What's At Stake Is ILWU's Commitment To Labor Solidarity

What's At Stake Is ILWU's Commitment To Labor Solidarity
The Journal of Commerce has consistently represented the shipowners' and stevedoring companies' viewpoint - against the maritime unions. This time, in your editorial ''A Winning Approach'' (May 15, Page 7), the old company themes of ''responsibility'' and ''productivity'' have been given an air of bipartisanship by cajoling a couple of newly elected union officials from Los Angeles into joining your chorus.

Apparently, the JOC is pushing the bogus argument that if longshore workers in Los Angeles/Long Beach, the nation's largest port complex, reject ''wildcat strikes over social-justice issues,'' then they will be rewarded with increased growth.Hogwash! There is no quid pro quo in this false equation. Los Angeles has continued to grow and probably will continue to grow because of its immense market; its geographic proximity to Asian ports; its rail and fast road links; and its vast waterfront and nearby acreage for container facilities.

However, what is instructive here is the JOC's aggressive anti-International Longshore and Warehouse Union stance in prodding employers to exploit ''this new attitude'' and then challenging these ILWU locals that ''changing more than 60 years of adversarial tension will not be easy.''

The new ''PMA-cooperative'' Los Angeles leadership is praised while Oakland longshore workers are crucified for daring to take action to achieve working conditions already practiced in other West Coast ports. This is nothing less than a fight for the heart and soul of the ILWU.

The ILWU's rich and proud 66-year history, going back to the 1934 West Coast maritime strike, is one of using its power to forge a unity of maritime unions in the struggle against the shipowners.

The ILWU's power has been used to demonstrate international labor solidarity not only with oppressed workers under the gun of the military dictatorships in Chile and El Salvador and apartheid South Africa, but also with the Farmworkers Union in California and more recently with the Liverpool, England, dockworkers, World Trade Organization protesters in Seattle and black death-row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Perhaps one of the more controversial stands was last year's coast shutdown for Jamal, a political prisoner framed for his scathing exposes of Philadelphia police brutality, corruption and racism. It was, after all, the police murder of six workers in the 1934 strike that outraged the public and galvanized support behind the striking workers and led to their victory. Yet police brutality, corruption and racism exist today in Los Angeles, as is evident in the Ramparts police station scandal.

Trade unions have a right and a moral responsibility to express themselves on the critical issues of our times. To remain silent would be criminally complicit, which is why the Bill of Rights must not be surrendered at the container terminal gate.

The ILWU's principled record, for the most part, stands out because those who built the union had a working-class perspective which recognized that racism, police brutality, war and unemployment do affect the ability of labor to organize. Had labor unions used their power to stop the U.S. imperialist war in Vietnam, millions of lives would have been saved.

The big-business-controlled U.S. government recognizes the power of the labor movement. That's why laws like Taft-Hartley have been imposed which shackle a trade union's right to organize by banning communists from holding union office and outlawing sympathy strikes. Fortunately, the ILWU was able to beat the anti-communist restriction at the Supreme Court and circumvent the ban on solidarity actions.

The shameless hypocrisy of the press, when it comes to labor actions, stands exposed for all to see.

When the struggle of the reactionary Polish trade union Solidarnosc moved from strictly economic demands to the more overtly political general strike to topple the Stalinist government, the U.S. press heaped accolades on that union.

But when the ILWU and other unions want to protest the exploitative, capitalist policies of the WTO, the news media, including the JOC, seem to be saying, ''Not in my back container yard!''

What is at stake here is the ILWU's historic commitment to labor solidarity encapsulated in the 100-year-old syndicalist slogan, ''An injury to one is an injury to all.'' This slogan was born out of a struggle against the narrow-minded, elitist craft or business unionism, what might be called ''yuppie unionism'' today.

These labor aristocrats listened to the bosses' appeals to the ''spirit of cooperation'' and echoed it to the workers, disarming them. Craft unions lost out because they couldn't defend workers against the inevitable employer attacks in a changing industrial world. Industrial unions like the ILWU survived because they were better able to organize a broader working-class unity.

Similarly, the rank and file longshore workers in Los Angeles will stick to the ILWU's tried and true principles as they did so valiantly in the solidarity action in support of the Australian wharfies. It's simply a question of survival in today's increasingly globalized economy.

Finally, because of its militant history, the ILWU has often attracted college-educated youth, some of whom have graduated Stanford and Cal. However, unlike the LA officials mentioned in your editorial, working-class modesty didn't necessitate them parading around their college credentials.


Oakland, Calif.

A Winning Approach In ILWU LA Officials
A Winning Approach

Journal Of Commerce
15 May 2000

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union locals in Los Angeles-Long Beach elected new officers recently, and importers and exporters should take note of what they intend to do.

The officers of Local 13, the general longshore division, and Local 63, the marine clerks’ division, after only a month on the job, offered waterfront employers an innovative plan to reduce port congestion during the upcoming peak shipping season.

The new officers want their locals to play an important role in improving productivity at the nation’s largest port complex. They also intend to put an end to the practice of calling wildcat strikes over social-justice issues that have nothing to do with working conditions at West Coast ports. Employers should take note of this new attitude and should attempt to form a closer working relationship with these ILWU locals.

Changing more than 60 years of adversarial tension will not be easy. There will be bumps in the long road ahead. And this initiative covers only Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Indeed, while the ILWU leadership in Southern California was developing a policy of cooperation, ILWU crane operators in Oakland, 400 miles to the north, were engaging in slowdowns. They were trying to force employers to grant them the same type of costly side deals that crane operators in Los Angeles-Long Beach and Seattle have with their local employers.

Nevertheless, the ILWU is a coastwide labor organization that grants a significant amount of autonomy to its locals. If the new officers of Locals 13 and 63 have a plan to improve productivity and reduce congestion in Southern California, employers should take a close look at it. Dockworkers see first-hand each day what causes congestion at marine terminals. Their views on how to reduce congestion and improve productivity can be valuable.

The ILWU plan addresses one of the main problems faced by busy marine terminals – container dwell time. Imported containers often sit for days at the terminals before they are trucked to local warehouses. Export loads and empties likewise spend too much time on the terminals.

Dwell time reduces productivity because longshoremen must sift through piles of containers to pull out the boxes that are ready to move to their destination.

The ILWU leadership is proposing to work with waterfront employers, the ports and the cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach to locate off-dock sites that can be used to store containers until they are ready. The sites would be secured, and kept open 24 hours a day. This would allow the containers to be trucked during off-hours, when freeways are not congested.

To be sure, there’s something in the proposal for the dockworkers’ union, too. Something that’s important to any union: jobs. ILWU drivers would be used to truck the containers to and from the off-dock sites.

But here, too, much thought has gone into the plan. Terminals would be expected to set up special expedited gates so ILWU drivers could get four or five turns a day, thus justifying the high pay they would receive compared to the owner-operators who do most of the harbor hauling today.

While this plan would require cooperation between employers and the ILWU locals, the new leadership is also proposing to take unilateral action in another important area, the practice of calling work stoppages to press for social justice around the world.

The ILWU shut down West Coast ports at the end of November in solidarity with demonstrators at the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle. In the past, its members have boycotted shipments from South Africa to protest apartheid, and grapes from California to express solidarity with the United Farm Workers. The list goes on and on.

The leaders of Locals 13 and 63 have not lost their social conscience, nor do they intend to turn their backs on the principles upon which the ILWU was founded. However, the officers, many of whom are college-educated, are aware of the important role Los Angeles-Long Beach plays in moving about one-third of the nation’s containerized imports and exports in a just-in-time environment.

The local economies in the Northeast, South and Midwest depend upon this busy port complex just as much as the Western states do. “Commerce has changed. We have a responsibility to that cargo,” said Local 13 President Mike Mitre.

The leaders are sending a clear message to importers and exporters throughout the Pacific Rim that port productivity is a top priority to them. They are also rightly telling the members of their locals that improved productivity is critical to them, too. It means more cargo, and more cargo means more work.

This is the kind of approach that can lead to success for shippers, carriers and waterfront labor alike. Everyone can win.