On Thursday, May 1, the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) staged a one-day (one shift, actually) walkout as a protest against the U.S. military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The shutdown affected ports up and down the West Coast, from San Pedro, California, to Seattle, Washington.
Although the PMA (Pacific Maritime Association) had warned the ILWU leadership that an “unauthorized” strike such as this was illegal, and that any rank-and-file dockworker who participated could be punished with a fine, suspension or even termination, the one-shift shutdown went off as planned and was deemed a resounding success. Thousands of workers defied management and failed to show up for the morning shift, resulting in port traffic coming to a standstill.
Despite the threats, no one really expects the port authorities to take any disciplinary action against ILWU members. In fact, if any union member is even wrist-slapped, it will be genuine shock. There are two reasons for this.
The first is that, “illegal” or not, the 8-hour shutdown didn’t do any serious damage to the operation. There are, according to the PMA, 10,000 cargo containers loaded or unloaded during a typical day-shift, up and down the West Coast; and while that seems like a lot, with the afternoon shift reporting for work, as scheduled, and the loading and unloading of cargo resuming, the shortages can be made up in a hurry.
The second reason is a bit trickier. Simply put, the Longshoremen are the most powerful, cohesive and, in truth, respected labor union in the United States. You don’t take them on unless the stakes are incredibly high, or you absolutely have no choice. The boys at the Maritime Association will be prudent; they will not insist on showing who’s boss.
The ILWU has always been recognized as hard-working and well-compensated. Indeed, by union standards, the West Coast longshoremen have one of the sweetest deals in blue-collar America. Whenever they go on strike over a contract dispute (which doesn’t happen often), they remain unified and committed, and are not to be messed with. These people take their strikes very seriously. That’s why you never hear of any scab activity during an ILWU dispute.
Nobody crosses an ILWU picket line, not unless he wants to pick his teeth up off the floor or find his car on fire. Admittedly, some will call this “intimidation”; the Longshoremen prefer to think of it as “solidarity.” And, unlike other unions, when there’s a strike or a lockout, you don’t see management bringing in replacement workers. That doesn’t happen on the docks. The PMA simply won’t take on that kind of trouble.
One huge advantage the ILWU has over other unions (particularly those affiliated with manufacturing industries), is that their jobs are totally locked in. Not only can the ports not be moved, they can’t be circumvented. By contrast, factories are portable; factories get moved every day (to the Sun Belt, the Deep South, Mexico, Malaysia or elsewhere). As a consequence, manufacturing unions remain extremely vulnerable to management pressure. Not so the Longshoremen. And out of this iron-clad job security comes a sense of worker solidarity and prestige unmatched by any union in America.
But the larger story here is that an American labor union actually staged an anti-war protest. That’s big news. After all, even though they led the charge when it came to women’s rights, the abolition of child labor and the establishment of a living wage, labor unions aren’t exactly renowned for holding anti-war demonstrations. In fact, the opposite has often been the case.
During the Vietnam war, for example, there were several public demonstrations by union members against the anti-war protesters. The Teamsters, steel and construction workers, trade guilds, etc. . . . .these guys were, for the most part, unabashed, flag-waving patriots who viewed the radical peace movement as a form of “treason.” And we can’t forget that those same Teamies, with Jackie Presser as president, endorsed Ronald Reagan in 1980.
To be fair, however, it should be noted that the ILWU has a unique history, one that fits well with an anti-war, anti-imperialist ideology. The former president and spiritual leader of the Longshoremen was the legendary Harry Bridges, whom the U.S. government attempted, unsuccessfully, to deport (he was Australian), on the grounds that he was a Communist and a subversive. Bridges is still revered in West Coast labor circles.
In any event, the ILWU deserves enormous credit. It’s astonishing and wildly encouraging that a West Coast labor union would show more guts and determination than the U.S. Congress, in publicly defying a Republican administration.
Well done, my brothers.
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was a former union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org