Dock workers’ union suspends
threat of strike, talks continue
Bosses agree to shelve some concession demands
AP photo/Steve Senne
Loading container at Port of Boston, Dec. 18. “Container royalties,” an aspect of workers’ pay, is among past gains of longshore union targeted by shipping bosses on East and Gulf coasts.
BY NAOMI CRAINE
AND TOM BAUMANN
MIAMI—The International Longshoremen’s Association agreed to a one-month contract extension Dec. 28, on the eve of a strike deadline that could have shut down 14 ports from Maine to Texas. ILA President Harold Daggett said the union had reached agreement with the shipping bosses on one of the key issues in the negotiations.
The master contract, covering 14,500 longshore workers on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, expired Sept. 30. Work, and negotiations with the participation of a federal mediator, had continued under a previous 90-day extension.
One of the central disputes has been over the demand of the bosses’ association to limit container royalties, paid based on the weight of freight handled.
Prior to the introduction of specialized containers that could be loaded directly on and off ships without being unpacked, goods were transported loose or packaged in boxes, bags and barrels. After the introduction of the containers the number of dockworkers dropped by more than two-thirds from 1952 to 1972. During the same time worldwide shipping increased more than 600 percent.
At the Port of New York and New Jersey, the busiest East Coast port, there are 3,500 longshoremen today, down from 35,000 in the 1960s.
According to a Dec. 20 ILA statement, the royalties are set at $4.85 for each ton of containerized cargo. Union members who work a minimum number of hours each year get some of the royalties as a wage supplement; some of it is paid to the union’s health care fund.
The bosses were demanding to cap the royalties at 2011 rates. The union statement says the bosses’ ultimate goal is to get rid of the payments altogether.
Many workers believe the bosses insistence on capping the royalty payments has to do with the anticipated expansion of the Panama Canal in 2015, which they say would mean increased tonnage at container ports.
“I believe once the Panama Canal expansion opens, royalties are going to increase,” as more freight comes to eastern ports, Perry Myers, a member of ILA Local 1526 in Fort Lauderdale, told the Militant. “That’s what it’s about.”
Prior to the extension, ILA President Daggett issued a letter to union locals instructing them to prepare for a strike of containerized cargo with the exception of perishable food, military cargo and mail.
In announcing the contract extension, which will expire Feb. 6, Daggett said that agreement had been reached with the shipping bosses on the royalty payment in principle and that negotiations were continuing on the remaining issues, including wages and payments to the health fund.
Ken Reney, a member of ILA Local 1416 for 13 years in Miami, told the Militant outside the ILA hiring hall here Dec. 29 that he was in favor of going on strike if an agreement wasn’t reached, because “something’s got to be done.” He said, “They don’t stop pushing. When the economy’s down, those companies don’t lose.”
In the weeks leading up to the strike deadline, a barrage of articles in the big-business press painted the longshore workers as greedy, corrupt, and whose actions could lead to ruining the economy if they struck.
“It’s not about jobs. It’s not about safety. It’s not about improving dockworkers’ living standards,” wrote conservative writer Michelle Malkin in a nationally syndicated column Dec. 21. She claimed, “ILA members [earn] an average of more than $124,000 a year in wages and benefits.”
“If that’s so the IRS should go after me for tax evasion,” laughed Myers.
“Remember who’s paying the media—the people with the money,” said ILA member David McDowell, who also spoke to the Militant outside the Fort Lauderdale hiring hall. “In the paper they make it sound like we’re salaried, but we’re not. Sometimes I have a good week and work 40 hours plus; for others I get less than 32 hours,” said McDowell, who has seven years’ seniority.
People who accuse the longshoremen of being fat cats “don’t know what we face,” said John Gantt, an ILA member in Miami since 1980. “There have been deaths on the ports.”
According to the Dec. 26 New York Times, “The strike threat has so alarmed corporate America that more than 100 business groups wrote to President Obama” asking him “to invoke his emergency powers” to force a settlement. The article noted, “Despite their small numbers, the East Coast dockworkers have outsize influence” and “cannot be easily replaced.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that a letter sent to the White House from the National Retail Federation urged Obama to use “all means necessary, including Taft-Hartley, to keep the two sides at the negotiating table and head off a coast-wide strike.”
Florida Gov. Rick Scott also urged Obama to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, a 1947 anti-union law that allows the president to order strikers back to work for a “cooling off” period and impose federal mediation.
“I believe in what we’re standing for. I’m ready for whatever we decide,” said Gantt.
On the Picket Line
Solidarity with longshore workers coast to coast