Will the new agreement weaken the ILWU?

April 1, 2015

Darrin Hoop analyzes the ILWU's tentative agreement with the West Coast shipping bosses as the deal is debated by union delegates at a meeting in San Francisco.

NEARLY NINE months after the contract between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the bosses Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) expired, the two sides reached a tentative agreement (TA) February 20 on a five-year deal--ending, at least until the contract is ratified or not, months of a simmering conflict between the two sides.

The details of the agreement are still being analyzed and discussed by ILWU members, but if the outlines that have emerged so far are correct, the leaders of the union came up short in critical areas. There are definite or possible concessions on arbitration and outsourcing that put future union jobs at risk, and no apparent progress in dealing with the shipping bosses' use of new technology to undermine union power.

Overall, the TA appears to continue a pattern for the ILWU leadership: Accept wage and benefit increases for current members at the expense of concessions that will undermine conditions for future dockworkers.

The ILWU-PMA contract covers approximately 12,000 A and B list dock workers in 29 ports up and down the West Coast, from San Diego to Bellingham, Washington. Another 8,000 part-time casuals work alongside them. However, they aren't registered ILWU members, and along with earning substantially less pay, they get no health care, vacation or pension benefits. Together, these workers handle around 1 million tons of cargo a day, worth $1 trillion annually.

Containers stacked up at the Port of Long Beach
Containers stacked up at the Port of Long Beach

During negotiations, the PMA, which represents 72 companies, including some of the biggest shipping lines and terminal operators in the world, accused the ILWU of engaging in "hard-timing"--an effective work slowdown that resulted, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California, in an average of 25 or more container ships anchored off the Ports of Los Angeles-Long Beach each day between November and February. These two ports are the biggest in the U.S. and account for 70 percent of the West Coast's cargo volume.

Meanwhile, the PMA employed various kinds of lockouts--apparently with the idea that cutting into dockworkers' pay would get ILWU members to put pressure on union leaders to settle. In January, the PMA eliminated the night shift at various ports--over the President's Day holiday weekend in early February, it shut down all ports. Since the TA was announced, congestion at the ports has improved, though it could take months to fully resolve.

The next step of the ratification process could run through April 3 at the ILWU caucus in San Francisco, where 90 delegates from all of the regions represented by the union will meet to discuss the contract. If the caucus approves the recommendation from the ILWU International, the rank and file would vote on the TA later in April. If the caucus rejects the deal, both sides will return to the negotiating table.

WITH ITS rich history of labor militancy dating back to the 1934 general strike in San Francisco, the ILWU remains one of the few unions in the U.S. where the rank and file recognizes its power and is able to use it to slow down the production process. Unfortunately, this consciousness among the ranks stands in contrast to a current ILWU International leadership that is a pale reflection of that radical past.

Over the last several years, led by President Bob McEllrath, the International has contained struggles like that of ILWU Local 21 in Longview, Washington, against the multinational grain conglomerate EGT Development; allowed its members to cross a port truckers' picket line in July 2014 in Los Angeles-Long Beach; and endured lockouts lasting more than a year of grain terminal workers in Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington--something unheard of in the history of the union.

In the critical Longview battle, McEllrath shoved through an agreement that ended the union's historic right, dating back to the 1934 contract, to control the hiring hall. Now, for the first time in the union's history, management decides who works and who doesn't in the state-of-the-art EGT facility, and has the right to fire ILWU members. Unsurprisingly, this includes management blacklisting workers who it feels were troublemakers during the struggle.

Other concessions in the Longview deal included: a mandatory 12-hour day; elimination of union control of the "supercargo" position, the person who organizes the loading and unloading of each ship; elimination of union control of the master console job, the person who controls the flow of grain within the plant; a loss of one union job on each ship, from four positions down to three; and a management rights clause that allows supervisors to work during safety grievances, union stop-work meetings and other work stoppages.

As a whole, this contract severely weakened the ILWU's power to control its working conditions.

The ILWU justified the Longview agreement on the basis that it prevented the facility from going nonunion, which was management's open aim. Rank-and-file ILWU members took the initiatives in militant actions during the struggle, including blocking trains. Union leaders--including McEllrath--were arrested, and ILWU members and their families were harassed by law enforcement.

In making their case for the deal, ILWU officials told workers that despite the retreat from grain cargo standards, they would at least be retaining a union foothold in Longview and could push back later against the retreat.

In the context of a shrinking organized labor movement, maintaining ILWU jurisdiction over the grain jobs--in the face of a corporate giant that was out to bust the union--was a victory of sorts. EGT used scab labor from the Operating Engineers Local 701 to get the new plant up and running. If not for the tremendous push from below by ILWU Local 21 members, EGT could have established the first non-ILWU contract at a grain terminal on the West Coast since the 1930s.

Still, the concessions in Longview were a major setback for the ILWU--and, of course, the rest of the grain cargo bosses demanded that the Longview deal become the model for everywhere else.

In September 2012, Louis Dreyfus Commodities, United Grain Corp. and Columbia Grain--which together make up the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association (PNGHA)--demanded the same conditions in the Northwest Master Grain contract that covers ILWU members in Local 8 in Portland, Local 4 in Vancouver, Local 21 in Longview, Local 23 in Tacoma and Local 19 in Seattle. Over the next few months, the PNGHA locked out workers in the Vancouver grain terminals, and then in Portland.

After allowing scabs to cross their picket lines for up to a year and a half and refusing to mobilize any semblance of the mass struggle that ILWU members in Longview had organized against EGT, the ILWU leadership ultimately agreed to a contract with the PNGHA of just under four years in length that is virtually indistinguishable from the EGT contract in Longview.

THIS HISTORY is to make sense of the current TA between the ILWU and the PMA.

Some of the preliminary information about the agreement that appeared in the bosses' press, like the Journal of Commerce (JOC), makes it seem like the union won.

On wages, for example, the JOC reports, "Under the tentative agreement, the hourly wage will increase $1, retroactive to June 28, 2014. The base wage will increase by $1.50 in 2015, $1.25 in 2016, $1.50 in 2017 and $1.25 in 2018, when the straight-time wage will become $42.18 an hour. There will also be wage increases for skilled worker categories, with skilled-pay differentials ranging from 15 to 30 percent on top of the straight-time wage."

In addition, the deal is reported to include increased payments for pensions and to maintain the current excellent health care plan.

But up to the beginning of the ILWU caucus on March 30, the rank and file had yet to receive a copy of the TA from the International--so speculation about it is based on reading between the lines of JOC articles. Given the recent historic concessions given up by the ILWU in its grain contracts, it's hard to believe there isn't more bad news in the fine print--and that's exactly what has begun to emerge.

The first apparent concession deals with a radical change to the arbitration system. Under the current contract, the system is divided into four regions. The PMA appoints the arbitrators in Oakland and Portland, while the ILWU does so in Seattle/Tacoma and Los Angeles/Long Beach. The respective arbitrators immediately hear any health and safety or workplace disputes brought by the ILWU.

Though it hasn't always worked out this way, the general pattern has been that the ILWU appointed arbitrators who, more often than not, ruled in favor of the union, while the PMA choose arbitrators more likely to side with management. If either side disagrees with a ruling, it goes to the coast arbitrator in San Francisco for a final decision.

Under the TA, this system would be scrapped and replaced with a new one much more beneficial to management. Instead of a single arbitrator in each region, there will be a panel of three to hear disputes. On each panel, one member will be appointed by the ILWU and one by the PMA, and a third will be a supposedly neutral person, "who is a non-lawyer, but who is a member of either the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service or the American Arbitration Association," according to the JOC.

In effect, the union would be agreeing to cede control of arbitration rulings regarding health and safety violations or lack of proper staffing by management to the decisions of a third-party bureaucrat. This concession would almost certainly weaken the the shop floor power that makes the ILWU so strong.

THE SECOND potential major concession relates to the issue of chassis outsourcing and a possible weakening of ILWU jurisdiction over their repair and maintenance.

The chassis refers to the trailers attached to trucks that cargo containers are placed onto in order to move them in and out of the ports. According to the JOC, "The tentative agreement gives the ILWU mechanics the jurisdiction to inspect and repair non-trucker-owned chassis. 'Red-circled' terminals that have contracts with other unions such as the International Association of Machinists are also exempt from ILWU inspection and repair provision."

The devil is in the details here: The JOC report suggests the ILWU would continue to control work on "non-trucker owned" chassis, meaning those owned by shipping companies that are bound by the PMA contract. But the shipping lines have been selling off most of their chassis. For example, on March 1--after the TA was announced--three of the biggest equipment leasing companies, Direct ChassisLink Inc., Flexi-Van Leasing, and TRAC Intermodal, set up a neutral pool of 82,000 chassis they control at 12 of the 13 terminals at the Port of Los Angeles-Long Beach.

As the JOC pointed out, "There is some question as to the legality of terminals requiring that the ILWU inspect chassis before they leave the facilities, and requiring that the ILWU perform any needed repairs. The chassis-leasing companies are not PMA members, and they have no contractual relationship with the ILWU."

The TA apparently allows for both parties to petition the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) regarding this chassis language. If the FMC rules the language is illegal, the two sides will return to the negotiating table on this issue.

But it seems obvious the shipping companies outsourced their chassis to create this precise dilemma. The ILWU leadership, by agreeing to ambiguous language, is putting an important source of ILWU jobs and power in the hands of a governmental body to rule on the contract language's legality. Even if the FMC rules that it is illegal, this will put the ILWU back at the negotiating table--and with the rest of the contract settled, the union's power to demand more favorable language would be weakened.

FOR NOW, without access to the contract, the rank and file is left to wonder exactly how all this will play out. Is the new language dealing with the arbitration system and the chassis jurisdiction question a symptom of another contract that gives up concessions?

The first major embrace of partnership with the bosses took place under legendary ILWU leader Harry Bridges, in the Modernization and Mechanization agreement in 1960 that accepted the containerization of cargo, leading to the loss of thousands of union jobs. In 2002, another agreement on technology eliminated upwards of 600 clerk jobs and allowed new technology to be implemented based on the decision of the arbitration process. Then, in 2008, the union agreed to automation language that has since led to two newly automated terminals at the Port of LA-Long Beach.

Unless there is contract language that the JOC hasn't reported on, it doesn't appear that the union made any progress in stopping the future loss of jobs through the implementation of new technology or automation.

Couple this with the concession on the arbitration system and the big question mark around the chassis outsourcing language, it seems like the union leadership agreed to wage and benefit increases for current workers at the expense of not protecting future ILWU jobs, while also weakening their power to control the production process.

The final cause for concern for rank-and-filers who want their union to move in a different direction is the unprecedented move by the International to require voting on this contract by a mail ballot. This would end the practice of members voting at the union hall after discussing the contract with their union sisters and brothers.

Coupled with the refusal by the International to distribute the contract over a month after the TA was announced, this does nothing but raise more questions about what other concessions could exist in the contract.

This week's caucus in San Francisco--and its decision about whether to ratify or reject the TA--will go some way towards determining if the ILWU grows weaker or if a new, more radical direction for the union opens up. But the real potential to chart a new course for the ILWU lies with the rank and file.

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