ILWU strike against outsourcing hits LA

On November 28, 900 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 63A-OCU (Office Clerical Unit) walked off the job at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in an effort to stop the outsourcing of their jobs. By the next day, most of the two ports--together, the busiest shipping complex in the U.S.--were shut down when other workers on the docks honored picket lines, including both full-timers and part-timers with ILWU Local 13, the marine clerks of Local 63 and the ports' predominantly nonunion truckers.

Some of the biggest shippers, including Maersk, Yang Ming, APM and Evergreen, were targeted, and the action is estimated to be costing as much as $1 billion a day. Several terminals at the two ports have remained open, according to reports. But the walkout is nevertheless the largest disruption at the ports since a 10-day lockout up and down the West Coast in 2002.

The union is trying to stop shippers from sending union clerical jobs to be performed by low-wage labor overseas after ILWU members retire. The shippers, by contrast, want to weaken the power of the union by claiming the right not to hire replacements for new retirees.

Sarah Knopp talked to a part-time dockworker and member of ILWU Local 13 about the issues involved in this fight and what the mood is like on the picket lines.

ILWU members on the picket line in Long Beach on the first day of their walkoutILWU members on the picket line in Long Beach on the first day of their walkout

THE CLERICAL workers keep repeating that this strike isn't about the wages--and we keep reading in the news that these workers make $40 an hour and up. So what is it about?

CLERICAL WORKERS have certain job tasks that can be outsourced. Customer service, for example, can outsourced. Then there's also attrition--certain people leave, and the shippers don't fill the position--or when people retire, they fill the position with a temporary worker.

There are certain agreements in place about how to slow down and regulate the slow bleed of jobs to nonunion workers. What's at issue here is that the clerks don't believe that the employers--the individual shippers and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA--are living up to those agreements. But the shippers won't open their books or their webpages to show whether the work is being outsourced or not.

The clerical workers have been 30 months without a contract. They're working with a supplemental lease agreement. So the employer can violate the contract by arguing that they're following past practice.

WHAT EXACTLY do the clerks do?

CUSTOMER SERVICE is one thing, as in taking booking orders. They also plan how to load the containers onto the ships. That can't be automated. For certain lines like Yang Ming, this is already being done in Taiwan by nonunion workers, who verify location information and do intake, as in, they verify the goods that come in and that they match the records.

Clerks do so much that even if the dockworkers didn't honor their picket lines, there would still be a major slowdown because of the walkout of clerks.

WHAT HAS the solidarity been like?

THE ILWU hiring hall wasn't dispatching, neither the full-timers, nor the part timers. We always work hand in hand on every job detail, so it's kind of a given. I was surprised by the suddenness of it. On the second day of the strike, there were 15 tankers waiting offshore.

PART-TIME workers like yourself don't have as much economic security as the clerks, and the situation is worse for the nonunion truck drivers. How do you argue with your coworkers to get them on the picket lines?

EVERYONE IS on the same pay scale. So you're working next to people who are all making the same. They did it that way to build solidarity. Not all the full-time workers, though, are aware of their interests. At the same time, I'm optimistic because the conservative media controls everything, and yet you still see this level of class consciousness. I'm proud to stand with the clerks.

HAVE YOU seen or heard any of the casuals or the truck drivers questioning the walkout?

NO. ACTUALLY, maybe one on Facebook, but that guy was misinformed, because he thought that this was about wages, and it wasn't about that. But that's the cool thing about social media--you can use it to educate people.

All of the truckers, whether they are Teamster or not, respected the picket line. At Yang Ming, one fuel tanker carelessly went through the picket. Of course, the workers were vigilant and noted his truck number and reported it to the business agent.

THERE AREN'T that many picketers at each gate. Why not?

WE PICKET with between 6 to 15 people at every gate. But really, that's all you need because of the awareness of the strike. Workers are already used to working day and night hours, so picketing is organized in day and night shifts, according to what they're used to. It reminds me of that basic point of Marxism--how industrial capitalism teaches workers to band together.

HOW MUCH is it costing the port to be shut down?

THIS IS a roundabout number, but it's just short of a billion a day. We're the third-largest terminal in the world and first in America.

WHAT DO you think the outcome is going to be?

THERE'S A lot of heavy arbitration. The bargaining teams have been meeting with only a few hours' break every night.

It's pretty awesome to see because people have an objective, they're fired up, and they know what they're fighting for. This shows the PMA that people are aware of issues like attrition and outsourcing, and that we're not letting them go unnoticed. It's the same thing as with the Chicago teachers' strike, which was about class size and job retention.

I hate the idea put around that we're the greedy union workers. We're the folks struggling to pay our rent and mortgages. I was there all day and all night, and you might hear one person shout something stupid and antiunion. I was glad to see how many people were honking their support. I'd like to think that more people are aware of union issues.