Many Americans had never heard of Stevedoring Services of America (SSA), until it was awarded a $4.8 million contract to open and operate the port of Umm Qasr in war-torn Iraq. SSA was up there with Bechtel and Halliburton on the Bush administration’s “preferred list” of U.S. (only) companies to be awarded lucrative, no-bid contracts to rebuild Iraq. SSA was awarded the plum contract even before U.S. troops entered Baghdad.
On the other hand, longshore workers around the world know SSA well. SSA is a giant transnational corporation operating major ports in Africa, Bangladesh, Chile, India, Mexico, New Zealand, and Panama. It also operates major private port facilities on the west, east and Gulf coasts of the U.S.
Based in Seattle, SSA offers many transportation related services world wide. It is also widely accused of union-busting, privatization, environmental damage and war profiteering – all and all, a fair example of the corporate culture the Bush administration seems to favor.
In last year’s difficult negotiations for a new contract between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), SSA led a “hard line” attack on reaching an agreement. In the midst of that battle, James Spinosa, president of the ILWU said, “While most employers want to work with us to implement new technologies, SSA is undermining negotiations because their primary interest is breaking the union.” SSA’s use of advanced technology to contract out ILWU clerks jobs to non-union facilities in Utah was a key bone of contention in the talks.
In 2002, SSA worked with the Port of Seattle, a public authority, to privatize its container cranes. This resulted in the loss of union jobs and of badly needed revenues. At the time, Dawna Bell, a crane maintenance worker who lost her job, put it like this, “The Port of Seattle is giving these cranes that the tax payers have bought and maintained, and the future revenue that these cranes will generate, to a private company. And I really have a problem with that. There are a lot of social service programs that need the money a lot more than Stevedoring Services of America.”
SSA was fined in Tacoma, Wash., for a regular practice of forcing workers to work 17 hours straight without a break, in violation of state labor law that does not permit more than 12-and-a-half hours without an eight-hour rest period. Also, SSA is notorious for using non-union truckers and non-union warehouses off port, to store and ship goods.
In its drive to build new shipping terminals, SSA has often been opposed by environmental movements. The company has pushed for aggressive port and canal dredging in situations where the environmental impact would be grave.
SSA’s union busting is not limited to the United States. SSA has collaborated with several governments to build private terminals as a way of cutting union jobs at public facilities. Perhaps the best example of this “privatization as union-busting” is in Bangladesh.
SSA proposed to build a $500 million private containerized terminal in the city of Chittagong. A huge struggle erupted, led by union workers on Chittagong’s public docks. In the middle of this intense battle the U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh, Mary Ann Peters, intervened. Her comments to a French press agency were widely quoted: “Future investments in Bangladesh by American companies might be threatened if the plan for the SSA port is not approved by the Bangladesh government.”
The Bush administration is never loath to intervene in the affairs of other countries with economic and political pressure on behalf of U.S. based transnationals. Still the relations with some industries, like energy and construction, seem even deeper. SSA appears to be one of those corporations with a special relationship. Before this latest contract in Iraq, SSA already has several very lucrative contracts with the Department of Defense. They include contracts to maintain and work military terminals in several ports in South Carolina and Georgia.
Beyond military ties there are also personal connections. Reginald G. Bashur was once a top aid to George W. Bush when he was governor of Texas. Instead of following Bush to the White House, Bashur is now SSA’s chief lobbyist in Texas. SSA is also a heavy financial contributor to the Republican Party and to George W. Bush.
The Umm Qasr contract with SSA highlighted tensions between the British and U.S. The port is in the British “zone” of occupation and they were the first troops to seize the area. The British commander wanted to install the local Iraqi harbor master to his old job and leave the port under Iraqi civilian control. A British officer was quoted in the British press as saying, “This is not Pax Britannica. We don’t want to conquer a second Mesopotamia. The ultimate goal is to hand everything over to the Iraqi people.”
Clearly the Pentagon and the Bush administration have other ideas. They seem to want to stick with the U.S. corporations that support their union busting policies at home and their war policies abroad.
Scott Marshall is the labor secretary of the Communist Party USA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org