The longshore workers who load and unload the cargo ships on the West Coast are locked in a struggle for a new contract. Their union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), is under attack by the employers, represented by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which wants to cut benefits, undermine the union hiring hall and outsource jobs to non-union, low-wage states and other countries.

In the battle for public opinion, management points to the workers’ “high” wages. They complain that union rules (like a lunch hour, and working normal daytime shifts) interfere with productivity. Let’s look at the numbers.

Union longshore workers get paid about $35 an hour. The average yearly pay, with overtime, is $85,000, though many get far less. But the wages are a tiny fraction of $28.6 million worth of cargo each worker handles every year. In 2001, for every $100 worth of cargo that was shipped through the ports, only 30 cents went to longshore wages. If we add a generous allowance for benefits, the cost would still be less than 50 cents – less than one-half of one percent of the cargo’s value.

In 1967, the workers were paid $2.62 in wages for every $100 of cargo – more than eight times as much. This was a period of rapid mechanization, and every year there were fewer longshore workers handling more goods. By 1978, the workers were getting only 55 cents. And now it’s down to 30 cents.

Look at it another way. Since 1978, a longshore worker’s wages, adjusted for inflation, increased by 40 percent. But the value of his work increased by 160 percent. And compared with 1967, each worker handles 14 times as much cargo, but is paid less than twice as much.

Clearly, the workers have been able to get only a small part of the benefits of the increased productivity. There can be no economic justification for the employers’ attempts to attack their benefits, or to contract out their work for a fraction of the union workers’ wages.

The union wage of $35 an hour sounds like a fortune for the many workers who have to get by on $12, $8, or even the disgraceful minimum of $5.15 an hour. But the strength and ability of maritime workers to maintain their wages and benefits can help raise everyone up. And if they are busted, it will be a setback for everyone.

If the bosses succeed in cutting their costs further – to 25 cents, or 15 cents, or 10 cents for $100 worth of cargo – that tiny savings won’t be shared with other workers or with consumers. It will go to increase the profits of the shipping companies, the wholesalers and retailers, and their bankers.

Before the great strike in 1934, when the longshore workers won their union, they faced the “shape-up” system. Every morning hundreds of dockers would show up for work, and the bosses would pick and choose the ones who would work for the least pay, or give the biggest kickbacks.

The PMA wants to return to a modern version of the same system. If they can defeat the union, they would be in a position to get other states and cities to compete against each other, offering the lowest wages and the biggest kickbacks in the form of corporate subsidies.

A victory for the ILWU will put the union in a better position to help other workers improve their own wages and working conditions. The longshore workers have always offered solidarity around the world and in the U.S. They help organize other workers into unions, provide aid to workers on strike, and have a history of struggle against discrimination. Although labor solidarity actions are practically illegal in this country, ILWU workers have refused to load ships for apartheid South Africa, and shut down the Port of Seattle in 1999 in solidarity with protests against corporate globalization.

The principles of solidarity are enshrined in The Ten Guiding Principles of the ILWU, adopted by the union in 1953. These include:

* “Any division among the workers [because of race, color, creed, national origin, religious or political belief] can help no one but the employer.”

* “Every picket line must be respected as though it were our own.”

* “To organize … is not merely in the interest of the unorganized, it is for the benefit of the organized as well.”

* “The basic aspirations and desires of workers throughout the world are the same. International solidarity, particularly to maritime workers, is essential…”

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Bruce Bostick
Bruce Bostick

Bruce Bostick is a retired steelworker and leader in Ohio Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees.