8.6.14

by Robert Brenner and Suzi Weissman

The ILWU, once known for its militancy and political radicalism, faces a choice between nurturing rank-and-file power and a slow, painful death.

In early July, 120 mostly poor and immigrant port truckers set up picket lines at three trucking companies in LA-Long Beach Harbor, extending their longstanding campaign to unionize. The next day, workers from the powerful and historically militant International Longshore and Warehouse Union honored the truckers’ picket by walking off their jobs, immediately shutting down three waterfront terminals.

The dockworkers had found themselves contractually free to refuse to cross the port truckers’ line, when their union’s agreement with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) had expired a short time before.

But almost immediately, a waterfront arbitrator ordered the longshoremen back to work. The ILWU had suddenly and without warning extended their agreement with the PMA for three days. Following the rules of their own contract, the union told its members to cross the truckers’ pickets and return to their jobs.

This action was in line with the ILWU’s informal pact with the PMA to maintain the flow of work after their contract had run out, and it snuffed out any potential the embryonic solidarity of the longshore workers and port truckers might have had to shift the balance of power between themselves and their employers.

In a small way, it encapsulated the two previous years of the union’s evolution.

A Vulnerable Union

The six-year collective bargaining agreement between the Longshore and Clerks division of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the employers’ Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) had expired by July 1, 2014. As talks extended into overtime, this once mighty union appeared more vulnerable than at any other point in its history, its capacity to defend its members’ living standards and working conditions at an all-time low.

The ILWU leadership had entered negotiations reeling from a run of humiliating setbacks, with the precedent-setting contract between the giant multinational grain combine Export Grain Terminal (EGT) and Local 21 in Longview, Washington, the obvious turning point. By this agreement, finalized on February 10, 2012, the union agreed to historic concessions, giving up its fight for the standard ILWU contract – won through decades of struggle — that prevailed with the four giant corporations of the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association (PNGHA).

Control of the hiring hall, long the cornerstone of its power, was relinquished. Won in the great West Coast maritime strike of 1934 and sustained by strike action in 1948 in defiance of the Taft Hartley Act’s ban on the closed shop, the hiring hall gave the union unparalleled leverage. The ILWU was able to control the companies’ labor pool by confining it to those who were already ILWU members, as well as by determining which members will be dispatched when employers call to fill positions.

The ILWU leadership ceded to management other hard-won rights and powers, especially to stop work and to set up picket lines without company reprisal, that had previously enabled members to defend their work rules and maintain safe conditions on the dock. The outcome was to hand over untrammeled control of the labor process to EGT, who now has the sole authority to hire and fire and even to bring in scabs in case of strike action.

Despite the historic reversals it entailed, ILWU President Bob McEllrath hailed the EGT contract on its signing as “a big win for the ILWU.” This was not a verdict he would be able to consistently defend. ILWU Coast Committeeman Leal Sundet boasted that the agreement would be “key to the standardization of the grain export industry on the West Coast, particularly with regard to labor costs” and that “it guarantees profits throughout the market chain.”

Sundet could not have been more correct. The EGT contract would, in a matter of months, become the model for another hugely concessionary contract demanded and unilaterally imposed by the operators of the region’s other grain export terminals.