Friday, December 28, 2012

Dockworkers Threaten East Coast Strike, Reject West Coast Deal

Bloody Thursday, San Francisco, West Cost Ports Strike, 1934

Dockworkers from Massachusetts to Texas are threatening to strike on Sunday, in what would be the first East Coast port shut down since 1977, a two-month work stoppage that cost retailers billions of dollars (see New York Times). The threat has so worried the corporate bosses that they are demanding Obama block the strike by invoking the Taft-Hartley Act, as Bush did in 2002 to end a West Coast port strike.

The anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, which passed in 1947, banned the General Strike, solidarity or sympathy strikes, and secondary boycotts. It prohibited closed union shops and opened the door to “right-to-work” legislation. President Truman, whose veto was overridden, called it an “intrusion on free speech.” The law also permits the president to obtain a strike-breaking injunction by claiming that national security is threatened by the strike, which is what corporate leaders want Obama to do.

Many believe that Obama will resist these demands because of his supposed strong ties to the labor movement, pointing to his hands off response to the recent Chicago teachers strike as evidence. However, Obama did not need to intervene in Chicago. His crony Rahm Emanuel applied plenty of pressure on the union, including the threat of obtaining an injunction against the strike. Furthermore, the AFT has consistently served Obama votes (also see here), stymied strikes and brokered sellout contract deals (also see here) that have shoved his corporate “reform” policies down the throats of teachers. The contract that the Chicago Teachers Union finally accepted was no doubt due in part to pressure from Randi Weingarten and the AFT, which had urged the Chicago Teachers Union to avoid striking in the first place and which refused to support the teachers with strike pay.

The ports strike is substantially different than the Chicago teachers strike. Most significantly, a shutdown of the schools has very modest and tangential impacts on profits, while a port shut down is projected to cost retailers millions of dollars a day and Obama’s allegiance to capital is far stronger than his ties with labor. Retailers and other corporate leaders are further fanning the flames by claiming that a port shut down could devastate the economy, particularly in conjunction with the tax increases and spending cuts that will come with the fiscal cliff or any compromises to avert it.

The East Coast dock workers, who belong to the International Longshoremen’s Association (in contrast to their fellow workers on the West Coast, who belong to the ILWU), had been in contract negotiations for nine months, before talks fell apart on December 18. One of the main sticking points is “container royalty payments,” which the shipping companies want to freeze for current employees and eliminate for future employees. These payments averaged $15,000 per employee last year. Aside from the fact that this would lead to stagnation in take-home pay, it would also hurt long-term organizing efforts and solidarity by driving a wedge between old-timers and new members.

While long shore unions are seen by many as among the strongest in the country, they have been losing membership over the past 50 years just like most other unions. These jobs have been lost primarily because of automation. New Jersey and New York employed 35,000 longshoremen in the 1960s and today the number has dwindled to 3,500. They are also far less militant than they were in the 1930s, when the ILWU emerged on the West Coast in the wake of a bloody 83-day strike that killed several longshoremen. 
Engraved Billy Club from Battle of Smith Cove, Seattle (image from Wikipedia)

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, the ILWU voted Monday by 93.8% to reject the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association “last, best and final” offer. The grain handlers association now plans to lock out the dockworkers and bring in scabs. The Oregonian reports that the owners of Portland, Vancouver and Puget Sound terminals have spent months preparing for a battle on the waterfront, “lining up troops and assets like chess pieces.”

The West Coast grain terminals implementing the lockout handle 25% of the U.S. grain and 50% of its wheat exports, according to the WSWS. Their owners are demanding the same concessions made by the ILWU in Longview, Washington to the EGT (Export Grain Terminal). The EGT contract was a pretty mediocre deal for the Longview dockworkers, particularly in light of the brutality and repression they suffered by police during their struggle. However, the recent vote indicates that the rest of the West Coast dockworkers are unwilling to accept such losses to workplace rights and working conditions.

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