West Coast ports are badly congested. Ships are backed up, unable to find a berth to unload their cargo. Longshore contract negotiations are deadlocked between the shipowners and terminal operators of the Pacific Maritime Association and dockworkers represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. With big retailers and agribusiness screaming, President Obama has sent in Labor Secretary Tom Perez.
The PMA’s tough negotiating ploy has intentionally created a port crisis. The PMA, echoed by the business press, claims greedy workers engaging in work slowdowns are to blame. Yet the employers, after dragging out negotiations for nine months, have closed ports this past holiday weekend. They previously had ended night work to stop paying overtime and shift premiums, thus employers have slashed available work time in one week by 75 percent. In 2002, when PMA locked out longshore workers and shut down West Coast ports, the media conflated it with a workers’ strike. Is this a bad media rerun?
What’s really brewing here is an assault on one of the last bastions of union power left in the United States, the ILWU. In the last five years, the ILWU has faced union-busting attacks by mining titan Rio Tinto and the ABCD grain monopolies (Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge Limited, Cargill Inc. and Louis Dreyfus Commodities), which control 90 percent of the world’s grain distribution. In both cases, the union conceded key contract provisions, and now maritime monopolies are smelling blood.
Two of the biggest global port employers, Ports America Inc. and Stevedoring Services of America were until recently owned in large part by the insurance monolith AIG and Goldman Sachs, respectively. This is “Wall Street on the waterfront,” and they’re out to gut the power of the ILWU, the union hiring hall, and curtail union action by using arbitrators.
Yet when longshore workers stop work, it’s often because of safety issues in a dangerous industry whose rate of work-related fatalities exceeds that of firefighters.
When Bay Area longshore workers shut down ports to protest Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s union-busting activities, that state’s AFL-CIO called the ILWU “the moral compass of the labor movement.” And when Oakland police nearly killed Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen during an Occupy movement protest, 30,000 outraged demonstrators marched into the port, closing it in protest and in solidarity with longshore workers battling the nonunion Export Grain Terminal in Longview, Wash. Shades of the 1934 San Francisco General Strike frightened West Coast port employers.
ILWU longshore jobs pay decent wages and benefits, but far less than employers claim. If a rising tide can lift all boats, then these jobs and benefits will continue to set standards for other workers. But, if Wall Street on the waterfront breaks the ILWU, wages and living standards will be driven down for all.
Don’t forget the lesson of PATCO, the air traffic controllers union destroyed by Ronald Reagan, while other unions sat idly by. The consequences devastated the entire labor movement. And, in 2012, President Obama sent Coast Guard vessels against the ILWU protesting a scab ship at the Export Grain Terminal. Longshore workers need to use their power to stop concessionary contracts, and all working people should have their back.
Jack Heyman, a retired ILWU member, has worked in the San Francisco Bay Area as a longshoreman and boatman for over 30 years. He chairs the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee. (www.transportworkers.org)