Tentative Deal in West Coast Dock Dispute

by Charles Walker

This article is from the web site Labor Tuesday for Nov. 26, 2002. It has been edited for Labor Standard.

The West Coast dockworkers of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) have been offered a deal, a six-year deal. There will be no strike, no military takeover of the West Coast seaports. Few details of the tentative agreement announced on Nov. 24 are available (at the time of writing). The union says it expects a vote by the ranks to be concluded by year’s end (or in early January 2003).

The news was telegraphed three days before it was officially announced. A Washington lobbyist for the ILWU seemingly broke a mediator-imposed silence on the West Coast contract negotiations, saying, “I am certain that as surely as we were able to find mutually acceptable compromises on technology, we will be able to do the same on pensions. This is true for the few remaining issues that divide us right now.” (Associated Press, Nov. 21.)

The union spokesperson, Lindsay McLaughlin, gave his forecast on Nov. 20 to a conference of importers and exporters. The press account said that McLaughlin “suggested their bitter contract dispute with shipping lines could be resolved by year’s end…and avert another shutdown of major Pacific ports.”

It was not clear what the “acceptable compromises” are that McLaughlin had in mind. What is known is that the ILWU has said that, along with pensions, an additional major outstanding issue is how future permanent coastwide arbitrators are to be selected. McLaughlin’s statement implied that the unresolved issues are not considered strike issues by the union’s negotiators.

McLaughlin’s remarks, together with an ILWU press release (Nov. 14), were the clearest signs, but not the only signs, that there would not be an ILWU strike. “We’re back at the bargaining table. And while a good deal of work remains, we believe we can get it done,” said ILWU President James Spinosa. “We’ve already made great progress with an agreement on a key issue — technology enhancements — and we look forward to working in partnership with the industry to make the ports even more efficient and successful. At the same time, the workers who produce new profits for the shipping companies through these enhancements must receive pension security as part of the agreement.”

Justice Department lawyers, who on Nov. 13 passed up an opportunity to tighten the Taft-Hartley noose on the dockworkers, provided a further sign that the ILWU officials had convinced the government there will be no strike. The federal lawyers told the judge who ordered the injunction, forcing the dockworkers back to their jobs, that they were not recommending a contempt of court penalty against the ILWU or the employers’ association, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), for alleged violations of the injunction, though, they claimed, there was “credible evidence” that both parties had contributed to a decline in productivity, specifically forbidden by the judge, a Clinton appointee.

San Francisco Bay Area productivity fell by 34 percent, and in the Northwest by 26 percent, while at the Los Angeles-Long Beach facilities the productivity drop-off was 9 percent, according to an Oct. 23 claim by the PMA (a consortium of shipping and terminal companies). ILWU President Spinosa is from a Los Angeles-Long Beach ILWU local union. Although in late November the docks were still clogged with backed-up containers, the press reported that turnaround times for ships were close to normal, apparently a sign that productivity in general was rising and dockworkers weren’t resisting the court’s injunction that ended the PMA’s unprecedented 10-day lockout (Sept. 29-Oct. 9).

A still earlier sign that a strike was not in the works, or, at least, a sign that the AFL-CIO opposed a strike, was a statement by AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka, who had joined the negotiations. On the same day that the federal judge ordered the return to work, Trumka declared, “The two parties’ issues are bridgeable.” The press reported that Trumka was a “moderating force” in the negotiations, while Spinosa said, “I want to especially thank AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Rich Trumka, who was an important partner to the ILWU throughout this process, and deserves extraordinary praise for his leadership at the negotiating table.”

But the earliest sign that the ILWU tops were not going to ask the ranks to take their beef with the PMA to the streets came on July 17, when the union bargainers announced that they had agreed to give up some shipping clerks’ jobs, variously estimated to number 400-600. That agreement didn’t mean that the union wasn’t going to dig in its heels at the bargaining table (hence the union’s work-safe campaign, which the PMA used as a pretext for two lockouts). But it did mean that the ILWU was not drawing a line in the sand on the issue of the size and control of the workforce. “This impasse has everything to do with the classic question of who controls production at the point of production,” said Daniel J. Olson, a labor relations expert at the University of Washington (Los Angeles Times, Nov. 10).

An Early Sign of Bosses’ Hard-Nose Policy: The Hiring of Miniace

In hindsight, the signs are easier to read. But there was one sign early on that was prominent and unambiguous, easy to read. The union leadership read that sign early and correctly. As a result they knew that the PMA was determined to go to the mat over the size of the workforce, and more importantly, the control of the workforce. For the two previous contracts, at least, the PMA unsuccessfully sought to enlarge upon the gains it had made back in 1961, in negotiations with then–ILWU President Harry Bridges. Bridges’s agreement, the 1961 Mechanization and Modernization Agreement, reduced the union’s membership and, consequently, the union’s power.

In 1996, the PMA recruited a “human resources” expert by the name of Joseph N. Miniace, formerly with the Ford and Ryder corporations. A lengthy Los Angeles Times (Nov. 10) piece states, “What is indisputable is that Miniace’s 1996 appointment as PMA president presaged a dramatic change in the dynamics of labor relations on the docks.” Further, Miniace maneuvered the union to hold “negotiations under government pressure.” Note that Miniace’s planning was begun long before President Bush took office.

“Miniace had been preparing [the PMA] for a lockout for years. He personally jawboned the top shipping lines and stevedoring firms…urging the companies to take short-term financial losses in return for lasting change on the docks.” In a way, Miniace had the wind at his back, for the shipping and stevedoring bosses were, they say, getting beat up by their competition and their heavy-duty customers. “The steamship business was undergoing a rapid transformation. U.S. companies were being swallowed by foreign-based multi-national shipowners. Port volumes were increasing, but a growing share of imports landing at U.S. docks belonged to mega-retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp., which were using their size and financial heft to exact lower shipping rates.”

From the start of the Miniace regime the ILWU leaders recognized that they were in for a fight. Miniace “came in as very confrontational. The idea was he’d be the tough guy on the block. He made public statements constantly bashing the union and he’d bypass arbitrations and try to take us to court. It was a new approach,” said Steve Stallone, an ILWU spokesperson. “ILWU officials regarded Miniace as the frontman for an ill-concealed attempt to break the union,” reported the LA Times.

Since Miniace’s motives were clearly understood early on, did the ILWU leadership prepare the ranks for the fight they surely knew was coming, if they resisted? Even if the union didn’t know Miniace’s specific tactics, could the leadership have put forward a qualitatively stronger opposition?

Questions About Union Leaders’ Strategy

It’s best that those questions be discussed now, rather than later. That’s because later on any criticisms, no matter how well founded, may be dismissed as Monday morning quarterbacking, and the necessary lessons not learned.

At this point it seems that the ILWU will not be able to claim a partial victory. That doesn’t mean that the PMA is going to get everything it wanted; there’s always other times and other contracts. But the PMA initiated the beef and is going to come out of it with more than it had before the contract talks began. Viewed statically, the PMA had the balance of forces in its favor. Certainly, the threat of military intervention was a heavy weight in the balance.

But if the relationship of forces is viewed dynamically, the ILWU may have been stronger than the final results will indicate. If the ILWU had framed the issues and mobilized the ranks along the lines that the UPS Teamsters did in 1997, when Ron Carey was leading them, it seems the ILWU ranks would have come out of this experience in better shape than now seems likely.

Despite several decades of retreat and defeat by unions large and small (including the Teamsters), despite the fact that the Teamsters had never called a nationwide UPS strike, despite not having the reputation for democratic militancy that the ILWU has, the Teamsters union made such an historic impact that the victorious 1997 strike is still fresh in the minds of workers, unionized or not, throughout the nation. The difference in the UPS Teamsters situation was the leadership that knew how to lead and when to fight. That was the dynamic difference that shifted the balance of forces in the Teamster ranks’ favor.

At this point, it seems that the ILWU leadership chose not to fight. It chose to lead the ranks to a settlement that will pension them off, reduce their numbers, and set the stage for another retreat when the new contract expires.

John L. Lewis Called It “Toadyism”

by Bob Mattingly

[Note by Labor Standard: The Bush administration with its “War on Terrorism” and plans for war on Iraq claims that the United States is in a state of war and will be for years to come, and that workers and the population in general must submit to “wartime” restrictions. How did workers fare during an actual world war, from 1941 to 1945? Did they just cooperate with the wartime demands of big business and the government? Here Bob Mattingly looks at the record, drawing mainly on Art Preis’s history of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), Labor’s Giant Step, an excellent source for labor history from the Depression era of the early 1930s to 1955, when the CIO merged with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to form the main body representing U.S. organized labor today, the AFL-CIO.]

In early 1942, a few months after the Pearl Harbor attack, the federal War Labor Board (WLB) was created to monitor labor in war industries. Then, less than a year after the WLB was established, its authority was extended to include most non-farm workers. The core aim of the WLB was to keep wage and other work disputes from disrupting the rapidly growing wartime economy. By war’s end, the WLB reported, it had handled nearly 18,000 disputes between companies and over 12 million workers. It also had received 415,000 applications for “wage adjustments” involving over 26 million workers. Of course, many wartime disputes and shop floor arguments about “wage adjustments” never made it all the way to the WLB.

Labor representation on the board was secured when top labor leaders agreed even before the WLB was put together that organized labor would give up its right to strike over all matters for the duration of the war.

Corporate representatives, however, made no similar concessions. In fact, cost-plus government contracts guaranteed corporate profits and often the profits were enormous. Corporate participation on the board was meant to curb “wage adjustments” and to weigh in on shop and factory disputes that weren’t locally settled. Of course, the tripartite setup of corporations, labor officials, and politicians made it possible for company bosses and union officials to tell unhappy workers to keep on working, as their problems would get a WLB hearing and union representatives on the board would be there to look out for their interests.

Shortly after the war’s start, the Depression-era unemployment rapidly declined, as wartime deficit spending and the draft accomplished what President Roosevelt’s New Deal policies failed to do. In time, millions of women and Blacks were offered jobs that previously were denied them, even during the so-called Roaring Twenties when the stock market was soaring. By the end of World War II, organized labor’s numerical strength exceeded the most optimistic hopes of the prewar union leaderships, but that was not because of new mass organizing drives.

In July 1942, the WLB allowed maintenance of membership clauses that provided that new employees need not join the union that negotiated their contract, but if they joined, the workers must maintain their membership and pay dues for the life of the contract. That was the labor representatives’ reward for their solely verbal objections to the board majority’s basic wage formula that would hold down or erode workers’ living standards during the war years as prices for food, rent, and most available consumer goods soared.

As early as April 1943, CIO head Phillip Murray, charged “living costs, particularly in foodstuffs, had increased approximately 38 per cent for the average worker.” In July, AFL President Green said that “food prices alone have gone up from 50 to 400 per cent.” Nine months later, AFL Vice President George Meany said that someone would have to be “simple-minded…to believe that price control as it now functions can be relied upon by American workers…” Inflation was so high, wrote labor reporter Art Preis in his classic history Labor’s Giant Step,” that “[t]he wage increases won by the [postwar] strikes in 1945 and 1946 did not compensate even for the wartime price increases.”

In the summer of 1942, top autoworker union officials went to Washington and urged that all union workers be denied overtime pay for Saturdays and Sundays, not just those in war industries, as proposed by Roosevelt; the Roosevelt administration readily agreed, imposing the wider wage cut.

Despite the WLB machinations, the unions’ no-strike pledge, and government threats to draft recalcitrant workers, the struggle by workers during the war to defend themselves from their bosses, their union officials, and the government could not be suppressed totally. Strike statistics for 1942 record that “there were no fewer than 2,968 strikes that year, involving 840,000 workers.” Preis found that the “number of strikes surpassed that of any year back to 1919, except the record-breaking years of 1937 and 1941.”

Although most strikes were broken, those strike struggles, social pressures by Blacks and women, and the inevitable demands of the wartime economy did result in some victories for workers. In mid-1943, the WLB ruled that women employed to replace men on jobs that had not changed were entitled to equal pay with men. However, the ruling included loopholes that gave bosses many exceptions. The next day, the board also abolished the classifications of “colored laborer” and “white laborer,” mandating the same rates of pay for workers in the same job classification, regardless of race.

It’s a clear measure of the racist grip on industry and government that such “categories” still existed more than a year after A. Phillip Randolph’s threatened 1941 March on Washington to protest discrimination.

The threat of mass action by Blacks compelled Roosevelt to formally ban segregation in the war plants and establish the Fair Employment Practices Commission. The fact that the WLB finally recognized obvious and serious employment inequities suggests that women and Blacks were finding ways in the labor-short economy to make their opposition to raw discrimination felt at the highest levels.

Miners Walked Out in the Middle of War

One notable wartime strike couldn’t be broken, and that was the miners’ strike of 1943, which defied threats of mass jailing and retribution by President Roosevelt as well as opposition to the miners by the leaders of both the AFL and the CIO. To Roosevelt’s threats of a military takeover of the mines, the 540,000 miners replied that coal couldn’t be mined with bayonets.

Of the craven AFL and CIO tops, the miner’s leader, John L. Lewis said, “It is beside the point that other labor organizations, such as the AFL and the CIO, through their leaders, have adopted a policy of cringing toadyism to the [Roosevelt] administration coupled with a blind worship of the astoundingly unsound economic policies of the administration. The United Mine Workers and its membership will continue to make the fight.”

The miners did fight and did win wage concessions. Preis concluded that “the miners’ victory opened a whole new wave of labor struggle, mounting steadily through 1943, 1944, and 1945, reaching a titanic climax in the winter of 1945–46.”

Shortly, after taking office, AFL-CIO president John J. Sweeney extolled the virtues of labor-management collaboration. In a meeting with an audience of the corporate elite Sweeney said that he wanted to “build bridges” to big business. Perhaps the corporate world didn’t understand his meaning. So almost a year to the day, he again addressed business leaders and told them, “It is time for business and labor to see each other as natural allies, not natural enemies” (New York Times, Oct. 27, 1996). But his attempts at class collaboration haven’t been any more successful in protecting the working and living standards of U.S. workers than was the World War II “toadyism” of the AFL and CIO officialdom.


92% of Members Boycott Vote — Hoffa Says It’s Lemonade

When a contract that covers 1,300 workers is ratified by a 67–33 vote, with 1,200 other Southwest mechanics in Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Chicago, Baltimore, and other cities not voting, something’s not right, right? Well, that’s not the way the numbers look to Teamsters President James P. Hoffa.

He thinks everything is hunky-dory. Hoffa said, in a prepared statement, “Teamster airline mechanics deserve the best contracts in this business. With this contract ratified, the members proved that the most powerful union in the country can get those contracts for them.” What Hoffa didn’t say was that the mechanics boycotted the election in a move that seems to signal how strong is their determination to quit the Teamsters and sign up with some other union.

Thousands Gather for U.S.-Wide Wal-Mart Protests

On Thursday, Nov. 21, the United Food and Commercial Workers, led a nationwide protest against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. demanding that the world’s biggest retailer provide better pay and health benefits and clear the way for unions to organize its nearly 1 million U.S. workers. Around the country, protesters carrying placards gathered in Wal-Mart’s massive parking lots, while others clad in union-logo attire went into stores to deliver a list of demands to managers, organizers said. Wal-Mart, which operates more than 3,200 stores in the United States, recorded more than $200 billion in sales last year.

—Adapted from Reuters, Nov. 21

House to Jobless: “Scrooge You”

About 830,000 jobless workers will lose their unemployment benefits Dec. 28, after House Republican leaders refused to pass a bipartisan Senate bill before adjourning for the year. The bill would have extended unemployment benefits an additional 13 weeks. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an additional 95,000 jobless workers will lose their benefits each week following Dec. 28. “Cutting off jobless workers when there are resources to help them and when the economic crisis is deepening is an unpardonable and cynical act,” said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

—Work in Progress, Nov. 25, 2002