Employers Have Long-Term Plan To Weaken Union’s Control of Ports

Looking back at the events of the past few months, it’s hard not to conclude that the West Coast longshore employers had a plan from the beginning that led directly to Taft-Hartley. Taft-Hartley gets the government to enforce a strike-free situation, without slowdowns, through an 80-day cooling-off period-and the Pacific Maritime Association’s most profitable time of the year.

Some ILWU members and leaders fear that there is indeed more in the PMA’s long-term plans. The ILWU’s militancy, both in enforcing worker control over conditions on the docks and in showing solidarity with other dockworkers worldwide, is a thorn that the employers are impatient to remove from their sides.

Before bargaining started, the PMA commissioned a study that put the cost of a strike at $1 billion a day. (The ILWU never said it might strike and has never taken a strike vote.) These figures were later proven to be unrealistic, but they were meant to provide the Bush administration a justification for calling the lockout a threat to “the national health and safety,” justifying the use of Taft-Hartley.

The media constantly quoted the $1 billion per day figure, alongside the yearly wage of a dockworker, said to be $100,000.

Some workers do make this much, and more-by working over 3,000 hours a year. But most work less than 2,000 hours, at an average $27.68 per hour.

When the employers accused the ILWU of slowing down production (“striking with pay,” as PMA President Joe Miniace claimed), they didn’t mention that the dockworkers had processed record amounts of cargo over the summer. In September the union stated, “As the peak shipping season reaches its busiest point, ports up and down the West Coast are experiencing regular personnel shortages, especially in the more skilled categories. And the congestion on the docks caused by the record volume of container traffic and the strained port infrastructure is posing severe safety problems for workers.”

Union members have said that they became more safety-conscious in response to the PMA’s heavyhandedness, refusing to cut corners they’d cut in the past to speed the freight.


Well in advance of negotiations, the West Coast Waterfront Coalition formed, bringing together the shipping companies with retailers, like Target, Mattel, Home Depot, and the Gap, that depend on imports through West Coast ports. The Coalition pressured the government to get involved.

Bush declared that the lockout was endangering the national health and safety because of a “fear that a continuation of the shutdown would undermine the sputtering economic recovery” and that a possible war in Iraq required that military cargo be transported on commercial shipping lines. The ILWU has always worked military cargo during past strikes and continued doing so during the lockout.

During three months of negotiations beginning in May, the PMA constantly reneged on previously-made agreements.

Once the lockout was in place, negotiations with a federal mediator were equally fruitless. When PMA representatives showed up for the first mediation session accompanied by armed guards, ILWU President Jim Spinosa called it a continuation of the PMA’s union-busting strategy.

In exchange for lifting the lockout, the PMA had been demanding that the union agree to extend the expired contract on a day-by-day basis. Twice during mediation, the union agreed to extend-and twice the PMA refused the offer. The second was merely hours before Bush went to court to request that Taft-Hartley be invoked-clearly the employers’ goal all along.




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Why is the PMA going to great lengths to weaken this union? The ILWU, because of its militancy and its members’ skills, has a significant amount of control over the workplace. The PMA wants to regain control over the ports, and keep the union out of key jobs (see Viewpoint: Workplace Power, page 11).

But the power of the ILWU also lies in its international militancy. As Richard Mead, president of ILWU Local 10, said, “This is about global capitalism fighting global solidarity. If they get rid of us it’ll be easier when they go out to any of the other dockworkers’ unions around the world.”

Dockworkers have the power to disrupt the global assembly line. For example, the New United Motor Manufacturing (NUMMI) plant in Fremont, California, the pioneer of the just-in-time, lean production system in the U.S., had to close down its truck plant just four days into the lockout. It normally receives 34 ocean cargo containers a day of car and truck parts, many of them from Japan.

Trade through ports has of course long been a central feature of most national economies. But what is often called “globalization”-including cheap labor overseas and huge foreign markets-adds to the volume of imports and exports. So do relatively inexpensive transportation costs. Shipping and stevedoring companies are pressed to find ways to get more cargo through jammed-up ports.

Thus dockworkers’ unions in many countries are struggling with privatization of the ports, casualization of their labor, and outsourcing of their work to non-union workers.

Employers worldwide are motivated to bust or weaken unions that, within the context of the globalized world economy and just-in-time production, can effectively grind business to a halt.

When Australian dockworkers visited the ILWU picket lines, Prime Minister John Howard challenged the leader of the Australian Labor Party to stop Australian unions from intervening in the dispute because, Howard said, the unions are “jeopardizing millions of dollars worth of Australian agricultural exports.”

In a letter to the ILWU, Julián García, General Coordinator of the International Dockworkers Council, said, “It’s a coordinated plan because in Europe too there are efforts…to institute new laws…that would increase the profits of the multinational corporations and modify significantly the status of dockworkers, rolling back social gains...and worsening their overall working conditions…”


The ILWU is well known for being at the forefront of international solidarity. Compared to many other U.S. unions it has dedicated incredible time, resources, and energy to building international unity among transport unions.

It has been willing to disrupt work in support of other dockworkers’ struggles at critical moments. When the Liverpool, England dockers were fighting union-busting privatization of the British ports, the ILWU shut down all the West Coast ports as part of an international day of solidarity, January 20, 1997.

Harry Stamper, an ILWU member in Oregon, summed it up when he told local media, “The PMA has used the media to portray longshoremen as one-eyed, blue-collar piggy-banks intent on bankrupting the industry. We want to work. It’s what we do, and we do it better here than anyone else. We love the new technology. In the early ’70s we unloaded coffee, sack by sack by back injury. We certainly don’t mind having a huge crane do the job for us. Our entire history is one of change and modernization. Of social and ethnic equality. Of solidarity so tight it will hold water.”


It appears that the PMA’s and Waterfront Coalition’s strategy of the past few months is not only about getting through the busiest trade period of the year. Some ILWU members and leaders fear that what they could see next are moves by the PMA and the Bush administration to break up the coastwide agreement that the ILWU won after a bloody strike in 1934.

Without a coastwide contract, a strike at one port becomes meaningless, as ships can simply be re-routed to the next port.