The corporate media and waterfront employers have carried on a year-long campaign to paint longshore workers as “overpaid, pampered and resistant to progress.” Their propaganda has claimed that longshore wages are over $100,000 a year, while concealing the fact that only about a third of the workers make anywhere near that amount, with many of the rest earning $20-$30,000.
This is aside from the fact that working on the docks, lashing huge containers, driving tractors and other heavy equipment, etc., is dangerous and demanding work that takes a heavy toll in injuries and health problems that affect almost every longshore worker who has worked years on the docks.
But whatever the cost of paying longshore workers a decent wage, a prominent maritime industry organ, the Journal of Commerce (J of C), has now come out with an unusually frank confession in its July 1 edition. “At a modern container port,” writes Joseph Bonney, deputy editor of J of C Week, “longshore costs account for such a small percentage of all costs, that a doubling of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) wages would barely produce a blip in overall expense.”
So, if labor costs are not the stumbling block in current negotiations between the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), representing the waterfront employers, what is the issue?
Bonney’s answer is typical corporate-speak going back to the first employer who ever hired and lived off the sweat of his workers, “The primary issue, however,” says Bonney, “has been the question of who’s in control of the waterfront. It’s a question over which the PMA and the ILWU have struggled for decades.”
Of course, what Bonney is talking about is whether the longshore workers, the “hired hands” who load and unload the 1 million containers a month, half of the country’s exports and imports, through every port on the West Coast, should have a say in their wages, working conditions, and health and pension benefits.
Bonney and the employers he speaks for would like to return things to the way they were pre-1934, when longshoremen had to pay a hiring boss for “the privilege” of slaving in a dark hold for 12 or more hours a day for a few dollars pay. The union hiring hall and its democratic system of rotating work equally in a union-run hall rather than standing in the rain on a pier and hoping to be picked for work by a grasping hiring boss, put a stop to that slave-market system.
The employers have raged against their loss of “control” for almost seventy years now, but with their friend George W. and his big business cronies in the White House and dominating Congress, and the nation involved in a “war on terror,” the maritime employers see this as their time to take on the ILWU and its hiring hall.
The American Shipper, a shipping industry publication, reported in an April edition that “Container lines are expected to triple their profits this year to $1.9 billion, and despite the slowdown in the economy, most shipping companies have already reported substantial profits for this year.” Visions of skyrocketing profits that would follow a weakening or elimination of the ILWU are driving the employers to talk tough and threaten lockouts and government intervention.
However, the ILWU has built a broad and extensive alliance with the Teamsters Union, the port workers of the Service Employees International Union, the East Coast International Longshoremen’s Association, the International Transport Federation and the International Dockers Council, as well as with the National AFL-CIO and its Central Labor Council affiliates. All of these have declared their full support to the ILWU, and the dockers’ unions around the world have made clear that they will not handle any “hot” cargo if the ILWU is forced to strike.
Public and general community support will also be called upon, notiong that the ILWU has been a consistent fighter for environmental and anti-pollution measures in the ports where it operates, and that a loss of jobs or the closing of new job opportunities on the docks will affect all communities around the ports and beyond.
Basically this is a fight to reverse the offensive against union and worker rights that the Bush administration has orchestrated in the interests of the fat cats like those at Enron, WorldCom, Halliburton and others. All Americans who work for a living, and that’s the overwhelming majority of us, have a stake in this fight on the waterfront.
Let’s not let the bad guys get their way. This is one we’ve all got to win!
Herb Kaye is a contributor in Oakland, Calif. He can be reached at email@example.com