Will ILWU Keep Its Jobs?

by Charles Walker


[This article is from the web site “Labor Tuesday” for January 15, 2002. This version has been edited for Labor Standard.]

Longshore and port workers on the nation’s coasts are at the beginning of a “historic” period, but only some of the history-in-the-making may be to their liking. While there’s new hope that as many as 50,000 port truckers at long last may be organized by the Teamsters union, escaping a hardscrabble, insecure work-life; there are renewed fears that port “modernization” will once again claim more good, paying longshore jobs, as happened under the “historic” mechanization agreement the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) forged with shipping bosses in 1961.

In December the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), the International Longshore Association (ILA), and the ILWU announced a mutual jurisdiction pact “in the face of continuing onslaughts from the employers and for the right of the most exploited workers on the waterfront — the port drivers — to organize to secure their future,” wrote James Spinosa, ILWU president, in the November 2001 issue of the ILWU newspaper The Dispatcher. “[W] e have committed to mutual solidarity to make sure our ports are union operations…The three unions will establish a Jurisdictional Resolution Committee to resolve any disputes that may arise.”

Organizing Port Drivers

Labor commentator Harry Kelber points out that port drivers, who are often classified as “independent contractors” and are thereby denied even the restricted rights allowed workers and unions under labor law, “average $7 to $8 an hour, without health care or pension benefits. They work under hazardous conditions, but dare not complain because they fear being fired and blacklisted. They are required to perform health-threatening tasks, such as cleaning toxic materials from containers, typically without proper safety equipment and often without pay.”

“Port drivers are routinely instructed to drive overweight loads onto public roads,” said George Cashman, director of the Teamsters Port Division. “They see shipping lines cut corners by using the same trailers to haul food and toxic chemicals, often without fumigation. Drivers who dare to blow the whistle on such practices find themselves unemployed.”

While there’s no doubt that the port drivers urgently need unionization, there are doubts that the Teamsters leadership can do the job. And union leadership, more than tough bosses and unfair laws, may determine the outcome of the IBT’s waterfront organizing efforts. In part, the fears about the leadership stem from the Teamsters inability to successfully organize Overnite, one of the nation’s larger trucking firms.

Shortly after IBT President James P. Hoffa took office in 1999, he converted the ongoing organizing drive at Overnite into a high-profile strike. At the time it was thought that Hoffa partly intended the Overnite strike as an answer to skeptics’ reservations about a union being headed by someone who had never held an elected union post.  Hoffa’s strike strategy seemed designed to get contracts at Overnite locations that had voted for the Teamsters, and then use those contracts to attract other Overnite truckers. To date, the union has failed to get a single contract, let alone enough contracts to inspire a rush by Overnite workers to join up. While the union still maintains a nominal strike against Overnite, hardly anyone gives the strike a chance of success. Moreover, the organizing momentum at Overnite that the Ron Carey administration attained has been lost.

Of course, the union leaders and staff may have learned some lessons from the Overnite misfortune that will help them out at the ports. But clearly, port drivers would have better reason to greet the New Year if Hoffa’s leadership had turned the trick at Overnite. Hopefully, the aid and support of the longshore unions will tip the scales in the port drivers’ favor.

ILWU Negotiations and Jobs

But will the three unions’ alliance give the ILWU workers enough clout to get a new contract without losing more jobs? When their current contract ends in July, the longshore workers may face the choice of fighting on picket lines to save waterfront jobs for the next generation of workers or resigning themselves to seeing their diminished numbers shrink again. The answer the ILWU dockers give is also likely to impact ILA East Coast and Gulf Coast longshore workers, which like the ILWU workers are fewer in number after corporate mechanization.

The corporate bosses say the docks need still more labor-saving technology. They say that the Pacific ports are running out of room, and without technology to increase waterfront capacity, they say, business will be lost to Mexico and Canada.

The bosses’ agenda for a new contract was laid out in the Washington Post on January 5 by their labor reporter, Frank Swoboda. “The shippers’ association wants the ILWU to agree to computerize and modernize its operations to allow a quicker turnaround of cargoes…PMA [Pacific Maritime Association., the main bosses’ group] officials say all job reductions would be made through attrition and that no one would face a wage cut.” Swododa adds: “In Hong Kong, the use of computer technology means the docks can handle an average of 15,000 cargo containers per acre because they can move cargo so quickly. That compares with the West Coast’s average of 3,000 cargo containers.”

Swoboda says that “ILWU president James Spinosa declined to talk about the upcoming negotiations.” But an unidentified ILWU official is quoted as saying that the bosses’ pleas for more technology are “an attempt to bust the union.”

Spinosa may just be keeping his cards close to his vest when he rightly refuses to talk to reporters about the upcoming contract talks. In any event, there is no sign that he’s initiated a campaign to prepare the ILWU ranks to buy into the bosses’ scheme for more technology and fewer jobs.

The Bridges Legacy

Unlike Spinosa, Harry Bridges campaigned long and hard to get the union’s ranks to accept increased technology on the job and then approve the “historic” 1961–66 Mechanization and Modernization Agreement. The tactics and methods used by Bridges to get the dockworkers’ support for the agreement are recounted in “Harry Bridges, The Rise and Fall of Radical Labor in the U.S.” by Charles P. Larrowe.

As early as the 1950s the bosses had told Bridges that cost pressures were going to mount to the point “where we were going to have a showdown battle.” “Early in 1957…Bridges began talking at a coastwide meeting about the desirability of an about-face on mechanization.” A later union report asked, “Do we want to stick with our present policy of guerrilla resistance to the machine or do we want to adopt a more flexible policy in order to buy specific benefits in return?” After three years the union and PMA negotiators had a tentative agreement ready for a vote. It passed, 6,832 to 3,695. Wages, pensions and benefits were raised, and moreover, a “longshoreman now had a guaranteed wage for the life of the contract.”

Larrowe comments: “If the workers benefited handsomely, the employers came off even better. They were able to reassert their authority by getting rid of unneeded workers on the job, they could load a cargo sling to capacity rather than having to stop at the 2100-pound limit the union had held them to since 1937, and they could put in labor-saving machines. When the contract’s five-and-a-half-years were up, they had paid $29 million …and they had saved $200 million.”

“Longshoremen’s pay adds up to slightly more than 1 percent of the cargo value they handle — costs that are ‘negligible,’ a top PMA official” told the Post’s Swoboda. Still, the waterfront bosses want to eliminate even more union jobs, blaming competition. Like in 1961, they’ll buy the jobs — if like in 1961, the price is right! Or put more precisely, if the next generation is left to pay the price. The unionization drives of the 1930s raised the living standards and the job security of the following generation. What will this generation of unionists leave to the next generation of workers? More specifically, how many union jobs will today’s dockworkers hand down to the next generation’s job seekers? That’s what the dock bosses are looking to find out in this year’s “historic” negotiations.