What the Dockworkers Are Still Up Against

by Charles Walker

This article and the ones that follow are from the web site Labor Tuesday for November 5, 2002. They have been edited for Labor Standard.

The latest news about the contentious West Coast dockworkers’ negotiations is that the prime dispute, the union’s jurisdiction over some tech jobs, as well as blue-collar jobs in container storage areas, has been resolved.

Details are not known, because of a news blackout, but the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) says the tentative agreement is a victory. Wage and pension issues, as well as who will be the next coastwide arbitrator, remain to be settled. Much earlier, the ILWU and the employers’ group, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), agreed on new health benefit monies, and the ILWU conceded the loss of 400-600 ships clerk’s jobs. The outstanding issues are said to be tough ones, but seemingly are likely to be settled without a strike. If so, there is no reason to expect a military takeover of the docks, and the back-to-work order under a Taft-Hartley injunction would become moot.

ILWU representatives told the press that the shipping companies and terminal operators “will save millions of dollars with technology, and we are supposed to get a share of that. We want to take that share in terms of pensions, so that’s the next thing we are going to do.” (San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 2.)

If the ILWU has failed to at least gain jurisdiction over 400-600 new jobs to make up for the lost ships clerks jobs, the union’s statement indicates that the settlement will fall into the national bargaining pattern that’s been dominant for at least two decades. That pattern calls for trading off jobs for increased compensation for the remaining workers, but relatively lower labor costs for the companies. The ILWU in 1961 helped establish the pattern when it agreed to allow the displacement of dockworkers by technology, and signed a “Mechanization and Modernization Agreement.” It’s not clear how many jobs were lost, but some sources say that since 1961 the ILWU has lost tens of thousands of members. (See, for example, the Seattle Times, Oct. 6.)

At some point ILWU members will vote to accept or turn down a proposed contract. At that time, but probably before, the ranks will have decided whether or not the union could have done much better. And decided whether the ILWU (which never took a strike vote) should have called a strike—if not when the contract expired, then when the Taft-Hartley injunction ran out.

The kind of fight a successful strike would have meant and who the strikers could rely on to stand with them can be figured out by taking a look at the battle British dockworkers put up attempting to save their jobs and their union.

The British Dockworkers’ Fight

On July 3, 1989, the Margaret Thatcher government privatized Britain’s 60 seaports, ending five decades of the ports’ nationalization. In quick order, the new owners, private shipping firms, took on the dockworkers’ unions. After two years of court and picket line battles, all ports, except for Liverpool, were no longer unionized.

On Sept. 28, 1995, the Liverpool dockers were provoked into a strike “against brutal speedup and deteriorating working conditions,” according to labor writer David Bacon, in his article entitled “Longshore Workers Chase Scab British Cargo Out to Sea.” Despite international support, and after more than two years of struggle, the Liverpool dockers also lost, in January 1998. At that time the dockers said in a prepared statement that they needed “a far more positive support role from our own union leadership in calling for an increase in both the national support through the T.G.W.U. [Transport and General Workers Union] industrial branches and international support via the I.T.F. [International Transport Workers Union.” (Click here for more.)

Bacon asked a Liverpool strike leader to explain the relations between the British Labour Party, the unions, and the employers. Here’s what the strike leader said:

“Well, my personal opinion, based on over 20 years of experience both in the Labour Party and in the Transport and General Workers Union, is that they’ve abrogated any responsibility. The unions have bought right into the Labour government’s policies of partnership with employers, of giving to industry everything they demand.

“The unions could have put pressure on the Labour government. I still think they’ve got a tremendous influence to wield, when you look at the membership in some UK industries. But they chose not to do that, because of their views about the working class, and how they see their own role as leaders of unions. To them, their role of representing workers is exactly the same as the perception of the Labour government, which is partnership [with the employers]. Conflict doesn’t exist. At the end of the day the employer is always right. Representing employers’ needs seems to be the priority, not the representation of the working class.”

Would the Democratic Party be more supportive of the ILWU than the Blair-led Labour Party was of the Liverpool dockworkers? Weeks ago Democratic Party office holders up and down the West Coast said they backed the ILWU. Senator Daschle addressed a Seattle rally and urged the dockworkers to “fight, fight, fight!” Two prominent exceptions were Senator Diane Feinstein and California’s Governor Gray Davis. Feinstein called on President Bush to impose the Taft-Hartley law if the docks were not reopened within a week; and Davis simpered that he was opposed both to a lockout and a slowdown.

 It’s one thing for Democrats to tell the ILWU to “fight, fight, fight” when they have been locked out; but it would be another thing entirely if dockworkers were to strike, strike, strike and refuse to return to their jobs, even if the government ordered them to return. Not to heed a government order would make the dockworkers “lawbreakers,” giving Democratic Party politicos more than enough cover to withdraw their verbal support.

The West Coast dockworkers have said many times in recent weeks that dockworkers around the world would refuse to unload ships from the U.S. loaded by strikebreakers. That solidarity is not without precedent; the Liverpool strikers got some solidarity along those lines. But in military terms that help was comparable to harassing sorties that had no apparent impact on the front-line battle. Clearly, the U.S. dockworkers would require far more solidarity aid from overseas to really hurt a wealthier American opponent, inspired by the British owners’ victory over the British dockworkers.

How much help could U.S. dockworkers realistically expect from the AFL-CIO? In 1989, the year that British dockworkers found themselves privatized, the U.S. government took on and decisively whipped the air traffic controllers union (PATCO). Only one major union, the Machinists, called for organized labor to stand with PATCO. The call was ignored, even by the Machinists union itself, whose members crossed PATCO picket lines.

Even if today’s AFL-CIO officialdom didn’t completely ignore a grave threat to the ILWU’s present strength or even its existence, what is there in the record to suggest that the ILWU could count on the federation’s leadership to risk its many-sided, multilevel relationships with corporate America and its political accomplices? AFL-CIO President John Sweeney’s speeches extol union partnerships with corporate America. Such partnerships are dead ringers for the partnerships with corporate Britain that the British dockworkers said were embraced by their union and the Blair government.

Just asking these questions suggests that the ILWU dockworkers could not rely on the British battle plan. It doesn’t work to depend on politicians who are in bed with the bosses or on a union officialdom that is infatuated with the false notion that a partnership with corporations is realistic.

Among the tough challenges that labor faces today are privatization, industrial rationalization, and the surging levels of national and international corporate competition that have swept the industrial world since the early 1970s, due to the rebuilding of the war-damaged economies of Europe and Japan. These are the same very powerful, elemental forces of contemporary capitalism that, contract or not, will continue to confront the West Coast dockworkers.

The Example of a Successful Strike Leader

by Charles Walker

When labor faced awesome challenges in the Depression years, a new, militant leadership in 1934 dramatically transformed an obscure Teamsters local union in Minneapolis. This leadership gained the ranks’ confidence in its ability to use the union’s power to serve the members’ aims and aspirations. Seeing that the union meant business, workers flocked to join it by the hundreds. In short order the union won several strikes, gaining union recognition and wage increases. That was simply astounding, since not a single strike had been won in the city in many years. In time the union helped organize thousands of workers throughout the general trucking industry, and unorganized workers were given a new sense of hope in unionism.

But before it could achieve all that, the union had to prove it had the right stuff, and that meant taking on the city’s bosses, who were determined to keep “their” city, Minneapolis, Minnesota, an open-shop citadel of low wages and intimidated workers. From the city hall to the police department to the local press the bosses maintained a tight grip. When they saw that the Teamsters union, Local 574, had come to life, the bosses attempted frame-ups and red-baiting, they planted stoolpigeons inside the union, they kept in line any firm that might withdraw from their united front, and they got the authorities to deputize armed thugs, who, with the cops, were used as scab herders and strike breakers.

Try as they might, the bosses couldn’t whip the Teamsters local union. And no wonder. The union had discarded the failed policies of the past, and replaced them with policies that were based on the democratic and independent mobilization of the ranks. Those successful policies and methods, tactics and strategies of the union’s new, militant leadership, later were laid out and explained for all workers in a series of four book by Teamster leader Farrell Dobbs entitled Teamster Rebellion, Teamster Power, Teamster Politics, and Teamster Bureaucracy.

Dobbs said the “mainspring” of the revitalized union local’s strength was rank and file control over the union’s policies. There was full freedom of expression for all viewpoints, and on all questions the final authority was the general membership meeting, held twice a month. There were elected stewards at all job sites, and stewards were charged with seeing that the contract was enforced, and the members’ rights were defended. Further, “opposition candidates were accorded equal rights with the incumbents.”

Officers were elected for one year, so that “members had a frequent opportunity to review their performance and decide whether they should be reelected or replaced.” Moreover, all full-time officers and staff were paid the going rate for truck drivers, so that “there was only one class of citizenship in the local.” The result, Dobbs reported, was that Local 574 developed a unique “oneness, which enabled the union to go forward as an effective combat force.”

When it was necessary to strike, a large elected strike committee had full say-so over the strike, with the union’s executive board part of and subordinate to the strike committee. Since the strength of a strike lies in its ability to halt business and profit making, no strike, as a general rule, is stronger than its picket lines, which primarily aim to keep scabs from taking the strikers’ jobs. That means that picket lines have to be organized as a combat force, and just as massive as necessary to make sure the picket line is respected alike by bosses and scabs, as well as judges and cops used as stooges for the bosses. The Minneapolis Teamsters were determined to make sure their picket lines were “respected.” Kept in reserve were mobile units of strikers ready to reinforce a threatened picket line or to halt a truck that slipped through.

Unlike so many of today’s union “leaders” who advocate labor-management partnerships and who whittle down members’ demands to meet the corporation’s competition, the 1934 Teamsters repudiated the class partnership schemes of their time. As Dobbs put it, “The law of the jungle prevails under capitalism. If the workers don’t fight as a class to defend their interests, the bosses will gouge them.” It was the new leaders’ understanding of the diametrically opposed interests of workers and bosses that set them apart from union bureaucrats who insisted that workers must be “responsible” and make sure that the bosses make a “fair” profit so that the boss can pay a “fair” wage.

Today’s union ranks, especially in the wake of new concessionary contracts, often wonder what the union tops get out of it. The answer, said Dobbs, is this: “Bureaucrats don’t look upon the labor movement as a fighting instrument dedicated solely to the workers’ interests; they tend rather to view trade unions as a base upon which to build personal careers as ‘labor statesmen.’ Such ambitions cause them to seek collaborative relations with the ruling class.”

At first, the new leaders of Local 574 were part of an organizing committee of nonunion coal yard workers. Among their numbers were a handful of veteran labor militants who were also socialists. Upon gaining membership in Local 574 the organizing committee became the proponent of a larger and wider organizing drive. With each success the organizing committee became larger and more respected as additional, fresh fighters joined the union. Within a year or so, “the union itself had become a left-wing formation in the local labor movement and in the IBT [International Brotherhood of Teamsters],” Dobbs writes.

That was largely because the ranks learned tough lessons—lessons about class and class conflict—in the course of their well thought-out struggle against their bosses. “Their strike experiences had taught them [and Dobbs] a good deal. Notions that workers have anything in common with bosses were undermined by harsh reality. Illusions about police being ‘protectors of the people’ began to be dispelled. Eyes were opened to the role of the capitalist government, as revealed in its methods of rule through deception and brutality. At the same time, the workers were gaining confidence in their class power, having emerged victorious from their organized confrontation with the employers.”



“As the U.S. moves toward an invasion of Iraq and expands its war against terrorists, Congress will supply whatever funds and resources are needed to ensure victory. Under those circumstances, the living standards of America’s working families are bound to deteriorate, and there will be less likelihood that millions of needy people will get government help.”

—Harry Kelber’s Labor Talk for Oct. 30, 2002


“For months now, roughly 10 million Americans have been out of work and unable to find jobs. After the third consecutive month of increases, long-term joblessness has reached crisis proportions: 1.7 million workers have been unemployed for at least six months, almost double the number one year ago. Between March and September, almost 1.5 million jobless workers who had used up their regular state jobless benefits exhausted their temporary emergency federal benefits as well without finding jobs. That number is likely to jump to 2.2 million by year’s end. Three times as many workers are exhausting their emergency federal unemployment benefits now as during a comparable period in the early 1990’s recession.”

—AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney, Nov. 1, 2002