West Coast Dockworkers Strike ‘Over Iraq’: Labor Rises to Challenge Power

May 2nd, 2008 - by admin

Agence France-Press & Los Angeles Times & John V. Burke – 2008-05-02 15:20:07


• Link: http://maydayilwu.googlepages.com/

US West Coast Dockworkers in 1-day Strike ‘Over Iraq’
Agence France-Press

LOS ANGELES (May 1, 2008) — Around 25,000 workers at 29 ports along the western US coastline went on strike on Thursday to demand an end to the war in Iraq, union officials said.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union said in a statement on its website that longshore workers across the region had downed tools in what it described as a one-day show of support for US troops.

“We’re supporting the troops and telling politicians in Washington that it’s time to end the war in Iraq,” union president Bob McEllrath said.

Officials at the Port of Long Beach and Los Angeles, two of the biggest cargo terminals, said work had ground to a standstill.

“It amounts to a ‘blue flu’ or a ‘May Day flu,’ where longshore workers are calling in sick,” spokesman Arley Baker said.

The walkout comes two months before the expiration of an existing six-year labor agreement between the dockworkers and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents port operators and shippers.

Although the ILWU said the strike was a protest against the war in Iraq, the industrial action has been viewed by analysts as a show of strength amid ongoing contract negotiations.

Pacific Maritime Association spokesman Steve Getzug told AFP the strike was being viewed as a leveraging tactic.

“It does seem likely to us that this is connected to the ongoing contract negotiations,” Getzug said.

However, longshore spokesman Craig Merrilees rejected suggestions that the walkout was related to contract talks.

“Absolutely not,” he said, adding that the PMA had a “seriously distorted misappraisal of what happened today.”

“The bargaining process has been moving in a positive direction precisely because both sides are committed to reaching an agreement by July 1st, and that commitment remains,” Merrilees said.

Union leaders said the group had decided in January to call a day of strike action on May 1. PMA officials said the strike — in effect from 8 am to 5 pm — had a minimal economic effect on the operation of ports in the region.

“It’s not likely to bring the US economy to its knees,” Getzug said. “But it does come at a time when people are relying on US west coast ports operating smoothly. These kinds of stoppages aren’t helpful.”

Dockworkers Take May Day Off to Protest War,
Idling all West Coast Ports

Louis Sahagun and Ronald D. White / Los Angeles Times

(May 2, 2008) — Thousands of dockworkers at 29 West Coast ports took the day off Thursday, effectively shutting down operations at the busy complexes in what the union called a protest of the war in Iraq but employers worried might be a prelude to labor unrest.

The stand-down at ports including Los Angeles and Long Beach — which combined handle 40% of the imported goods arriving in the United States each year — idled ships and cranes, stranded thousands of big rigs and halted movement of about 10,000 containers during the eight-hour day shift.

The show of force by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which ended as workers reported for the Thursday night shift at Southern California’s twin ports, came two months before its contract expires with the Pacific Maritime Assn., a group of cargo carriers, terminal operators and stevedore companies.

The action also, as one labor historian put it, added significant support for May Day, which has become the preeminent working-class and protest event of the year. The union may have taken a calculated risk that allowing its members to participate was worth potentially aggravating employers in the middle of contract negotiations.

“This union looks at itself as the vanguard of the working class on the West Coast, and I think there was a sense that they needed to participate in this event,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a UC Santa Barbara history professor and director of the school’s Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy.

At the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on Thursday morning, however, there were no antiwar activities — no protesters, no signs with antiwar sentiments and no indication of any large-scale opposition by dockworkers to U.S. policy in Iraq. The issue was discussed, union leaders said, during a private meeting of rank-and-file members at the ILWU Local 13 headquarters in Wilmington.

“We are supporting the troops and telling politicians in Washington that it’s time to end the war in Iraq,” union President Bob McEllrath said in a news release.

The union’s 25,000 members decided in early January to stand down on May 1. Their day off came despite an arbitrator’s order on Wednesday that they report to work. That order followed a Pacific Maritime Assn. complaint about the planned action, which it said violated contract obligations.

“Is this a voluntary war protest or a strike aimed at leveraging labor negotiation? We’re not sure,” said Steve Getzug, spokesman for the association. “We’re concerned. We thought these kinds of old tricks were a thing of the past.”

During the last negotiations in 2002, employers accused the union of a work slowdown and locked out the union at West Coast ports for 10 days, causing a retail business crisis that was interrupted when President Bush invoked the Taft-Hartley Act. At the time, economists estimated that the labor dispute cost the economy $1 billion to $2 billion a day.

“The arbitrator is the ‘supreme court’ of the waterfront and what he says has resonance,” Getzug said. “And he said twice to the union that it had a duty to inform its membership to report to the docks today. The evidence is clear they defied that order.”

The nation’s largest retail group said it wasn’t surprised by what happened Thursday because longshoremen are routinely involved in some sort of job action on May Day.

“This is something that happens every year [and] shippers and retailers know about it,” said Craig Sherman, the National Retail Federation’s vice president of government relations. “It’s going to have no impact at all in terms of merchandise on store shelves.”

Nor was Sherman concerned about the implications for contract negotiations, which he said began earlier this year and are “going pretty smoothly.”

The loss of one work shift — even the busiest one of the day — was going to have a very limited effect on the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Los Angeles and Long Beach are not only the nation’s busiest container ports, they are also by far the most efficient in the U.S., although they do not move cargo as rapidly as the fastest Asian or European ports.

“It will cost us extra money. We’ll have to run an extra shift to catch up, but this will not slow the ports down much and it won’t impact our customers at all,” said Mike Zampa, a spokesman for APL, a subsidiary of one of the world’s biggest ocean shipping conglomerates, Singapore-based Neptune Orient Lines.

Perhaps hardest hit by the job action were the local ports’ 16,800 independent truck operators, many of whom were greeted at terminal gates by guards with a blunt message: “We’re closed. Turn around.”

Among them was Guillermo Castillo, 35, of Calexico, who decided to wait it out near the TraPac Terminal in the Port of Los Angeles. Resting his head on a towel matted against his cab door, Castillo complained: “I heard nothing about this. I’m losing a whole day of work, and about $580.”

A mile to the east at the Port of Long Beach, Nelson Hernandez, 25, of Bellflower was among half a dozen short-haulers killing time at a lunch wagon parked outside a terminal gate. Shaking his head in dismay, he said, “No work anyplace around here. Losing $400, at least. I’m going home.”

A few feet away, lunch wagon cashier Pin Lim mused, “The silence around here today is really weird.”

Times staff writer Leslie Earnest contributed to this report.

Copyright 2008 Los Angeles Times

Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.

A Political History of May Day
John V. Burke

(April 30, 2008) — I well remember how indignant a lot of antiwar people were at US organized labor’s late, feeble, and sometimes dead wrong positions during the Vietnam War. Much of the then AFL-CIO leadership supported the war (though this support grew less vocal as the war dragged on under a Republican administration); so did a lot of union members, notably the building trades “hard hats” who waded into an antiwar rally in Manhattan in 1969.

There were exceptions, including the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) on the West Coast and, eventually, the United Auto Workers and a number of public employee unions; there was a labor coalition against the war, which formed a contingent at rallies, bought ads in the print media, and lent support to antiwar candidates.

What there wasn’t, though, was any use of labor’s economic strength — the strike weapon — to express opposition to the war, and that baffled and irritated some antiwar activists, especially those who didn’t know much about labor law or labor history. (I know this doesn’t apply to a lot of the recipients of this message; feel free to skip ahead if this is familiar material.)

In particular, students from middle-class families weren’t aware that under the Taft-Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act, the use of the strike weapon for any purpose except in disputes about collective bargaining agreements is explicitly prohibited.

They also may not have grasped the context of Taft-Hartley, which — though labor opposed it and Truman vetoed it, only to be overridden by a Republican-majority Congress — set in stone the main outlines of the postwar, Cold War-era “social compact:” labor would save job action for “pork chop” issues, confine its political action to endorsing candidates, impose a “loyalty” test on union leaders (which led to the expulsion of the Left-led unions from the CIO in 1949) and become a partner in the worldwide struggle against Communism.

In return, major corporate employers would recognize unions and accept contracts that included regular productivity and cost-of-living increases; there were occasional disruptions in this cozy arrangement, but strike activity fell sharply from the big upsurge in 1946-47 and stayed low until the “stagflation” and mass layoffs that began in the mid-70’s.

So job action against the Vietnam War would have been not only a challenge to the law but a sharp break with the postwar social compact, at a time when that compact’s real meaning was thrown into sharp focus: labor was called on to support a Third World military intervention against a Communist-led liberation movement, at a moment when that intervention was producing a flush of prosperity and job growth. (Harry Bridges of the ILWU, when he launched a campaign to recruit new members from high-unemployment communities in response to the growth of war-related Pacific shipping, admitted ruefully that it was blood money.)

But the social compact started falling apart in the 1970’s — the war turned out to be a large part of the reason, though I’ve promised myself not to use the word “dialectical” in this brief survey — and Reagan shredded it after 1980. The Cold War is over, the steady-growth postwar economy is over, union density as a percentage of the workforce is down from 35% to 13% (and less in the once-powerful industrial sector), anti-labor policies have been entrenched at the NLRB for many years, and neither the Carter nor Clinton administrations achieved labor’s goal of legislative reform. (How hard did they try? Good question.)

In short, the deal that undergirded labor’s qualified support for the Vietnam War has fallen apart.

The postwar social compact was a tradeoff; the other side went back on the bargain. It’s time for labor to begin reclaiming its full range of tactical options in support of a robust participation in political life, on an agenda of labor’s choosing without the artificial constraints imposed by Taft-Hartley.

This will be, inevitably, a gradual process, and it may get ugly; I don’t think there are any US Attorneys dumb enough to try to indict the ILWU leadership, but I may be being too generous. (It’s a grave failing of mine.)

In any case, the first big crack in the ice is the ILWU’s planned coastwide work stoppage which will also coincide with and support an immigrants’ rights rally (and it certainly is refreshing that the immigrants’ movement has reclaimed May Day as a day of workers’ action; sure, the sectarian Lefties will try to hop aboard the bandwagon, but who cares?)

I’ll be marching tomorrow, with my United Transportation Union button on, prouder of the labor movement, my movement, than I’ve ever had a chance to feel in my life. Hope to see you there.