILWU misleaders have only further isolated and weakened the union. To turn the tide for the union requires the understanding that workers have no interests in common with the bosses, their government and their political parties.

The answer to the threat of job loss due to automation is the fight for a shorter workweek at no loss in pay. This would not only spread the available work around among longshoremen but also open the door to union jobs for the unemployed. There must be a massive drive to organize the tens of thousands of non-union workers at the ports, such as the port truckers, who are crucial to the movement of cargo. To build such working-class unity means combating the anti-immigrant racism that is used to enforce brutal exploitation, from port trucking to the vast inland warehouses.

The way forward lies in the struggle to forge a new leadership of the unions that will mobilize the workers to fight it out class against class. This is not simply a question of fighting to improve the present conditions of the workers under a system based on their exploitation but of ending the entire system of wage slavery, unemployment, poverty and war. For that the working class needs its own party, one that will arm the workers with the consciousness necessary to fight for their own class rule through proletarian socialist revolution.