Port strike looms along Pacific Coast

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

Up and down the West Coast - including Portland, Tacoma and Seattle - thousands of people rallied June 27 to back members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), whose contract with port operators, covering 10,500 workers, expired July 1.

About 200 workers took part in a lunchtime rally June 27 in the parking lot behind the ILWU Local 8 in Northwest Portland. The rally was billed as a show of solidarity between the ILWU, Teamsters, and the East Coast's International Longshoremen's Association (ILA).

The ILWU members rejected a proposal offered by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) June 30. Union representatives presented their own proposal just hours before the contract expired. Negotiations will continue, and no work stoppage is currently planned, but if there's no agreement by July 21, a caucus of union leaders will decide whether to recommend a strike to the membership, which would vote on it the following week.

PMA is an employer group representing 71 shipping companies in ports in Oregon, Washington and California. In 1996 and 1999, ILWU-PMA contracts also expired before a successor was negotiated, but the two sides were able to come to agreement before any shutdown occurred. West Coast longshore workers haven't had a strike since 1971.

This time, union leaders say negotiations, under way since May 13, have bogged down over several employer proposals, including a three-year wage freeze; reduced pension accruals; and a proposal for workers to begin to pay part of the cost of health care.

Union members have had fully-paid health coverage since 1960. The issue affects not only the 10,000 active employees but 8,000 retirees and spouses.

ILWU leaders denounced the PMA's "concessionary" approach to bargaining.

"We're not really interested in going back to bargain something we've already bargained and won in the past," said Leal Sundet, a member of the Labor Relations Committee for Portland ILWU Local 8.

Sundet said the union position has been misleadingly portrayed in the news media as obstructing new technology. On the contrary, he said, the ILWU has embraced the introduction of new technologies since 1960, when a landmark Modernization and Mechanization Agreement was signed by both parties. That agreement allowed the employer to implement all kinds of technological improvements - particularly containerization - so long as union members would not suffer the loss of jobs as a result.

Since that time, West Coast shipping tonnage has increased 900 percent, while longshore employment dropped substantially. In Portland, Local 8 had over 2,000 members in 1960; today it has 600.

The ILWU has also been blamed for congestion in the ports, but the union says poor infrastructure, expanded volume and a decision not to expand hours are to blame for the notoriously long waits trucks experience to be loaded. In fact, those waits have prompted increased concern about diesel exhaust, said Local 8 member Bruce Holte. Holte said longshore workers suffer some of the highest rates of lung ailments of any occupation.

To win better protections from diesel exhaust, ILWU formed an alliance with the Teamsters and the International Longshore Association (ILA), which represents East Coast longshore workers. Other aims of that alliance include protection of each other's jurisdictions and support for Teamster efforts to organize truck drivers. The Teamsters seek to unionize truckers who come into the ports, many of whom are classed as "independent owner-operators."

Unlike most U.S. workers, who have lost ground to the shift to offshore production, longshore workers have benefitted from the increase in trade, both because of the strength of their organization and because of their strategic position.

Union control of employment through the hiring hall system has helped produce a well-informed membership that understands the value of unionization.

And loading containers on and off cargo ships is highly-skilled work where speed is crucial and work stoppages have enormous potential to disrupt the economy. The result is a workforce that, while dwindling in number due to mechanization, is very well compensated. Longshore workers can earn $70,000 to $100,000 a year, plus benefits that the PMA says cost $42,000 a year per employee.

The union, for its part, says it's only fair that workers share when companies profit: Shipping companies have profited greatly as container shipping has soared while few new ports have been added. Thus, ILWU leaders argue, for the union to agree to givebacks would start a slide down a slippery slope for workers.

The ILWU has filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the PMA charging failure to negotiate in good faith, citing the association's refusal to provide evidence of financial hardship that would justify demands for economic concessions.

July 5, 2002 issue

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