Power-play On The Waterfront

Nation held hostage by shipping lines


Opinion By:  Michael F. Pellegrini


From the Portland Oregonian, October 4, 2002


In the grandest tradition of their robber baron forefathers, the Pacific Maritime Association recently brought renewed meaning to the phrase, “negotiations at the point of a gun,” when the PMA brass showed up at the bargaining table on October 1, 2002 with bodyguards “packing heat.”


The significance of these “thugs with guns” was not lost on the International Longshore and Warehouse Union leadership, who quickly left rather than submit to intimidation.


This latest action by the PMA in their lockout of west coast longshoremen serves as a poignant reminder of the mood and tenor of the bloody and bitter 1934 Maritime Strike that ultimately gave birth to the ILWU. 


Two union men were killed in that strike, which lasted nearly three months and eventually spread to almost all the unions up and down the entire west coast.  The longshoremen’s main issues then were the right to a coast-wide agreement and jointly operated hiring halls – two of the most important gains ever made by the union.


Like 1934, the important issues on the table in the current bargaining sessions are seemingly insignificant, and do not center around money.  Instead, they concern work jurisdiction – a concept that is at best, hard to embrace.  The basic line in the current talks is that the PMA wants to “modernize” the west coast ports and introduce new computer technology onto the docks.  Yes, they say, some jobs would be lost, but all current employees would be guaranteed jobs for the rest of their lives.  And to sweeten the pot, the PMA has offered increased pensions.


Now at first blush, this sounds very reasonable.  What right-thinking person would oppose the introduction of labor-saving technology?  Sure, some jobs will be lost, but those workers will be compensated fairly.  Very reasonable.


In response, the union has made an honest attempt to bargain over the issue.  The obvious question is that if certain jobs will be lost by the introduction of technology, what then of the technology jobs themselves?  Could these not be traded for the jobs lost?  And that is the crux of the union’s counter-proposal – all they want is the right to any new jobs created.


The PMA has flatly rejected this.  And by refusing to bargain on the subject, they’ve shown their true colors: in reality, the PMA’s proposal is nothing more than an insidious, back-door attack on the union.  Their interest is not in “modernization” at all, but rather in breaking the union.  This is crystal clear.


The true intent of the PMA’s proposal is to decimate The ILWU’s membership by contracting-out various jobs to non-union workers.  It wouldn’t happen overnight – it would be a long, slow and subtle process.  But the eventual outcome would be just the same – the ILWU’s flame would dwindle and in a short space of years, cease to exist.  A union’s strength is its members and a slow, gradual, chipping-away of membership would sound the ILWU’s death knell just as surely as if it had happened overnight.  The ILWU leadership should be lauded for seeing this for what it is, and not giving in to the temptations of the PMA’s offers of easy money.


Right from the start of the talks, the PMA has systematically pursued its goal of breaking the union.  Emboldened by what they perceive to be a favorable political climate, the PMA stalled and dragged their feet throughout the contentious negotiations. The strategy is very simple: their hole card as they see it, is George W. Bush, and they count heavily on the Bush administration intervening to provide the clout necessary to bludgeon the ILWU into accepting their demands.  According to press reports, one of the options discussed with the administration actually included the extreme step of planning to have Navy personnel unload ships.  Thankfully, that scenario hasn’t played out yet and hopefully won’t.


Then finally after months stalling and of fruitless negotiations – when it became clear the union wouldn’t just roll over and play dead – the PMA went on the attack and took the outrageous and unprecedented step of locking-out the longshoremen. 


In doing so, the PMA is effectively holding the economy of the entire nation hostage in their bid to break the ILWU. 


But then this sort of action is easily understandable when viewed in the proper context:  the PMA is an organization controlled by the major shipping lines, mostly foreign companies based for instance in China, Taiwan, Korea, Denmark, Japan and so on.  As such, it’s easy to imagine that an organization dominated by these foreign interests would have little regard for something so paltry as the American economy, much less American workers.


This is absolutely and unequivocally intolerable.


The PMA must give up its greedy bid to break the union.  It must accept to the union’s very reasonable proposal and stop this assault on the nation’s economy at once.  The longshoremen must be allowed to return to work now, on their own terms, before our nation suffers grave and irreparable harm.


Let’s not revisit the horrors of 1934.