ILA pickets shut big East Coast ports

September 29, 2010

Lee Sustar explains the stakes involved in a dramatic battle on the East Coast docks.

IN THE biggest job action on the East Coast docks in decades, seaports outside of New York and Philadelphia were largely shut down September 28 as part of a fight to stop food giant Del Monte from moving longshore work to a nonunion operator.

Members of International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) Local 1291 set up picket lines in Camden, N.J., and nearby ports across the river from Philadelphia, as well as at Port Elizabeth and Port Newark, also in New Jersey. Despite legal action by employers, the job action looked set to continue as the day drew to a close.

The action was spurred by Del Monte Fresh Produce Co.'s decision to move its 75 fruit shipments per year from the quasi-governmental South Jersey Port Corp. to the privately held Gloucester Terminals, owned by Leo Holt, an operator with a long history of clashes with the ILA.

If Holt and Del Monte have their way, more than 200 unionized workers with wages of about $17 to $31 per hour will be replaced by workers making as little as $8.50 to $10 per hour, union officials say. According to the ILA, the Gloucester City terminal has a company union called Dockworkers No. 1, which pays wages and benefits far below ILA rates.

Longshore workers shut down the Port of New York/New Jersey
Longshore workers shut down the Port of New York/New Jersey

But if Holt is taking a shot at the ILA, it's because Del Monte is giving him the ammunition to do so.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the transnational corporation turned down an offer from South Jersey Port Corp. for free additional acreage, a reduction on its annual lease from $1.4 million to $1 million, and the capping of the company's electricity bill at $700,000 per year--little more than half the previous year's total. Even an offer of $5 million in wage concessions by the ILA--including a 25 percent wage cut and reduction in benefits--wasn't enough. Del Monte wouldn't take "yes" for an answer.

"This is a devastating blow for us," Local 1291 Secretary-Treasurer Martin Mascuilli told reporters. "We met the terms of Del Monte's proposal, seriously undermining our manning levels and wages, and it still was not enough."

Del Monte's hostility to the ILA should come as no surprise. The company has a long history of labor and human rights abuses in countries where it does business. In Guatemala in 1999, five union activists were kidnapped and tortured for organizing on a Del Monte-owned banana plantation. Again in 2008, three union activists were murdered at a banana plantation owned by Del Monte subsidiaries. More recently, it took a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center to force Del Monte to pay back wages to immigrant guest-workers in Georgia.

What you can do

The ILA International has issued a leaflet calling for a boycott of Del Monte goods. Messages of support can be sent to ILA Local 1291, 3460 N. Delaware Ave., Suite 101, Philadelphia, PA 19134. Call 215-425-5822 or fax 215-425-6938.

NOW, DEL Monte is teaming up with Holt to take aim at the ILA in what amounts to a test of union strength in advance of the coast-wide contract due in 2012. If Del Monte and Holt may have expected the ILA to roll over, it may be because union members voted to accept concessions in a contract reopener last year after heavy pressure from international union leaders.

But the workers' anger was on display on Labor Day, when Local 1291 members threw Del Monte pineapples into the Delaware River to protest the company's plans. And with the action on Tuesday, Del Monte, Holt and many of the world's leading container carriers have been hit with effective picket lines that represent some of the biggest job actions on the East Coast waterfront since the 1970s. Teamsters honored picket lines, too.

The employers, predictably, cried foul. "We feel strongly that these actions by the ILA, in refusing to cross a non-bona-fide line, are a violation of the no-strike clause of our current collective bargaining agreement," said Joseph Curto, president of the New York Shipping Association. "We further believe these actions are completely irresponsible, and accordingly, we will explore all possible remedies to end this illegal action."

But according to the reform wing of the ILA, grouped in the Longshore Workers Coalition (LWC), a tough stand by the union is exactly what's needed.

"This is a crucial point for the ILA," said Ken Riley, president of ILA Local 1422 in Charleston, S.C., and a key figure in the Del Monte fight. "If we don't make this turn now, we will have a problem, because we will soon go into one of our most serious contract negotiations in our history."

Employer pressure on the ILA and its West Coast counterpart, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, will grow in 2014 when the expansion of the Panama Canal is completed, allowing shippers to more easily play off workers in one port against another.

That's why the job action against Holt and Del Monte is so important, said Riley, a leader in the LWC who became a national figure in the U.S. labor movement a decade ago when members of his local waged a successful fight to defend the Charleston Five--longshore workers who were placed under house arrest for nothing more than walking a picket line.

As in the campaign for the Charleston Five, the International Dockworkers Council is rallying support for the Local 1291 workers from their counterparts in ports around the world, Riley said.

"This is very significant in that we really are drawing a line in the sand and saying, 'enough is enough,'" Riley added. "We have been in a concessionary stance for much too long. The only way we are going to be able to maintain any standing in the union is that we have to fight back. That is what got us here, and that's what it will take to keep us here."

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