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Class War on the Waterfront: Longshore Workers Under Attack

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Photo by ROBERT HUFFSTUTTER | CC BY 2.0

The ink wasn’t even dry on the West Coast longshore contract when the head of the employers’ group, the Pacific Maritime Association, proposed an additional 3-year extension to the president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), making it an eight-year contract. While the number of registered longshore jobs, 14,000, is the about same as in 1952, revenue tonnage has increased 14 times to a record-breaking 350 million revenue tons.

Under the current contract employers have already eliminated hundreds of longshore jobs through automation on marine terminals like the fully-automated Long Beach Container Terminal and semi-automated TraPac in the port of Los Angeles. “By the end of an extended contract in 2022, several thousand longshore jobs will be eliminated on an annual basis due to automation” warned Ed Ferris, president of ILWU Local 10 of San Francisco. With driverless trucks and crane operators in control towers running three cranes simultaneously, the chances of serious and deadly accidents are enormous.

Now maritime employers are pulling out all stops to push through this job-killing contract extension, using both Democratic and Republican politicians, high-powered PR firms and even some union officials.

A Chronicle op-ed appeared this week by Democrat Mickey Kantor, former Secretary of Commerce who was responsible for creating the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Association which lost millions of jobs and Norman Mineta, another Democrat former Secretary of Commerce, from the public relations firm Hill and Knowlton. The first public relations firm was hired by Rockefeller to clean up his public image after nearly 100 people, men, women and children were killed in a 1914 Colorado miners strike known as the Ludlow Massacre and employers continue to use PR firms today.

The authors of this week’s SF Chronicle pro-company PR piece talk of preserving “labor peace” and refer to West Coast port shutdowns over the last 15 years. Yes, there is a class war on the waterfront, but it’s being waged by the employers. Those port closures were caused by employer lockouts in 2002, 2013 and 2014 during longshore contract negotiations.  The 2002 lockout was ended after Democrat Diane Feinstein called on President Bush to invoke the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act directed not against the maritime employers’ lockout but the longshore union. The only time the ILWU shutdown Pacific Coast ports in that period was May Day 2008 to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the first-ever labor strike in the United States against a war.

The two Democrats cite distorted figures for wages and pensions that only reflect the highest skill level after a lifetime of work in one of the most dangerous industries. And then they threaten that “if the contract proposal is rejected” it could lead Republicans and Democrats alike to impose anti-strike legislation on the waterfront. The ILWU backed Bernie Sanders in the last election and then Hillary Clinton. Yet no matter who leads it, the Democratic Party represents the employer class, Wall Street on the waterfront. Clearly what’s needed now is a workers party to fight for a workers government that would expropriate the maritime industry, in ports and at sea, while establishing workers control.

The so-called “friends of labor” Democrats have been enlisted by PMA because earlier this year at the Longshore Caucus, a union meeting representing dockworkers on all West Coast ports, the San Francisco longshore delegates voted unanimously to oppose a contract extension. Last week they held a conference at their union hall on automation and the proposed contract extension. One proposal was to make automation benefit dockworkers by reducing the workweek to 30 hours while maintaining 40 hours pay, creating another work shift.

There are tens of millions of unemployed in this country. The labor movement should launch a new campaign for a shorter workweek at no loss in pay as part of a struggle for full employment to benefit all, not Trump and his Wall Street bankster cronies. In resisting the push for this contract extension to automate jobs out of existence, ILWU waterfront workers can stand up for all workers.

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Jack Heyman (jackheyman@mac.com) is chair of the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee www.transportworkers.org and a retired longshoreman who writes on labor politics and history. 

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