David Bacon Stories & Photographs
West Coast Docks Fall Silent as Workers are Locked Out
by David Bacon

OAKLAND, CA (10/2/02) -- Dozens of longshoremen and women surrounded Richard Mead, president of the San Francisco dock workers union, in front of the harbor terminal at the end of Oakland's Seventh Street Pier. All the gates in the port were padlocked shut. The giant cranes that move the steel boxes on and off the huge container ships sat motionless in the dusk.

"This is it," he told them. "If you want your children and families to have the same kind of life you've had, you know what you have to do." Workers in overalls, sweatshirts and heavy work boots divided themselves up. At the call of their union business agent, most volunteered to sit in front of the closed gates for the first part of the night. A smaller second group agreed to take the shift from midnight to dawn.

It might seem unnecessary to mount a watch in front of locked gates, particularly since these same workers had been unceremoniously pushed off terminal property only hours before. But they had little faith that this lockout wasn't still some trick by the big shipping companies to bring in new workers, or even soldiers, to take their places on the wharves and ships. After recent threats by the Bush administration to militarize west coast ports, they might have had reason for suspicion.

On Friday night, September 27, the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents the shipping and stevedoring companies in bargaining with the International Longshoremens and Warehousemens Union, declared that for 36 hours union members would be locked out of their jobs from San Diego to the Canadian border. The action, according to Joseph Miniace, the association's director, was punishment for what he called a slowdown by the union. "I will not pay workers to strike," he announced. "I will only pay them to work."

When the punishment period had elapsed, however, the lockout was only lifted for a few brief hours in most shipping terminals. In some the gates never reopened at all. Miniace declared that the union was not dispatching qualified workers to operate the towering container cranes, and shut down west coast shipping indefinitely. Work would only resume, he said, when the union either agreed to a new labor contract on the PMA's terms, or was willing to go back to work under the old one.

Most longshore workers felt the 36-hour punishment and Miniace's castigation were an effort to humiliate them. Some steady crane operators even chose to go to the hall to be dispatched to any available job, rather than return to their normal terminal. "They treat us like children, and want us to come back like puppy dogs," Mead told his members as they left to picket their chosen gates.

The lockout leaves millions of dollars in cargo sitting on docks up and down the west coast, or on ships motionless at anchor. Some, like the two huge freighters sitting at the Oakland Hanjin wharf, are only partially unloaded. The spanking-new terminal here just began operations a few months ago. Its ten container cranes, some of the world's largest, were the celebration of the San Francisco waterfront when they sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge into the bay, delicately carried on specially-built ships across the Pacific from China. Now the cranes stand like huge still birds with beaks in the air, oblivious to the ships below stacked with the containers they were meant to handle.

A similar scene unfolds in every port. In Oakland half a dozen ships were left at dockside, and a handful more at anchor in the bay. In the enormous Los Angeles/Long Beach port, many more are idle. And in Portland, Seattle, Tacoma and a dozen smaller ports, it's the same.

The idle containers contain an endless variety of products, but a large percentage hold consumer goods -- clothing, shoes, televisions and more -- made in factories on the east side of the Pacific rim. These are the sweatshop goods destined for store shelves in WalMart and the other big retail chains across the country, due to arrive just in time forthe Christmas rush.

One wouldn't think these companies would risk their holiday sales on a confrontation with dockworkers -- people they don't employ themselves, and whose wages constitute only a tiny fraction of the cost of transporting their products to market. Yet the PMA's lockout strategy has apparently unfolded with their consent. When negotiations began last June to renew the longshore union contract, a new organization, the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, made an appearance, warning the public and the Bush administration about the dangers of a strike provoked by unreasonable union demands. This coalition brought together huge shipping giants like Maersk and American President Lines, and retailers like Target, Mattel, Home Depot and The Gap.

Through the spring, the group held covert meetings with a Bush administration task force set up to monitor the longshore talks, headed by White House advisor Carlos Bonilla. Once negotiations were underway, Homeland Secretary Tom Ridge, and representatives of the Department of Labor, phoned James Spinosa, ILWU president. They warned him that the administration would view any union strike as a threat to national security, and would act to stop it. They mentioned possible interventions included invoking the Taft-Hartley Act, with a 60-day cooling-off period, the use of the military to replace striking workers, a Congressional bill to place the waterfront under the Railway Labor Act, making strikes virtually impossible, and removing the union's ability to negotiate a single labor agreement covering all ports on the coast.

Meanwhile, a steady drumbeat of publicity announced that a work stoppage would cost the economy a billion dollars a day. There is no question that PMA lockout chokes off the movement of goods, eventually causing lost production, layoffs and shortages in stores. But the billion dollar number has its source in a study issued earlier this year, before negotiations started, by Martin Associates, a Lancaster, Pennsylvania management consultant hired by PMA. That study estimated losses from a stoppage at $4.7 for a five-day shutdown, $19.4 billion for 10 days, and $48.6 for twenty. The numbers were then quoted by academic figures like University of California professors Stephen Cohen and Michael Nacht, which lent them greater legitimacy.

The figures are meant to provide cover for efforts by the Bush administration to interpret economic losses by shippers and their client retailers as a threat to national security, justifying the use of Taft-Hartley and other intervention. Early in the summer, a lockout was predicted by the PMA's alterego, Robin Lanier of the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, who told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that "Everyone now believes the unions will engage in slowdowns around the 6th of July. There is a huge probability PMA is going to lock them out."

West coast longshore negotiations are normally fractious, but this set of negotiations has been much more antagonistic as a result. From June through August, little progress was made, and the union finally announced at the end of the summer that it would not extend the old agreement any further. Miniace began publicly warning the union not to strike or slow work down.

In fact, according to Clarence Thomas, secretary treasurer of San Francisco's Longshore Local 10, a larger volume of cargo was moving across the docks than every before. The Journal of Commerce noted that cargo levels increased by as much as 30 percent over the summer. Thomas accused the PMA of engaging in a massive speedup, and compromising safety on the job. As evidence, he cited the deaths of five longshore workers in accidents since the first of the year. "They can accuse us of anything they want," he said. "But it's not worth our lives to do this work at an unsafe pace." The union's negotiating committee passed a resolution stating that "longshore workers and marine clerks should work safely in strict accordance with all provisions of the Pacific Coast Marine Safety Code and all federal and state health and safety regulations, including but not limited to all speed limits and safe practices." Miniace then accused the union of "working to rule" and using safety complaints to slow work down.

Leading up to the lockout, the volume of container traffic began to cause labor shortages in many ports. A week before, crews couldn't be filled in Tacoma and Long Beach, despite the fact that many workers were already "doubling up" -- working two shifts back to back.

Meanwhile some of the economic issues in negotiations, such as extending health care coverage, were settled after the union refused to continue extending the old contract. But that left the most contentious issue outstanding -- the introduction of automation. For observers familiar with waterfront history, the impending collision was reminiscent of the last dock strike in 1971. That marked the end of one era of great technological change, when the introduction of container cranes revolutionized shipping, and reduced the number of west coast longshore jobs from over 100,000 to its present 10,500.

Today dockworkers look with trepidation at the beginning of another era. Decades from now, the waterfront will be largely automated. Workers in front of computer screens, often hundreds of miles away from the docks, will control the movement of cargo on and off ships. Ports like Singapore and Rotterdam already have this new technology, and the world's shipping companies want to introduce the same system on the Pacific coast.

Wages and benefits are not the main issue. The hourly rate for longshore workers ranges from 27.68 to 33.48 -- about the same as a plumber or electrician. According to the PMA, employers paid $32,320 per worker for benefits in 2002, about $16 per hour. Most California longshore workers are African-American and Latino, and longshore jobs have become an economic backbone in many communities of color. While these are good wages in terms of the US industrial average, the shipping companies are not claiming poverty in negotiations, and in general are making large profits.

What the companies would like, however, is to keep certain workers out of the union -- the vessel planners who tell the cranes where to put every shipping container, the clerical workers who help track container movement, and the drivers who haul containers in and out of the ports. Workers in these categories in many ports have already joined the ILWU, or tried to, attracted by its wage rates. The union wants to include them in all ports, to make up for the potential loss of jobs among the clerks who currently track cargo manually. PMA negotiators have said no. For the union, this as an issue of its own survival.

"As work changes, some jobs disappear, while others increase," explains ILWU spokesperson Steve Stallone. "Right now our jobs are the ones disappearing. When the companies say they don't want our members doing these new jobs, it's like saying they want the union to disappear too."

In the late 1960s, the PMA reached an historic agreement on the same issue with the ILWU's most charismatic leader, Harry Bridges. The union accepted the introduction of the giant container cranes and their accompanying technology, in place of the old cargo net and hook. The change cost thousands of jobs, but the shipping companies agreed that union members would do the new jobs technology created.

The PMA now wants to abandon that agreement, which held for almost four decades. In July, the union proposed a basic framework in which it would not object to introducing automatic readers and other devices at terminal gates, which would allow companies to track containers without the labor of the hundreds of clerks who presently do that job on paper, inputting their data into computers. In return, the union asked for jurisdiction over the new jobs created by more automated ports. According to ILWU president James Spinosa, "The union has told the employers over and over again, 'we will meet you in the middle, we will allow for free flow of information, we will allow for technology to move forward,' providing that you meet us halfway on the jobs that are left to be done in this industry."

When bargaining began on May 13, anticipating the difficulty of resolving this issue, Miniace announced that "ILWU members, our registered workforce of longshoremen and clerks. will be guaranteed work opportunity under this contract, and, more importantly, the opportunity to move into new positions, with methods of work and a secure future." Some companies, like Stevedoring Services of America (SSA), operate no ships, and instead specialize in loading and unloading cargo, not just in the US, but ports around the world. The cost of longshore wages, and the ability to freely implement technology, are enormous factors in their operations. Large shipping companies, however, have fewer problems with the PMA's original position, since their profits come from operating vessels. The wages of longshore workers amount to a small percentage of their costs.

When these divisions within the employer association made agreement difficult, the ILWU mounted demonstrations targeting the SSA terminals. Accusations of slowdowns from employers, and threats to lock workers out, escalated in response. Finally, on September 27, the PMA locked the union out and the present confrontation began. The lockout didn't surprise the union. Spinosa noted that "the PMA, going into bargaining, was talking about lock-outs, the very thing we find ourselves in today."

Automation would be a difficult problem to resolve in any round of negotiations. But with coast shipping closed down, the threat of Federal intervention now overshadows normal bargaining. Meanwhile, every other union in the country is watching closely.

Just prior to the lockout, the Department of Labor told the union in writing that it had "no plans" for using troops in the cranes, bringing the union under the RLA, or attacking its coastwise agreement. Invoking Taft-Hartley, however, and ordering the union back to work, is still a possibility. Going back to their jobs under such conditions would provide the PMA with a pretext for demanding even further Federal action, like the use of troops, if longshore workers slow their work to a safe and bearable pace.

Even without militarization and more injunctions, an 80-day cooling off period would allow shippers and retailers to meet the Christmas rush, and stockpile for future confrontation. The PMA would have no motivation to negotiate during that period, and Bush would likely call any job action bringing pressure on shippers a threat to national security.

In 1971, President Nixon used Taft Hartley to order the ILWU back to work for 80 days. The cooling off period, however, was followed by a 134-day strike. Whether the PMA is depending on Taft Hartley, and pressure from Ridge and administration officials on the union, remains to be seen. If this strategy unfolds, however, it could affect unions as profoundly as President Ronald Reagan's smashing of the air traffic controllers union in 1982. Consequently, the AFL-CIO has helped the ILWU organize a political campaign to get statements and resolutions from elected officials and public bodies, from California Governor Grey Davis and Washington Governor Gary Locke, to city councils up and down the coast, urging Bush to stay out of the negotiations.

Ultimately, invoking the Taft Hartley Act might force union members to load containers onto ships, but the same containers might not be welcome at their destinations. Already John Bowers, head of the International Longshoremens Association, which represents dockworkers on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, has warned that that the ILA would honor ILWU picketlines in front of terminal gates. The ILWU won the respect of rank-and-file ILA members when it became the backbone last year of the national campaign to free the Charleston Five. Consequently, the predominantly African American dock union in South Carolina successfully fought off the state's governor and shipping companies to break their jurisdiction and send its active members to prison.

The PMA and the White House have also received letters from dock unions in Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Finland, Estonia, Peru, Columbia, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Taiwan, and South Africa. Much of that support is due to the ILWU's willingness to stop work to defend unions under attack in South Africa, Australia and Liverpool in the last two decades. Local 10 secretary-treasurer Clarence Thomas traveled to France as the lockout began, putting the union's case before European longshore workers, and the ILWU has announced plans to send out other road warriors as well.

The union seems in no mood to back down. "The ILWU will not be intimidated," Spinosa declared.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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