David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Peace & Justice
The War on the Wharfies Hits L.A.
by David Bacon

TERMINAL ISLAND (5/10/98) -- Early Saturday morning, crews of longshore workers were dispatched from hiring halls in the LA harbor to unload the Columbus Canada, a huge container ship docked at the Matson berth at Terminal Island. But they arrived to find 1500 picketers, chanting "We support the MUA - no scab cargo in LA!"

The dockers, members of Locals 13 and 63 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, refused to enter the terminal to work. Under the contract between the ILWU and the shippers' association, the Pacific Maritime Association, the union invoked its right to refuse to cross a picketline representing a health and safety danger. An arbitrator was called, who supported the union's position.

The ship was pulled away from the Matson dock, and has been sitting at anchor off Long Beach since then.

It is clear that longshoremen have no desire to work the Columbus Canada, and the presence of the picketers gave them the reason they needed to refuse. In fact, the ship's owners, the Blue Star Line, are going to find it difficult to get a crew to unload it anywhere on the Pacific coast. Oakland is the ship's next port of call, and solidarity activists are preparing to picket it there as well.

The ship was loaded by strikebreakers in Australia, at the height of the month-long dockers' strike by the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), which was only partially resolved last week. ILWU members see the strike down under as one of a series of battles currently being fought by longshoremen globally, a waterfront war which will eventually arrive at U.S. shores.

"If casual labor is introduced here, as they're trying to do in Australia, we could lose our jobs and our union," says docker and San Pedro resident Ray Famolathe. "Our local economy is fueled by union jobs and wages, and the whole harbor area would be devastated."

The Australian strike was provoked when Patrick Stevedores, the country's second-largest ship-loading firm, fired its union workforce of 2000 dockers on April 7. The company announced it would no longer tolerate a union on its docks. It sought to return to the system of casual labor, in which dock workers get hired on a daily basis to load and unload ships, with no job security or benefits.

Patrick was supported by the Conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard. Conservatives won office two years ago, promising employers that they would break the Australian labor movement, and especially its strongest union, the MUA. Over half of Australia's exports consist of produce, livestock and agricultural goods. Lower wages on the docks, and cheaper shipping would boost the profits on that trade. It was the power of the union, argued Howard and his backers, that stood in the way of boosting productivity and cutting labor costs.

The conflict of the dockers down under has become a flashpoint in the conflict between neoliberal policies, pursued in countries around the world, and the resistance those policies provoke from below. Whether liberal or conservative, governments worldwide have embraced the policy of privatization and the casualization of labor currently pursued in Australia. Dockers have been on the frontlines - privatizing ports has become a universal testing ground for removing guarantees of job security, slashing wages, and eliminating unions.

Dockers in Liverpool were forced to end their two-year battle to preserve their union this winter. Although Conservative Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher began busting British dock unions years ago, the new labor government of Tony Blair didn't change her policies.

In Australia's neighbor New Zealand, a liberal government destroyed wharf unions in the early 1990s. In Mexico, Veracruz was privatized and its union eliminated at gunpoint in 1991, and dockers in Mexico's other ports got the message. Last year Japanese dockworkers temporarily defeated the privatization plans of their government, backed by U.S. trade representatives looking for good investment opportunities for big U.S. shippers. Italian and Brazilian longshoremen still battle similar efforts.

On May 4, after tumultuous weeks of labor resistance, the country's High Court (the equivalent of our Supreme Court) declared the terminations illegal, and ordered Patrick to reinstate its workers. The MUA and the rest of the country's labor movement have declared the decision a decisive victory. But dockers have no illusions the conflict is at an end, since the government and the policies which led to the confrontation are still in place.

U.S. dockworkers fear this war will come home to the U.S., and may not be long in arriving. Last year, the ILWU and its supporters chased a ship carrying scab-loaded cargo from Liverpool up the U.S. west coast to Japan. Within hours of the firing of Patrick stevedores, ILWU President Brian McWilliams and seven ILWU leaders were arrested at Australia's San Francisco consulate, as dozens picketed outside. The union announced a boycott of Australian meat and produce imports, which last year earned revenues of almost $1 billion.

The refusal to unload the Columbus Canada escalates the solidarity effort. As it continues up the coast to its next scheduled stops in the Bay Area and Washington, it is likely to meet further protest, becoming the Flying Dutchman of the global economy.

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