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West Coast dockworkers
resist employers’ lockout
‘We will not be intimidated,’ say longshore union pickets
Across the West Coast, dockworkers picketed port entrances to protest shipping bosses’ lockout. Top, unionists in Oakland, California; bottom, in Los Angeles.
BY FRANK FORRESTAL
WILMINGTON, California--In face of an industry lockout, thousands of dock-workers from San Diego to Seattle are picketing port entrances to protest the latest move by the bosses’ organization, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), to pressure the union into accepting a contract. The unionists are fighting the PMA’s drive to cut jobs and undermine safety. Five dockworkers have been killed on the job so far this year.
Following the PMA’s lockout announcement September 29, hundreds of longshore workers rallied at the dispatch center here. Reflecting the sentiment of the assembled workers, the president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), James Spinosa, told the crowd, "The union will not be intimidated by the lock-out. We will not extend the contract."
The conflict has been escalating for weeks. On October 1, PMA officials brought two armed guards to a negotiations meeting in Oakland with union representatives and Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service director Peter Hurtgen. In response, the ILWU officials walked out. Spinosa asked, "If it was government policy to allow employers to bring weapons to mediation talks."
Over Labor Day weekend the union stopped approving rolling extensions of the contract, which expired July 1. The PMA is demanding that the union continue to extend the agreement until a settlement is reached.
A feeling of determined resistance marked the mood of workers on the picket lines. At each location this reporter visited, passing cars and trucks honked in solidarity.
Claiming the ILWU had organized work slowdowns, the bosses’ organization asserted, it would cost more to run the ports at "diminished productivity" than it would to shut them down. "Work slowdowns are how this union strikes, and they want to be paid for it," said Joseph Miniace, president of the PMA. The labor fight is taking place during the busiest time of the year on the waterfront.
In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the Bush administration was "monitoring" the situation "closely." In recent weeks the federal government has weighed in on the side of the bosses by threatening to invoke strikebreaking Taft-Hartley legislation, militarize the ports by using the Navy, end coast-wide bargaining, and impose other legislation to attempt to break the strike.
The employer class is using the threat of direct government strikebreaking to step up the pressure on the labor movement. Robin Lanier of the West Coast Waterfront Coalition (WCWC), an employer group that includes large retailers like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Target, said that if there is not a settlement soon, the Bush administration should do "whatever it needs to reopen the ports, and that means invoking Taft-Hartley." Talks with federal mediators were scheduled to take place as the Militant went to press.
The lockout announced September 27 was dubbed a "cooling-off" period by the PMA. When workers reported back to work the morning of September 29, they were told the shipping companies were locking them out again. Miniace called the decision a "defensive shutdown."
The 10,500 dockworkers have been without a contract since July 1. The 29 ports along the West Coast handle about half of the oceangoing cargo in the country, estimated at more than $300 billion a year.
Union resists job cuts
The introduction of new technology--scanners and sensors--is at the center of the confrontation. The union has agreed to give up some control over information documentation inside the port, which would result in job cuts. At the same time, the union wants to maintain coverage over some clerical jobs that have been outsourced to companies in Utah and Arizona, and to set minimum staffing levels for clerks. The PMA has rejected the union’s proposal.
Another major issue in the labor fight is job safety. "They don’t care about safety. They don’t care about our accident record being the worst in 10 years. All they care about is profits," said one dockworker. There have been three fatalities alone at the Port of Long Beach this year.
"Look at the guy who got killed earlier this month," said an ILWU member, referring to the September 3 death of a 25-year veteran who was crushed by a 90,000 pound "top handler," a vehicle similar to a giant forklift. This worker was killed at the Stevedoring Services of America (SSA) facility. Longshoremen point out that the companies are taking short cuts on training. The number of workers who are not adequately trained has grown throughout the industry.
In response to a series of industrial accidents, including the September 3 fatality, the ILWU is demanding that "SSA comply with an arbitration decision issued by the West Coast Arbitrator mandating that only industry-trained and fully registered workers operate massive ‘top handler’ machinery, which has been the source of recent deaths and injuries on the waterfront."
With growing concern over speedup-related safety incidents, many workers have refused to work overtime or work two shifts in a row. Union members are also wary of accepting company speedups when they are working without a contract.
Retailers, manufacturers nervous
Large retailers have expressed nervousness over the labor dispute, even though many of them prepared ahead of time by ordering extra inventory. "It’s one thing if those two sides want to play brinkmanship," said Lanier of the West Coast Waterfront Coalition. "But it’s another thing if they jump off the cliff, because they take us with them."
Auto plants and other manufacturers will be hit within a matter of days, since many depend on a just-in-time parts delivery system.
He said, "Everybody’s terrified of what this does to the stock market tomorrow." Employer groups claim that a five-day shutdown "would cost the national economy an estimated $4.7 billion in lost wages and other costs."
The conflict could also have repercussions on businesses in Asia and Latin America that export to the United States.
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