Discontent Spreads in East Coast Longshore Union

Four years after a southern-based reform group sprung up out of the campaign to defend the Charleston Five, a movement to democratize and strengthen the International Longshoremen’s Association has spread throughout the entire union.

Reformers have even gained a foothold in the port of New York/New Jersey, largest in the ILA and long a base of the union’s entrenched and reputedly mobbed-up leadership. There, intense opposition to the terms of a new master contract has led to spontaneous rank-and-file slow-downs.

And there are further signs of unrest: locals in Charleston, South Carolina, Wilmington, Delaware, and Philadelphia have not yet settled their local contracts. Meanwhile, three top ILA international executive board members have been indicted on corruption and racketeering charges in the last four months. More dockworkers are making the connection between racketeering and the weakened union.

This new militancy picked up steam in the spring when reformers spearheaded a union-wide grassroots campaign against the master contract. Opponents nearly defeated the six-year deal in a June membership referendum and then sued in federal court for a revote after massive voting irregularities were exposed.

The Vote-No campaign and lawsuit attracted intense membership scrutiny of the worst provisions of the master contract and the local contracts that are negotiated in conjunction with it: reduced benefits; increased disparity between wage tiers; reduced manning and overtime pay; and higher minimum hours thresholds to qualify for benefits.

The master contract covers container and roll-on, roll-off cargo, while local contracts cover wages for the handling of non-containerized (breakbulk) cargo, local work rules, and pension issues.

By the time the contracts took effect October 1, many more longshore workers were opposed than those who voted against the master contract in June.


Angry over the terms of their new local contract, rank-and-file dockworkers in Locals 1233 and 1235 in New York/New Jersey, which represent the bulk of the port’s workforce, refused overtime for two weeks after the contract was implemented. Refusals lasted until employers obtained an arbitrator’s order threatening firing.

With overtime shifts a standard part of the work system, the mass refusal to work past 5 p.m. threw production into disarray. The slowdown hit the port’s two largest shipping companies, Maersk-Sealand and Maher.

“We’re between a rock and a hard place,” said one younger dockworker who supported the refusal and insisted on anonymity. “When you’re low on the seniority list, you grab whatever they give you because you never know when work will dry up. To make any real money, you work marathon shifts.”

Although the shipping industry is highly vulnerable to job actions, the ILA has not engaged in a coast-wide strike since 1977. Early in the latest round of negotiations, ILA President John Bowers pledged not to strike. Many reformers see this unwillingness to mobilize as the root cause of the union’s weakness.

The job actions in New York/New Jersey, they say, demonstrate that members are willing to come together and fight. This is true despite the ILA’s astonishing tolerance of racially segregated locals. The two locals that engaged in the slowdowns are listed on the ILA website as having identical jurisdictions, but Local 1233 is almost all black, and Local 1235 almost all white. “It was beautiful,” said one 1235 member of the slowdown, “black and white, old and young, we all walked out at 5 p.m. together.”

For newer workers, the most offensive aspect of the master contract is a tiered wage system that pays them far less than their senior counterparts and provides no way to catch up. In the New York/New Jersey locals, this is compounded by a give-back in the local agreement that reduces staffing ratios on heavy equipment.



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The reduction limits opportunities for newer workers to log enough hours to qualify for health benefits, and many fear it will increase deaths and injuries. In 2003, five workers died in the port from container accidents.


Meanwhile, members in other ports have yet to settle their local contracts.

Members at Locals 1694 and 1884 in Wilmington and Local 1291 in Philadelphia voted down their local contract offers overwhelmingly on October 7, citing manning as the number one issue. They have set a November 20 strike deadline while negotiations with the Philadelphia Marine Trade Association (PMTA) continue.

Royce Adams, vice-president of Local 1291, says, “We’ve been accepting cuts in the last 20 years to our vacation time, overtime pay, and more, and the members are tired of that. Now we’re faced with manning issues and we’ve said no, enough. We voted down the master contract and now we’ve voting down the local contract.”

Rick Cephas of Local 1694 echoes the New York/New Jersey workers’ concerns: “We are faced with a loss of one to two longshore workers on the work gangs, depending on the commodity we’re unloading. But the PMTA won’t give us more time to do the same amount of work with less workers. We don’t want to have these productivity increases forced down our throats. It’s not safe for us.”

There have been no local contract negotiations between Local 1422 in Charleston and the South Carolina Stevedoring Association since the September 30 expiration of the current contract.

President Ken Riley explains that their local has yet to agree on pensions and the funding of the union’s hiring hall: “Unlike other locals, our employer does not pay one dime towards the maintenance of our hiring hall. But they do charge a two percent administration fee from every check they cut for deductions.”

As for pensions, Riley explains, “We are asking that our pension now be part of the contract—just like in the local contract settlement for New York/New Jersey. Under our current contract, the level of contributions to the pension plan is stipulated, but now we want the contract to state how much the benefits will be for each member. The pension becomes a contractual issue—a strike issue—and takes it out of the control of a local trustee.”


Members in Philadelphia fear that the International may intervene in their local negotiations and force the local to take the rejected tentative agreement. “The International did this with Local 333 in Baltimore last year,” says Adams (see Labor Notes, July 2003). “The constitution was amended last year to allow for this. So management has the upper hand, they’re coming from a position of strength and they know it. They see the weakness from the top.”

Local negotiations have occasionally dragged on in the past. However, dissidents claim that this level of opposition in contract negotiations at the local level is unprecedented.

“I think this situation shows that members are taking a serious look at the long-term implications of what we are doing with these contracts,” says Riley. “It is unthinkable that we negotiated the longest contract in our history—six years—in the shortest period of time in our negotiating history. The master contract will prove to be one of the worst contracts if it is allowed to stand like it is.”

Riley argues that local issues are especially important now that the master contract has gone into effect: “The employer wants to weaken this union; they want to cut into our resources to run our union and they pit workers against workers. The master contract has created three tiers: pre-1996 workers, post-1996 workers, and post-2004 workers. We want our local contract to mitigate those divisions.”

Find more information about reform groups in the ILA at: ILA Rank and File. Rachel Padgett is assistant director at the Association for Union Democracy.