Protesting union-busting on the docks

November 30, 2010

Lee Sustar and Lilian Wehbe report on demonstrations across the U.S. in support of Philadelphia-area longshore workers fighting an anti-union assault.

FRESH DEL Monte Produce Co.'s labor record in the U.S. is rotten--and activists across the U.S. are sending a message with protests and a union-backed boycott of the company's fruit.

With a rally in downtown Philadelphia, dockside pickets in Manatee, Fla., and Galveston, Texas, and a show of support in Denver, the Friends and Family of International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) Local 1291 sent a message that the company's shift of work away from some 200 ILA members won't be tolerated.

The day of action came about eight weeks after ILA members in the ports of Philadelphia and New York-New Jersey refused to cross picket lines of workers who had lost their jobs when Fresh Del Monte moved its shipments from a Camden, N.J., port worked by the ILA to a low-wage facility in nearby Gloucester, N.J. (Fresh Del Monte Produce is an exporter of fruits to the U.S., and is not affiliated with Del Monte Foods, which sells packaged foods.)

That two-day port shutdown brought employers to the bargaining table. But Fresh Del Monte Produce hasn't budged from its determination to shift work to a private facility run by the Holt family, which employs a scab union, Dockworkers Union Number 1, and pays wages of only about half the levels that ILA workers receive.

Supporters of International Longshoremen's Association Local 1291 send a message in Philadelphia
Supporters of International Longshoremen's Association Local 1291 send a message in Philadelphia (Lilian Wehbe)

Fresh Del Monte made this move even though government authorities offered $25 million in infrastructure improvements, additional acreage for the terminal at no cost and a near 50 percent reduction on electricity bills. In addition, the ILA responded by offering labor concessions worth $5 million. Even so, on October 1, Del Monte directed fruit shipments the Holt family's terminal in Gloucester.

Fresh Del Monte's refusal to accept concessions is evidence that the company's real aim isn't simply to lower costs, but to break the ILA. "This collusion by Del Monte with the Holt family to get more profit is more than disrespect--it is total disregard for working families and local government," said Boise Butler, president of ILA Local 1291. "It is union busting."

IN RESPONSE, the Friends and Family of ILA Local 1291 worked with allies to organize a national day of action and spread the word about the ILA's official boycott of Fresh Del Monte Produce Co.

In Philadelphia, more than 200 people gathered in Love Park in the heart of Center City Philadelphia. The rally was organized with the assistance of Philadelphia Jobs with Justice.

One of the women with Jobs with Justice suggested that everyone walk down to the Wawa Food Market on 17th and Arch to demand that they stop selling Fresh Del Monte produce. The crowd blocked off the streets, causing traffic to halt, and surprisingly, Philadelphia police avoided any altercations with the crowd. Rather, they made sure drivers were patient for protestors to cross.

About 50 to 70 people then crowded into the Wawa, chanting, "No justice, no peace." Everyone walked out chanting, "We'll be back!" when the manager began dialing the police. As we marched to City Hall and then back to Love Park, chants echoed, "Hey hey, ho ho...Del Monte's got to go!"

The demonstrators' presence was definitely felt. Most pedestrians were eager to receive flyers that Jobs with Justice was handing out as we marched. The flyers read, "When you shop for your family, skip the bad fruit--Boycott Del Monte Fresh Produce."

Bryan Sullivan, a veteran ILA member who had worked the Del Monte boat for nine years, explained the stakes in this fight. "After we met Del Monte's concessions, they still pulled out. I was making $24.50 an hour for what they are now paying $8. Del Monte has made $142 million to $152 million in profits the past two years. We worked our asses off, and that's what hurts you most in the end. It's an assault on the American worker. I just bought a home. I have two children."

Meanwhile, in Galveston, a picket line organized by the Friends and Family of ILA Local 1291 shook up the terminal where Fresh Del Monte fruit boats are unloaded.

Leonard Riley, a member of ILA Local 1422 in Charleston, S.C., traveled to Galveston to participate in the action. He told reporters:

We're not going to let this cancer spread. This isn't a call to stop work or strike. We're just talking about awareness. This could be the first in a malicious trend of events. We believe that what happened there isn't right. We are going to hope that something will happen now--that we force it back to the table, and they do what's right.

At the same time, a similar picket took place in the Florida port of Manatee, along with a protest at Fresh Del Monte Produce's North American headquarters in Coral Gables, Fla.

For their part, activists in Denver got backing for the action and boycott from a wide range of groups, including the Denver Area Labor Federation, the Colorado Progressive Coalition and the American Federation of Teachers-Colorado--and they organized a delegation to the Denver City Council.

Meeting the delegation was Denver City Councilman Paul Lopez. "We're here because what Del Monte is doing is undermining the fundamental pillars of the workforce in America," he said. "They are taking us back to the 1920s."

Along with Fresh Del Monte, the other anti-union force is this battle is the Holt family, the operator of the low-wage terminal that has taken over Fresh Del Monte's Philadelphia-area work.

This isn't the first time the Holts have clashed with the ILA. But they wouldn't have made such an aggressive move without the backing of Fresh Del Monte Produce. In fact, Fresh Del Monte's aggressive stance can be seen as a test of strength with the ILA, which faces contract negotiations with the East Coast shipping employers in the coming months.

That's why the stakes in this fight are so high. At issue aren't just the wages and benefits of ILA Local 1291 members, but the ability of a powerful multinational corporation to tear up labor agreements whenever it sees fit.

That's why the campaign against Fresh Del Monte has attracted the support of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union on the West Coast, the International Transport Workers Federation and the International Dockworkers Council, as well as the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO. The November 22 Day of Action was just the beginning.

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