With contract negotiations dragging on since July 1, 2014, the collective of port managers in the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) at 29 West Coast intermodal container ports have locked out the International Longshore & Warehouse Union for the weekend of February 7-8, 2015. Despite PMA conceding and agreeing to pay 100% of longshore workers' health care costs, in addition to covering the "Cadillac Tax" under Obamacare and raising base wages 5% (and guaranteeing pensions of up to $88,800 a year), the union still has unmet demands; with port congestion reaching a crisis point, PMA is playing a game of brinksmanship by locking out the union at all West Coast ports.
Some background to the dispute is necessary. Here's a thumbnail sketch (apologies to those who've seen this analysis on libcom before):
What "labor" in the U.S. lacks today is a class analysis and an ability to act in the interest of all working class people, not only in the U.S. but worldwide. Instead we get most unions practicing a circle-the-wagons, narrowly self-interested scope of activity that doesn't go beyond their own members, based on an extremely myopic view of society and the world. That is, unless they're stumping for the Democratic Party, then they pull out all the -- mostly financial -- stops. A labor historian wrote a few years ago that "unions in the U.S. today have all the passion for social change as an insurance company." Sure, there are exceptions, like two of the unions, United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) and International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU), that survived their expulsion from the CIO in the anti-communist witch-hunts in 1949-1950, when they were kicked out with 10 other unions, mostly due to refusing the loyalty oaths of Taft-Hartley and having Communist Party members.
UE, like the ILWU, survived McCarthyism and more recently led the inspiring occupation of the Republic Windows and Door factory in Chicago for 5 days in December 2008. They continue to do militant and inspiring actions -- including the successful 3-week strike by warehouse workers in Elwood, Illinois in 2012. But clearly the ILWU is in trouble. Since UE and ILWU are a tenuous connection with class struggle of previous eras, we wish it weren't so. We don't want to see our sisters and brother who are some of the highest paid industrial workers in North America get crushed, but present conditions don't bode too well for longshore workers on the West Coast. First there was the awful compromise to get back into the EGT facility in Longview, WA, that essentially killed the hiring hall, among many other terrible concessions. On February 27, 2013 Mitsui locked out ILWU Local 4 from their United Grain terminal in Vancouver, Washington when they refused to accept the same conditions as EGT workers in Longview. Then on May 4, 2013, Marubeni locked out ILWU Local 8 workers at its Columbia Grain terminal in Portland, Oregon for the same reason. They only went back to work when the lockout ended, after 1 1/2 years, with provisions calling for equalizing the master contract to conform with the one at EGT in Longview, which sets the new standard. And will virtually eliminate the hiring hall and hard-won working conditions that go back to the 1930s.
Here's what they lost in Longview, and what will effect the master grain handlers contract:
- • ILWU Local 40 shipping clerks had all their positions eliminated
- • management, at its discretion, can reject any worker dispatched from the ILWU hiring hall; reminiscent of Article 9.43, management can make any worker a "permanent regular employee" outside the hiring hall
- • Article VIII (section 8.01c) makes anyone working at EGT basically an "at-will" employee who can be fired for any reason
- • allows working at long as 13-hour shifts (previous limit was 10 hours)
- • surrenders the right to stop work for health and safety concerns -- workers must continue working and file a formal grievance
- • ILWU workers will no longer be in the control room at the highly-automated EGT terminal, which will be operated by management -- giving them complete control over the work process
- • the union must order worker to cross Occupy-style "community pickets"; if this is violated 3 times, the contract is void
The foundation of the earlier gains, ILWU's Magna Carta, came out of the victories at the end of the 83-day west coast maritime strike in 1934. The greatest upsurge in this was the 4-day San Francisco General Strike, sparked when 2 striking workers were shot dead by the cops. The ILWU was born with another strike in 1936 protecting those victories and giving the union sole control of the hiring hall. The ILWU had 1,399 legal and illegal work stoppages until another major strike consolidated all those gains in 1948. So the ILWU was born and became the "Lord of the Docks" with direct action, and that alone. But this form of struggle didn't come out of nowhere. Maritime and waterfront workers in San Francisco had repeatedly attempted to create class-based organizations of all workers, the first during the 1886 waterfront strike, then again with a strike of all waterfront workers in 1893, then with another near-general strike in 1901, then again in 1916 (to reaction to which framed labor organizer Tom Mooney, sending him to prison for 22 years). The success in 1934, the effects of which remain to this day, began with waterfront organizing in the 1850s and continuous attempts to create not only an industrial union, but to work in class solidarity with all other sectors along the transportation chain. As Carey McWilliams put it in California: The Great Exception, workers conceived these struggles as "class-aganist-class."
Many of those gains were eroded with the Modernization and Mechanization Agreement (M&M) in 1960-1961, but from 1936 through that time ILWU had grandfathered itself into a technically illegal "closed shop." It was the greatest example ever in the in U.S. of workers' control of the work process, surpassing even IWW Local 8 which had a closed shop on the Philly waterfront from 1913-1922 (also won with a streak of victorious strikes). Here are the major gains the IWLU won through strike and direct action:
- • the aforementioned union-controlled hiring hall; it's a joint management-union hiring hall in name only
- • "Work opportunity equalization," to eliminate the favoritism of the shape-up. The longshore worker with the least hours worked, got the first shot at new job dispatches. To ensure this, dispatchers are elected annually
- • seniority in regards to hatches worked with a ship was at port (this was with the break-bulk system), to prevent the arbitrary decisions of walking-bosses
- • load limits (by weight) for the safety of the longshore crews unloading cargo
But the M&M contract of 1960 removed these gains through section 9.43, a clause in the contract that allowed for "steady men" to work directly for management, outside the hiring hall and voiding work equalization. It was disputed in the 1966 contract, but this breaking of closed shop protections directly resulted in the coastwide strike of 1971, the last ever for the ILWU. It went on for 134 days, the longest ever longshore strike in the U.S, but it failed to dislodge the hated "clause 9.43." And since then the ILWU has done righteous actions like boycotting ships from post-junta Chile and with munitions headed for El Salvador, in addition to refusing to work ships from apartheid in South Africa. The ILWU has invoked contractual privileges to shut West Coast ports in solidarity with the struggle of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, to celebrate May Day in 2008, and to protest the police murder of Oscar Grant. They attempted an unauthorized contractual shut down on April 4, 2011 in solidarity with fight against Governor Walker’s anti-labor legislation in Wisconsin, for which they fought bitter legal prosecution through the courts.
Right now, ILWU has been without a contract for the 29 container ports on the west coast since July 1, 2014. But they're being demonized in the media, with threats of the 10-day lock-out in 2002 being done by management representatives in the PMA again because they are obviously doing a "work-to-rule" slowdown (which International spokespeople foolishly deny). But their strategy today is to go-it-alone, the ILWU International having left the AFL-CIO in 2013 over jurisdictional disputes with other unions over portside work, like their fight with IBEW over work on reefers in Portland and with the IAM over chassis repairs at all ports. International President Bob McEllrath comes out of a longshoring family at the Vancouver, WA grain handling port. But his choice of Leal Sundet as Coast Committeeman and key strategist is fatally flawed, as Sundet formerly worked for the class enemy, the bosses in the PMA. But, sadly, it appears the "Lords of the Docks" have been dethroned by their inability to fight to defend past gains. The best McEllrath can do to protest the lockout is make lame xenophobic statements about "PMA employers, based largely overseas."
Frankly, the ILWU cut ties with the Occupy Movement just when they needed it in the struggle with EGT at Longview. Presently, they cut ties with all other unions just when they need it in their current contract negotiations. The motto of the ILWU was taken directly from the IWW: "An injury to one is an injury to all." Too bad they stopped practicing it. At the major west coast ports, like LA/Long Beach, Oakland, Tacoma and Seattle, the drayage truckers are mostly over-worked underpaid immigrants, many working under the owner-operator/independent contractor legal scam, with whom the ILWU has built absolutely no solidarity -- to the point of crossing their picket lines. There is outright conflict and racial tension between longshore workers at port troqueros on the docks of major ports.
Apparently, one of the final sticking points in the contract negotiations between the union at the PMA are ILWU's demand that it be given unilateral authority to fire arbitrators who are used to settle workplace issues, like "community pickets" under health and safety provisions of the contract. The arbitrator at the Los Angeles/Long Beach port complex is a former longshore worker, but the ILWU now finds his decisions -- which are binding -- to not be going their way and want to replace him.
So at present, the ILWU is a bad model for anything, unless they break out of their cocoon and start practicing solidarity and class unity with all the other workers on the waterfront and along the supply chain.
With the present lockout, the ILWU actually needs to return to their time-proven tradition of direct action, striking, and cross-sectoral waterfront solidarity to protect their gains. If those actions are illegal, they need to find ways around the law to win. They did it in the past and they can do it now (as mentioned before, they had 1,399 legal and illegal strikes between 1934 and 1948). But it will have to be class-wide and draw in all other waterfront and supply chain workers, not only on the West Coast but on the other side of the Pacific and across the planet, becoming an internationalist movement of working class solidarity supporting struggles everywhere.