Dockworkers’ Fight

As this is written, over 10,000 West Coast dockworkers are locked out of their jobs for the second time since Friday night, Sept. 27. Once again, the Pacific Maritime Assn. (PMA), a consortium of shipping and terminal companies charged that members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) orchestrated a coastwide work-slowdown at 29 seaports. The union adamantly denied there was a work slowdown. The union said that the bosses’ chief negotiator was showing “the same disrespect for the union he has since the beginning of these talks. He is unilaterally taking the action of closing all ports and bears full responsibility for its effects on the American economy.”

For months, the labor movement has nervously contemplated the possibility of a government takeover of the West Coast docks, and the military repression of the dockworkers union, which has been engaged in contentious negotiations since May with the shipping bosses.

However, according to the dockers union, the Bush administration has dropped such plans to intervene in the negotiations. On Sept. 26, the ILWU told its members, “This week, the Bush Department of Labor denied outright in writing that they have any intention of intervening in the ILWU/PMA labor negotiations. The Bush Administration states in the document that it has no plans to break up the union, send troops, or place longshore workers under the Railway Labor Act. This pledge comes after months of threats and innuendo from the Bush Administration which have been exposed by the ILWU in the media.” But that doesn’t mean that the government has dropped plans to impose an 80-day “cooling-off” period, as authorized by the infamous Taft-Hartley Act.
Though the union says that it didn’t ask the ranks to engage in a work slow-down, it did publicly state that, “The ILWU Negotiating Committee passed a resolution today, Sept. 26, calling on members to redouble efforts to improve safety on the docks. The resolution, distributed to all locals, calls on longshore workers to follow all safety procedures including speed limits, to refrain from working extended shifts, working through lunch hours, or doubling back. It also calls on ILWU members to ensure that all military sustainment (sic) cargo is handled without any difficulties or delay.”

Coincidently or not, a major San Francisco ILWU local unanimously passed a motion to enforce safety regulations, just days before the Coastwide Negotiating Committee adopted its similar motion. Without a doubt, productivity, the source of the bosses’ profits, would be negatively impacted by the dockers strictly following safety regulations, and refusing overtime.

Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian, told the San Francisco Chronicle (Sept. 29), that the bosses’ [first] lockout was “just a trial balloon. Both sides are engaged in a high stakes game, with the ILWU trying to win public support and the PMA wanting the Bush administration to step in.”

After the first lockout—which lasted 36 hours—ended Sunday, the dockers returned to work, but with an added wrinkle. “The union told workers who normally report to the same shipping terminal each day to instead begin Sunday at the dispatch hall for random assignment. Experienced crane operators, for example, chose other jobs and left their less experienced co-workers to operate the cranes.” The bosses complained that, “It’s like a plumber showing up to roof your house.” (S.F. Chronicle, Sept. 29)

On Sunday, the dockworkers were back on the job less than a full shift, and the bosses shut down the piers and terminals a second time. The bosses declared that the lockout would last until the union agreed to a new contract or agreed to extend the expired contract, which might crimp the workers’ measures to ensure their safety. City police removed workers—who protested the new lockout—from their job sites.

The press and the PMA estimate that the shutdown will cost the economy a billion dollars a day. True or not, some analysts said the impact of the first lock out would not be large. “Jack Kyser, an economist with the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, said a short lockout — while damaging — would not pull the plug on the economy,” reported Reuters (Sept. 27). “Independent truckers would miss income for the weekend of expected shipments, while railroads and steamship owners would pay the costs of idle trains and ships waiting for cargo.”

The union and the bosses are reported to have scheduled a negotiating meeting today, Sept. 30, the first face-to-face meeting in 48 hours. A PMA representative told the media that the PMA was optimistic. But the lastest word from the union is that there was no progress on the key issue of jobs.

The Bush administration will come under renewed pressure from retail merchants to impose the Taft-Hartly Act should the talks collapse, or drag out much longer. Much earlier, an ILWU spokesperson said that forcing the dockworkers back to work for 80 days would not resolve the dispute. He recalled that the union had been forced to work under the Taft-Hartly Act in 1971, and struck for more than 130 days as soon as the so-called cooling-off period was over.

The core dispute is over jobs. The PMA wants to use the cover of new technology to deny the union the right to represent workers hired for computerized work. The union earlier agreed to give up 600 traditional jobs, and insists that the shippers reciprocate by recognizing its jurisdiction over the new work. Today the ILWU released a statement by its president James Spinosa. It reads in part, “They [the shipping bosses ]are not prepared to deal with turning over the jobs that remain in the industry and
any new jobs that are created that will take this industry forward to this Union; the jobs that are functionally equivalent to our work and they are under obligation to this Union to do. The Union has stepped up, the Union has told the Employers over and over again, “we will meet you in the middle, we will allow for free flow of information, we will allow for technology to move forward,” so that we would strengthen our position in the global market, on the West Coast, in these ports, providing that you meet us halfway on the jobs that are necessary to be done, that are left to be done in this industry. The Employers cannot deliver that, they refuse to deliver that, their latest proposal has been,” we really didn’t mean that we want to turn over the jobs to your Union, what we really meant is that we want to buy your workforce out”. Totally unacceptable to the ILWU; we will not move along those lines, not now, not ever in the future. What we are looking for in this set of bargaining are jobs, jobs that remain in the industry, jobs that are ours under the contract and the Employers have got to step up to the table, if they want to see those West Coast ports resume their activities like they have in the past.”



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