The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) membership approved this week their contract by a vote of nearly 90 percent. This culminated a life and death battle into one of the most significant labor victories of our times.
The 2002 battle on the west coast waterfront was a class war fought new millennium style. The Bush administration colluded with the global maritime industry in an unprecedented crusade to bust the ILWU.
Using the tragedy of Sept. 11, with a “national and economic security” cover, the Bush/maritime industry plan was to render the ILWU powerless without the right to strike, and eventually without a union at all. They employed the courts, Congress and the media. For the first time in history, the Taft-Hartley Act was used against labor in response to an employer lockout. Bush even threatened military intervention.
What was achieved by the union in the face of the Bush/corporate gang-up is phenomenal. The ILWU valiantly took on employers, the White House, Republicans in Congress, the world’s most powerful retailers, and the pro-corporate media. There is no doubt that this is a Harry Bridges union.
The leaders and members lived up to their union’s left legacy. The union fought smart with incredible rank and file discipline in the face of unconscionable employer maneuvering and provocation.
Most important is that the ILWU showed the power of solidarity by forming a strategic global, national labor-community coalition front, which included support from elected officials at every level of government.
The national AFL-CIO prioritized the ILWU battle with 20 of their staff assigned, weekly joint strategy sessions, and AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka helped at the contract table, in the Congress and against retailers.
Dockers and transport workers around the world including Brazil, Japan, Sweden, France, Canada and Spain remained on alert to employ their muscle to aid their ILWU brothers and sisters.
Not only did the ILWU save the union but it also has won big on the three issues that the membership instructed the negotiating committee to prioritize. The union has won the best pension plan in the history of the labor movement, the cost to the employers of providing the same benefits will more than double over the six years, and won on all the basic union jurisdiction issues.
While new technology will remove future clerks’ jobs over time, the agreement is in keeping with the Mechanization and Modernization Agreement signed by Harry Bridges which called for members benefiting with the introduction of technology. All currently working clerks are guaranteed five days work at full pay for the rest of their careers, whether or not there is work. The union jurisdiction victory, which includes bringing back outsourced work to the docks, and the projected growth in the industry are expected to offset the number of jobs lost.
The union accepted a six-year contract, which is generally not considered favorable for labor, but the fact that the historic pension and health package will be in place for six years is a positive for dockers. The ILWU points out that the Republican union busting agenda put tremendous pressure on the union to establish a visible stability in the industry as a means to fend off further legislative attacks.
In view of the Bush agenda, the agreement is a stunning victory. This was Bush’s first big hit in his new “bust the labor movement campaign” and ILWU leaders are proudly saying that he did not succeed with them.
While the Republican agenda in the new Congress may still try to challenge gains made by the ILWU, it is undeniable that the west coast dockers have waged a battle that will benefit the entire labor movement and U.S. people.
The ILWU proved that fighting smart, with unity and discipline in the ranks, along with building the broadest solidarity, is the way to stop the Bush/corporate campaign to destroy the labor movement in our nation. The ILWU is standing tall for us all.
The author is a vice chair of the Communist Party USA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org