ILWU shuts down docks for May Day

Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky report on plans for the West Coast dockworkers' antiwar action.

OAKLAND, Calif.--Dockworkers voted to shut down West Coast ports on May 1 to protest the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

On May Day 2008, container ships will sit idle at all 29 ports on the West Coast. From San Diego to Seattle, the giant "hammerhead" cranes that lift cargo containers on and off ships will stand motionless.

Every dock in California, Oregon and Washington will grow quiet as 25,000 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) lay down their tools and walk off the job "to demand an immediate end to the war and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan and the withdrawal of troops from the Middle East."

The ILWU's longshore caucus voted to use a clause in its contract that allows the union to call "stop work" meetings for union business. The ILWU motion authorizing the shutdown argues, "It is time to take labor's protest to a more powerful level of struggle by calling on unions and working people in the U.S. and internationally to mobilize for a 'No Peace No Work Holiday' May 1, 2008."

What you can do

For more information, contact the Port Workers' May Day Organizing Committee at maydayilwu.googlepages.com. Send messages of solidarity to Bob McEllrath, International President ILWU, 1188 Franklin St., San Francisco, CA 94109. Telephone 415-775-0533, fax 415-775-1302, and e-mail [email protected].

This is the first time in decades that a union in this country has taken industrial action against a U.S. war. It is doubly significant that the ILWU chose to do so on May Day, the International Workers' Day, which is typically not honored in the U.S.

The ILWU motion is noteworthy because it also takes the Democrats to task for continuing to fund the war and encompasses a wider condemnation as the U.S. "imperial" interventions in the Middle East.

Jack Heyman, a dockworker in Oakland, Calif., and a union officer, reports in the San Francisco Chronicle that the debate generated by the resolution was spirited and impassioned. Heyman credits the union's Vietnam veterans with turning the tide of opinion in favor of the antiwar resolution.

In San Francisco, the ILWU has also called for a march and rally on May Day, which includes the following demands: a withdrawal of the troops now, health care for all, funding for schools and housing and a defense of civil liberties and workers' rights. In an effort to build bridges with immigrant workers, who will also be marching on May Day, the ILWU calls for "no scapegoating of immigrant workers for the economic crisis."

The ILWU is no stranger to political action. The union was one of the first to oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the first major U.S. union to oppose the Vietnam War. The ILWU expressed hopes that its historical action on the docks would serve as a clarion call to all of labor to put some teeth into the many antiwar resolutions that unions have passed.

The National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) Branch 214 in San Francisco has requested its members observe two minutes of silence in all its stations on May Day in solidarity with the ILWU. NACL Branch 630 in Greensboro, N.C., did likewise. The New York Metro Area Postal Workers, a local of the American Postal Workers Union, followed suit.

American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 2334 at City University of New York voted to undertake a campus event or teach-in on May Day in solidarity of the ILWU. Support has also come from the Vermont AFL-CIO, the San Francisco Labor Council and SEIU Local 1021.

Of course, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), the West Coast employer association of shipowners, stevedore companies and terminal operators, opposes the action.

The coastwide dock shut down in opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also serves as the first volley to this year's contract negotiations between the ILWU and the port bosses. The contract between the PMA and the ILWU is set to expire July 1. During the last round of negotiations in 2002, George W. Bush invoked the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act during a 12-day PMA lockout of the ILWU.