What Dockworkers Want and Why

by Charles Walker

This article and the ones that follow are from the web site Labor Tuesday for October 8. They have been edited for Labor Standard.

In October 1960, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) signed a watershed contract that radically altered work practices on the West Coast docks. Over time, more and more mechanization and containerization took place; and the union grew smaller (shrinking from about 100,000 members then to 10,500 today). Though individual dockworkers saw improved wages and benefits, at least part of the improvement was paid by lost jobs, not profits.

In 1971, a federal pay board estimated that dockworkers’ productivity increased by almost 140% in the previous ten years, as contrasted with a national increase of 30%. During that time the bosses paid the dockworkers $62 million for their increased productivity, but pocketed $900 million in saved labor costs.

Once again, the shipping and terminal bosses are looking for increased productivity; if the bosses are even partially successful, the ILWU membership base on the West Coast docks will continue to shrivel. In the current negotiations the ILWU bargainers have already agreed to give up an estimated 600 clerks’ jobs; as a quid pro quo the ILWU wants the bosses to recognize the union’s jurisdiction over new jobs, created as more mechanization and computerization is introduced.

Should the union fail to win its jurisdictional claim over the prospective computer-related jobs, its traditional power to affect productivity will surely fade, as employers introduce more technology at the docks and conduct more technological operations away from the docks. An expert on port operations told the New York Times (Oct. 2), “This dispute is not just about money, it’s also about control.” With only 10,500 dock jobs left, the ranks have to wonder how many more jobs the union can lose without losing its control over the chokepoints of the West Coast shipping business.

In 1971, the ILWU ranks battled both the dock bosses and the government, which forced them back to work for 80 days. As this is being written, it seems far more likely than not that the government will intervene and end the current lockout, a step the ILWU opposes. Does that mean that the union would strike, if, at the end of 80 days, there is no settlement?

Yes, but the ILWU surely remembers that shortly before the union agreed to a new contract in 1971, the Nixon administration and the Democratic Party-controlled Congress decided to impose compulsory arbitration and bar a strike for 18 months. A last-minute settlement allowed the union to escape compulsory arbitration, but the ranks were robbed when the government Pay Board voted 8-5 to cut wage and benefit increases from 25.9% to 14.9 %. In protest, four labor members of the Pay Board resigned; the Teamsters president, Frank Fitzimmons, stayed on. Before the Pay Board’s stinging decision, Harry Bridges, the ILWU president, vowed to fight if even one cent was cut from the settlement; but then he thought better of it and the dispute ended.

If the 1971 events and their resolution are any guide, the ranks need additional power to maintain, let alone improve, their present relationship of forces against the bosses and their political allies. At least some of the ranks believe that they have an ace in the hole; they’re counting on the solidarity of dockworkers around the world. Surely, the refusal of those dockworkers to unload ships from the U.S. would be a powerful weapon. But a widespread dockers’ boycott of U.S.-loaded ships would be unprecedented.

Bargaining Update

Press reports state that contract talks broke down again Sunday night, Oct. 6. Within hours the government said it was appointing a board of inquiry to assess the economic impact of the lockout, a first step toward the imposition of the Taft-Hartley Act. Though the T-H Act has been on the books for over five decades, it has never been used to end an employer-led lockout. An earlier roadblock to a settlement arose October 1, when the PMA negotiating committee arrived with armed bodyguards at a meeting arranged by a federal mediator. “They have been deployed in a very discreet manner,” said a PMA spokesperson, “and we would hope the union would understand these circumstances.”

The union negotiators understood very well the meaning of armed personnel, having endured weeks of threats from the Bush administration to send the military to occupy and operate the docks. ILWU President James Spinosa and the union delegation stormed out, saying that the union would no longer meet with the current PMA negotiators and insisted that the PMA executive board itself sit down for future talks. “PMA’s lockout is holding a gun to the head of the American economy and now they move to aim real guns at us,” Spinosa said. “We will not be intimidated by these kinds of tactics, and we will never reach an agreement as long as the PMA acts as if it can force a settlement at gun point rather than negotiate.”

Nevertheless, the day after the gun-toting incident, the union agreed to federal mediation with the current PMA negotiators. As stated above, those talks broke down after four days.

What will happen when the Bush administration ends the lockout? Will the dockers’ productivity and the bosses’ profits quickly return to pre-lockout levels? Or will the dockers continue to work in accordance with all safety laws and regulations, which, says PMA, led to the lockout. In any event, the bosses’ intransigence will be dramatically tested, if not this week, then in less than three months.


[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a rank-and-file newsletter put out by dockworkers. Some editing and bracketed text has been added by LABOR TUESDAY.]

Volume I, Issue II
October 1, 2002


Joe Miniace [CEO of the employers’ group, the Pacific Maritime Association] and his boys at the PMA have been long on their rhetoric about locking out the ILWU if there is a slowdown. Miniace feels since we had been operating equipment beyond the established safety limits, we are obligated to continue to do so, even though it may be in violation of federal, state, and jointly agreed-to waterfront safety rules.

Since we have rightfully decided to follow those rules, and others, we are now being accused of a slowdown. Just one look at the accident and fatalities statistics will tell who the bad guys are. Miniace gets our hypocrite of the year award for signing his name to the safety rules we are obligated to work by and then locking out the union for following them.

The rules have been overlooked for so long to benefit productivity that we, as union members, are being penalized for following the federal, state, and ILWU/PMA safety regulations. The negotiating committee and the ranks are delivering a strong message to the employers, Lock us out if you want, but we will not be forced to rely on the PMA’s falsely exaggerated productivity figures based on working conditions that break numerous sections of jointly agreed-to safety rules. The fight for safety is an honest one; nine fatalities and numerous serious accidents in one contract term is not a gimmick. The ILWU has always stood steadfast for those principled positions that protect workers. Even if it comes with the threat of a lockout or lawsuit.

Safety vs. Productivity

The ILWU is being stonewalled on the safety vs. productivity problem with the       employers in the current bargaining sessions. The ILWU is justifiably addressing the issue. We know the employers want to keep productivity at the high level which they have been accustomed to, but they oppose hiring additional workers to keep the hook moving. They rely instead, on the hard-working longshoremen moving faster to keep up.

It is the employer that makes the decision as to how efficient or inefficient they want to make the operation. There are many cases where the employers hire jobs in a manner that would make the operation very inefficient had they not the luxury of the “conscientious” worker to speed up and bail them out. Many longshore workers overlook the safety rules to make the operation productive and the shippers happy. Whether you realize it or not, we are now paying dearly for overlooking safety rules. Serious injuries need to be curtailed and fatalities eliminated. As a result of the alarming amount of recent fatalities the ILWU has taken the position to work in compliance with the Pacific Coast Marine Safety Code, and all federal and state safety regulations.

Doubling Back, Who Benefits?

[“Doubling back” refers to the practice of working a second shift before a minimum number of hours between shifts, as specified by a union contact, have elapsed.] There are too many areas where the Union has given up conditions in which the benefit clearly favors the employers. Take the issue of doubling back. Laying personal monetary issues aside, it’s hard to make an argument that the practice has any useful benefit to us as a union. It jeopardizes safety for the workers doubling, and for those required to work around them.

The employers are able to have a smaller workforce, which saves them money on pension and the health and welfare contributions. They pay less money in training programs, it eliminates a well paying job, and weakens the union by having less members. This in turn relates to less financial support at the local and International levels. Most importantly doubling back desecrates a landmark victory the ILWU won as a result of the 1934 strike, and is contained in Section 2 of the Arbitration Award handed down by the National Longshoremen’s Board in October 1934. That is the Six Hour Day.

Makes you wonder if Nick Bordoise, Howard Sperry, Dick Parker, John Knudson, Shelvy Daffron, and Olaf Holland, all of whom gave their lives in the big strike for the Six Hour Day and the Hiring Hall would take a double out, skip their coffee break, and work through lunch. Now we’re not saying we can just turn back the clock after all this time. But since everyone has stopped to take a breather and quit doubling back, the docks will be a lot safer. Maybe we can get back to the basics of providing good paying jobs with benefits to more families. Providing jobs and spreading the wealth is one of the founding principles of our union.

Mini-opoly Technology

The technology issues on deck in the bargaining sessions are critical to the health, security, and future of the ILWU. So far the negotiating committee has been “on the beam.” The Union now as in the past will not be bought off by Mini-opoly [this seems to refer to PMA negotiator Miniace], the West Coast Waterfront Coalition (w.c.w.c.), or any group of multinational corporations toting around their big buyout bags of money.

The ILWU as always is paving the way for elevating the living standards of many working families by securing the jurisdiction necessary to provide good jobs and benefits to future dockworkers.

In Mini-opoly’s opening remarks to the unions negotiating committee on May 13, 2002, he stated: “Let me be very clear; the PMA recognizes the role and historic jurisdiction of the ILWU members and will respect both. Technology and work process change will eliminate certain work and create new work. The ILWU members, our registered workforce of longshoremen and clerks, will be guaranteed work opportunity under this contract and, more importantly, the opportunity to move into new positions, with methods of work and a secure future.”

Mini-opoly may be in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease or he may be a lying union buster as the negotiations have stalled over technology issues for the following reason. On September 30, ILWU President Spinosa was quoted as saying: “We cannot budge on outsourcing of our work. We cannot ever agree with an employer that’s willing to take our work and give it to others. What they’re looking for is a buyout with this union and our work force, and allow for others to do our work. Totally unacceptable. we will not move in that direction.”

The ILWU, from the rank and file on up, will not agree to outsource our work. Mini-opoly’s pistol packing goons wont change that.

Government Intervention

How can we most effectively defend against the threat by President Bush to intervene in longshore negotiations with federal troops on the docks or by invoking the anti-labor Taft Hartley act? Currently, we have statements of support from Senators Daschle, Kennedy, and [politicians] from the West Coast calling on President Bush to stay out of our negotiations.

These Democratic Senators, often referred to as “Friends of Labor,” were signatories to the infamous Patriot Act passed last October through the Senate with a 98-1 vote. The implementation of the Patriot Act paves the way for a police state of the worst sort, a government minus the “Bill of Rights” ruling the country in the sole interests of big business.

It creates a new crime of domestic terrorism: Makes it a federal offense to engage in acts dangerous to human life that “appear” to be intended to intimidate or coerce civil populations includes harboring or providing material support to whomever the Government deems to be terrorists or terrorist organizations or conspiring to do the same. Allows the Government to levy heavy penalties for civil disobedience and militant mass political protests, including seizure of all assets involved in planning, conducting, or supporting an act of terrorism. This could include organizing, supporting, and defending a picket line.

We think it is a big mistake for the ILWU to rely on the same politicians that voted for the Patriot Act to defend us against the threat of government troops on the docks The threat of federal troop intervention on the docks is not only an attack on the entire labor movement but also on the civil rights of every citizen in this country. The threat this crisis represents to the working class has the potential to bring thousands of people to protest actions. The ILWU needs to begin a program of mass mobilizations of unions, their members, and concerned citizens to protest at federal buildings in the major ports. The ILWU as well as the AFL-CIO have the immense resources to make this happen.


This issue of the Monitor is dedicated to the nine people who lost their lives on the docks of the West Coast during the current contract period beginning July 1, 1999.

  1. Rick Muller (Long Beach, Aug. ‘99)

  2. Frank Hernandez(passenger in over-the-road truck, Aug. ‘99)

  3. Mike Melgoza (Long Beach, Sep. ‘99)

  4. Ron Edwards (Portland, Sep. ‘99)

  5. John Prohoroff (Long Beach March, ‘02)

  6. Mario Gonzalez (ILWU guard, [Local] #26, March ‘02)

  7. Dick Peters (Eureka, June ‘02)

  8. Richie Lopes Jr.(Hueneme, July ‘02)

  9. Rudy Acosta (ILWU guard, #26, Sep. ‘02)

Contributors to the Monitor

Jack Mulcahy Local 8
Mark Downs Local 19
Jack Heyman Local 10



 “The Eightieth Congress capitalized on Truman’s anti-labor statements and actions of the previous year, his use of the injunction against [John L.] Lewis, and his threat of military induction against the railroad workers. It cannot be gainsaid that Truman also helped pave the way for the Taft-Hartley Act.”

AFL leaders broke their pact in 1947 with the Coalminers Union “to boycott the Taft-Hartley Law by refusal to comply with the reporting and affidavit provisions.” Lewis quit the AFL, but first he faced them and memorably said, in part, “I represent an organization whose members believe they pay their officers to fight for them ...And is it true that the leaders of our movement are to be the first of our mighty hosts of 8,000,000 members to put their tails between their legs and run like cravens before the threat of the Taft-Hartley bill? I am reminded of the Biblical parable, ‘Lions led by asses.’”

—Quotations from Saul Alinsky’s book John L. Lewis


Labor historians said that there will be a special irony if the weapon that President Bush ultimately uses against the union is Taft-Hartley. It was the 55-year-old law's requirement that labor leaders—but no other economic actors—sign anti-Communist pledges at the start of the Cold War that marked the ILWU as the most radical of American unions. Then-union leader Harry Bridges refused to sign, causing a politically jittery Congress of Industrial Organizations to drive the longshoremen out of the labor federation.

Los Angeles Times


“The Teamsters Union stands shoulder to shoulder with our brothers and sisters in the West Coast Longshore Union (ILWU) who have been locked out. The employer lockout is the labor relations equivalent of an act of war and we stand ready to assist in any way possible. We strongly oppose any decision to impose Taft Hartley in this situation or the use of federal troops to replace the locked-out workers. Such actions would be viewed as open union-busting by the Teamsters and all of labor. I call on all Teamsters to lend your solidarity and support to our brothers and sisters in the West Coast ports. The Longshore workers fight is our fight. Our two unions have a strong history of cooperation and now is the time to put it to use to ensure that a collective bargaining agreement that meets the needs of the longshoremen and their families is reached.

—Teamsters President James P. Hoffa, Oct.2, 2002