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Key battle for Working Class: West Coast Docks Down

by Mick Kelly |
October 1, 2002
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Shipping containers on docks
West Coast docks handle $1 billion in goods each day.

As Fight Back! goes to press, a key battle for the working class is shaping up in West Coast ports. On one side stands the International Longshore Warehouse Union (ILWU), which has mobilized strong support from West Coast labor. On the other side is the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), a coalition of shipping companies. Behind the PMA stand big business and the Bush Administration.

The PMA is looking for trouble. Refusing to negotiate in good faith, they tried to get dockworkers to accept terms that would eliminate and outsource jobs. At the end of September, they closed down the docks and locked out the ILWU.

The stakes are very high. Twenty-nine ports are shut down. A victory for the dockworkers is a victory for all of labor. The 10,500-member ILWU has a progressive history, and it has often had a positive influence on the entire labor movement. The other side of the strike lines is big business, which needs West Coast shipping. It's estimated that the lockout is delaying $1 billion worth of goods each day. A major portion of U.S. exports go through West Coast docks. With 'just in time' production, factories' parts inventories are kept low. As a result, the auto, aerospace and other industries will be hit hard.

Fight for Jobs and Union

While the Pacific Maritime Association says the issue is its desire to apply new technology to the ports, it goes a lot deeper than this. An ILWU statement notes, "The problem is that much of PMA's ideas about technology are actually something else: outsourcing. What does outsourcing mean? Outsourcing means having non-ILWU people perform jobs that were once performed by ILWU workers, jobs that are contractually ILWU work. It also means that jobs that should be performed by ILWU workers are being given to other work forces."

Examples of outsourcing include having non-union clerks doing data entry in distant places. Or setting up off-dock container facilities, where shipping containers are unloaded.

Acceptance of the PMA proposals would, in effect, set the stage for the slow motion destruction of the ILWU. In industries as diverse as auto and telecommunications, outsourcing has proven to be an effective tool for employers to run away from unions.

The PMA lockout is an attempt to break the power of ILWU. The shipping and port bosses are counting on intervention by the Bush administration to do their dirty work. Specifically, they hope Bush will invoke the Taft Hartley Act - a notorious piece of anti-labor legislation passed at the height of the cold war. The Act allows the government to impose an 80-day cooling off period, during which the docks would be reopened. Strikes are illegal during those 80 days, which coincide with the height of the Christmas shipping season.

Massive Support

Up and down the West Coast, tens of thousands of workers have come together in rallies and marches to back the ILWU. Messages of solidarity have poured in from unions in the U.S. and around the world. Maritime and mining unions in Australia have pledged to organize an international campaign against PMA shipping lines.

ILWU has a proud history of struggle. Led by Harry Bridges, in 1934, its members fought and died to establish the principle that dock workers would be hired through union hiring halls. Due to its militancy and progressive leadership, in 1950, the union was red baited and tossed out of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations). The union remained outside of the AFL-CIO for 38 years. In 1964, the ILWU became the first major union to oppose the war in Vietnam. In 1999, the ILWU shut down West Coast ports in support of African American political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal.

Act Now!

It is vital that the entire labor movement do everything possible to back the members of ILWU. Big business is waging a war on American workers. The dockworkers are on the front lines, fighting back.

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