UNITED STATES: Waterfront showdown looms

Issue 

BY SHANE BENTLEY

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which covers 10,500 waterfront workers (known as longshoremen) on the US west coast, is headed for a showdown with the bosses' Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) after the ILWU's contract expired on July 1.

The PMA plans to eliminate half of all clerical jobs by moving to a computerised system. It also wants to wind back employer-funded health insurance and superannuation. The PMA claims this is necessary to ensure that US ports remain "competitive".

The maritime bosses' real goal is the destruction of the militant ILWU. The PMA wants to remove the institution of the union hiring hall. The union hiring hall affords waterfront workers the freedom to decide which task and which boss they will work under every morning.

It was won after a militant strike in 1934, led by Australian-born ILWU leader Harry Bridges. Two strikers were shot and killed by police on July 5, 1934. It is now remembered every year as "Bloody Thursday" and west coast ports stand idle as ILWU members commemorate their comrades' sacrifice.

The ILWU and the PMA have agreed to extend the workers' contract on a day-to-day basis during negotiations and union leaders have not planned any strike action. Longshore workers last struck in 1971, when they walked out for 134 days.

However, maritime bosses fear that a union work-to-rule campaign could cripple port operations. In 1999, when contract negotiations broke down, ILWU members agreed to work past the expiration of their contract but used work-to-rule tactics to bring the PMA to its knees within two weeks.

The PMA says it will not engage in an "offensive lockout", but have threatened a "defensive lockout" if a slow-down is detected.

The ILWU has said it has no intention of staging a slow-down. However, the union has suggested that workers might exercise their right to refuse to work overtime, a move that would slow work.

The stakes are high. A strike or lockout could see 29 west coast ports — including four of the top six US container ports — shut down. More than US$260 billion worth of cargo moved through these ports last year.

Tom Ridge, newly appointed director of the Office of Homeland Security, has warned the ILWU that a strike would not be in the "national interest". Unionists are concerned that the man in charge of fighting the US "war against terrorism" on US soil will use the "national interest" to justify strike-breaking and the jailing of union leaders.

The ILWU is a union that takes its militant slogan of "an injury to one is an injury to all" seriously. The union has proudly taken solidarity action in support of maritime workers on the US east coast and internationally. The ILWU also took part in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and the former Pinochet dictatorship in Chile.

The ILWU also refused to work the Columbus Canada, a ship loaded by scabs in Sydney's Port Botany during the 1998 maritime dispute. In April 1999, ILWU members struck for one day on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a political prisoner on death row.

The ILWU has won pledges of support from the International Longshoreman's Association, which covers US east coast wharfies, and the Teamsters (truck drivers) Union.

The International Transport Workers Federation and waterfront unions in Japan, New Zealand, Italy and Spain are also backing the ILWU. The Maritime Union of Australia has pledged its full support. MUA members may soon be called on to repay the debt owed to the ILWU with their own acts of solidarity.

[Shane Bentley is a MUA member in Sydney.]

From Green Left Weekly, July 10, 2002.
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