WHEN UNION leaders and the Wall Street Journal both hail a labor agreement, rank-and-file workers have to ask: Can this deal really be good for us? That question will dominate the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Coast Caucus meeting December 9.
Delegates representing 10,500 dockworkers in 29 West Coast ports will meet to review the tentative contract–a deal negotiated under the threat of government intervention that, many rank-and-file activists say, contains unacceptable concessions.
The agreement came six weeks after George W. Bush invoked the Taft-Hartley Act, ending a 10-day lockout by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA). This intervention–the first ever in a lockout situation–led to an 80-day federal court injunction that banned work stoppages and slowdowns and empowered the presiding judge to levy fines against the union if he found that workers violated the order.
As the Thanksgiving Day holiday approached, the PMA and ILWU had made a tentative agreement on technology, but negotiations were stalled. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service Director Peter Hurtgen used his power under Taft-Hartley to force the pace of talks. “I told them that if we canâ€™t get it done this week, I will have to adjourn and restart [negotiations], and we might as well do that in Washington, on the 4th or 5th of December,” Hurtgen told the San Francisco Chronicle.
But such a schedule would have allowed only one or two days to negotiate before the Taft-Hartley law forced a vote on managementâ€™s last offer, run by the National Labor Relations Board rather than the union.
If the ILWU had voted down the proposal on this ballot, the injunction would have expired and freed both parties to take action. But this would have raised the possibility of a settlement being imposed by an act of Congress. “Taft-Hartley requires the parties to negotiate,” said Jack Toner, Hurtgenâ€™s spokesperson. “Normally, mediators donâ€™t have that hammer.”
It was under blows from this hammer that the ILWU agreed to the proposed deal–capping months of government intervention that began before the old contract expired when Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge called ILWU officials to warn that any dockworkersâ€™ strike would be banned on “national security” grounds.
Union President James Spinosa responded to Ridgeâ€™s threats with a conservative strategy. He refused to call a strike authorization vote, tried to claim the mantle of “national security” for the union itself and extended the contract after it expired July 1 until late September, when pressure from the rank and file finally led to a slowdown.
“You just canâ€™t negotiate contracts under threat like this,” said Jack Mulcahy, a member of ILWU Local 8 in Portland, Ore., for 27 years and former business agent for the local. “[ILWU leaders] were scared that they would take us to Washington. They donâ€™t know how to use labor to battle the employers. Instead, they got involved in a failed AFL-CIO political campaign” to elect Democrats in the November 5 elections.
“The endgame was that we accepted the employersâ€™ offer,” Mulcahy said. “We had a gun to our heads. Itâ€™s a concessionary contract, and I hope the Coast Caucus votes it down.”
Why ILWU members should reject concessions
ILWU OFFICIALS are withholding details of the contract until the Coast Caucus meets. But the key elements of the deal were widely reported and confirmed to Socialist Worker by sources close to negotiations.
The six-year contract reportedly allows the PMA to eliminate the positions of as many as 600 clerks–the highest-paying jobs in the ILWU–and implement new information technology through an arbitration process.
In return, the ILWU secured alternate lifetime employment for any clerk whose position is eliminated, union jurisdiction over planning jobs for yards and rail, and a 50 percent increase in pensions to a maximum of $63,000, management sources said.
The pay rate for basic dock work reportedly would rise from $27.68 to $30.68 an hour, while skilled operators of heavy machinery will be able to work up to seven daysâ€™ pay for five daysâ€™ work.
“I feel that this is a great victory for the ILWU and the labor movement,” Spinosa told reporters after the deal was announced. AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Rich Trumka, who played a pivotal role in the negotiations, also claimed success.
But the Wall Street Journal declared the contract a big victory–for management. In an editorial headlined “Taft-Hartley, Victorious,” the Journal wrote, “By taking away the longshoremen unionâ€™s bargaining chip–a stranglehold on the entire economy–and returning things to normal, the president made it that much harder for dockworkers to maintain their belligerent stance.”
A closer look shows that the Wall Street Journal is right–that the ILWU made major concessions. Even if the total number of clerksâ€™ jobs remains roughly stable because of growth in the ports, management will succeed in permanently removing some of the highest-paid work from its payroll–which means diminished opportunities for ILWU members to move into higher-skilled and better-paid positions. Even the pay raise for basic workers comes to an average of 1.8 percent a year–lower than the inflation rate.
At the same time, the already huge Port of Los Angeles is expected to double in capacity over the next 10 years, with similar growth expected in neighboring Long Beach. Thus, wages for most workers in the nationâ€™s biggest port will stagnate, while employers benefit from a massive increase in productivity.
Meanwhile, the agreement would allow the employers to dramatically increase the pay of skilled operators of heavy equipment–a longtime aim of management. The PMA has been perennially short of skilled workers needed to operate cranes and similar machines and preferred to hire “steadymen”–ILWU members who worked for the same employer rather than seeking jobs through the hiring hall.
Employers typically negotiated side deals to increase the pay of skilled workers outside the contract–a practice that was formally banned in the 1996 pact, but re-instituted in the 1999 contact negotiated under Spinosaâ€™s leadership.
The new deal would eliminate the current three-days-a-week limit on the use of steadymen–a restriction designed to provide more ILWU members with access to these higher-paying jobs. At the same time, skilled equipment operators will get a “skill differential bonus” of 25 percent over their base wages.
“Most employers will gladly pay the extra wages in order to keep their best crane drivers at their facilities,” the pro-management Journal of Commerce reported–this after the magazine hyped employersâ€™ complaints about “overpaid” dockworkers during the lockout.
The crucial issue was the implementation of technology–which will be decided through arbitration. And one major employer, Stevedoring Services of America, is vowing to fight to keep planning jobs out of the union.
“The devil will be in the details of the technology agreement,” said Peter Olney, a former ILWU organizing director who is now associate director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California-Berkeley. “The key will be how well the union preserves its jurisdiction–which is about power on the waterfront.”
The ILWUâ€™s own history with the Mechanization and Modernization deal of the 1960s highlights the threat. In that agreement, the employers gained a 600 percent increase in productivity between 1960 and 1980, while the number of registered dockworkers fell from 14,500 in 1960 to 8,400 over the same period.
ILWU members should look at other industries–most notably today, the airlines–to see that concessions inevitably lead to more concessions. ILWU members should reject this concessionary deal–and start organizing solidarity to take on the employers and their backers in Washington.