“Vote No” Campaign Heats Up Over East Coast Longshore Union Contract

The contract is scheduled to be voted on by early June after local bargaining is completed.

“The vote no campaign is not a call for a strike, but rather a mandate to those who represent us to do better at the bargaining table. We believe that a better deal is there for the asking and we have until September 30, when the current contract expires, to get it,” said Leonard Riley, a member of ILA Local 1422 in Charleston, South Carolina.

If the contract is defeated, it will be a victory for those who have been agitating for a more militant stance against shipping companies. A defeat will also be a blow to the embattled top leadership of the ILA, which has been criticized for allowing the growth of non-union shipping companies to undermine the ILA’s bargaining power.

The group leading the campaign, informally called Concerned ILA Members, includes members and officials from locals in: New Jersey/New York; Wilmington, Delaware; Philadelphia; Baltimore; Charleston, South Carolina; Jacksonville, Florida; and several other ports on the East Coast.

Its members are circulating a “Vote No” flyer, conducting a rolling, port-to-port caravan complete with buttons and stickers, and seeking media coverage. While a few locals voted down the last contract in 1996, there has been no union-wide campaign to defeat a contract in recent history.


Opponents of the contract stress that their employers, international shipping and stevedoring companies, are immensely profitable and they point to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) as a model of a union that has fended off employer demands for a permanent two-tiered system.

A dwindling percentage of ILA members in the top tier (workers hired before 1996) earn $27 an hour, while a growing number are in a second tier earning $16-$21.

Under the proposed contract, the wage gap between those hired before and after 1996 would gradually be narrowed, but a new third tier group of workers who will be hired under the proposed contract would start at $16 with no way of bridging the gap. In 2010, when the proposed contract expires, this third tier would earn $8-$15 less than the workers in the tiers above them.

Opponents of the contract stress that the employers will have an enormous incentive to favor recent hires in the distribution of work, which is supposed to be assigned by seniority.

Another major sticking point is health care. In order to eliminate a deficit in the health fund, the union agreed to restrict health care eligibility. Workers who work less than 700 hours a year will receive no benefits. For full coverage workers need to have worked over 1,300 hours (instead of 1,000 hours under the current contract). Job referral favoritism means few workers will be able to count on full benefits.



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ILA spokesperson James A. McNamara said the union has statistics showing what percentage of its members are in each tier but it would not release them. Royce Adams, vice-president of ILA Local 1291 in Philadelphia estimates that the percentage of the workers in the port of Philadelphia that are in the lower tier is about 60 percent.

In the Port of New Jersey/New York, where the union has permitted several waves of hiring over the past decade, the number may be as high as 80 percent. By 2010, the year the contract will end, New Jersey members estimate that it will be close to 90 percent. This in line with the hiring trends apparent from the New York Waterfront Commission statistics.


“It’s one of the greatest contracts in the history of our industry,” said McNamara. When it was pointed out that the proposed contract falls short of the ILWU’s, McNamara said it was the best the union could do under the circumstances.

McNamara said it was unfair to compare it with the contract covering the ILWU longshore members, because while they have higher wages, they don’t receive container royalties. Also, he said, the ILWU doesn’t face competition from right-to-work ports, as is the case in some of the southern east coast states.

“We oppose this contract because we want an end to a permanent two-tier wage and benefit system,” said Royce Adams, vice-president of ILA Local 1291 in Philadelphia. “We want equal pay and benefits for equal work. Our union is allowing the employers to divide us-senior against new hire, West Coast against East, one ethnic group against another. It’s time to fight back.”

Leonard Riley added that “McNamara’s assessment of past contracts is seriously impaired and flawed. Past contracts have brought us benefits such as container royalties, a guaranteed annual income, important job trainings and health care and pension benefits. This contract proposes massive cuts to some of those benefits and we lost the guaranteed annual income in 1996.”

Opposition may run just as deep in what is by far the largest of the ports, New York/New Jersey. Here, waves of new hires have flooded to the docks in the past decade, bulging the lower tiers. Members in New Jersey said that as the flaws of the contract become apparent, the referendum will become a vehicle for members to express their resentment over the abandonment of the top-tier, favoritism in job referrals, and the inability to work enough hours to qualify for benefits.

The current reform efforts within the ILA took off as a result of the ILA’s lack of leadership in fighting the growth of non-union shipping companies. Reform leaders like Ken Riley, President of ILA Local 1422, have argued in the past that the union’s resources should be put towards organizing, instead of paying international officers inflated salaries. “Our efforts to bring more democracy into the ILA are motivated by a desire to make the ILA into a stronger union,” explained Ken Riley.


McNamara said he expects the contract to pass overwhelmingly.

Contract opponents are taking measures to assure a fair balloting process. They have consulted attorneys and sent a letter to ILA President John Bowers requesting the details on how the balloting will be conducted and what rights they will have to observe the process.

“If we can secure fair balloting, the ILA leadership will have good reason to worry,” said Rick Cephas, a member of ILA Local 1694 in Wilmington, Delaware. “In ports like Charleston, Wilmington, and Baltimore, members have longstanding grievances against the International for imposing concessions or for retaliation against local officials who have criticized the International for its passivity.”