As employers prepared to lock out West Coast longshore workers for the second time, ILWU International President Robert McEllrath accused the Pacific Maritime Association of spreading misinformation to divide union members and incite public resentment against the workers..
The ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), a consortium of international shipping corporations, port terminal operators, and stevedore companies, have been negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement that covers longshore work at West Coast ports in the US.
PMA has accused the union of conducting work slowdowns to gain leverage in the negotiations.
On Wednesday when the two sides were scheduled to resume negotiations, PMA announced that it would shut down West Coast port operations for four days–first on Thursday, February 12 and again on February 14 through February 16.
PMA’s aim appears to be using work stoppages to create dissatisfaction among rank and file union members in hopes that they will pressure union negotiators to accept a new collective bargaining agreement on PMA’s terms.
McEllrath said that staying strong and united was the key to winning a fair contract.
“Nobody divides the ILWU,” said McEllrath. “We’re going to win this fight; we’re going to win this battle, but there’s only one way to do it and that’s to stick together and stay strong and united.”
PMA previously locked out longshore workers on February 7 and February 8.
Before doing so PMA issued a statement blaming longshore workers for their own lockout.
In the statement PMA misrepresented longshore workers wages in order to suggest that they were overpaid. That misrepresentation led some media outlets to report that longshore workers make as much as $1100 a day.
Such reporting is ridiculous, but what is true is that longshore workers make good wages and have excellent benefits.
According to the ILWU, the hourly wage for longshore workers is between $26 and $41 dollars an hour. The union also says that while many longshore workers don’t work the entire 2000 hours that constitutes a normal work year, the typical pay for an experienced ILWU member is $83,000 a year.
The ILWU also points out that longshore work is dangerous and that longshore workers fatality rates are higher than those for police and firefighters.
The good wages enjoyed by longshore workers aren’t the result of employer generosity, as PMA would have the public believe; instead, they’re the result of 75 years of hard fought victories by ILWU members.
Before the ILWU was organized in 1934, longshore work was temporary, low-wage, and extremely dangerous. Work was controled by company agents who often demanded bribes in exchange for work.
It took a bloody ILWU strike in 1934 that closed West Coast ports to get employers to recognize the ILWU.
Among other things, the strike forced employers to accept a union demand that work be distributed fairly through a union operated hiring hall, which ended the corrupt hiring system favored by employers.
Over the years, ILWU members have succeeded in winning some control over the pace of work, improved job safety, and good pay and benefits. But it took many collective job actions to win these improvements.
The PMA in 2002 used a lockout in order to weaken the ILWU, but the tactic backfired when the lockout stopped the flow of imported goods and threatened to damage the national economy.
The lockout resulted in a return to work order issued by the federal government and pressure on the PMA to reach an agreement.
Embolden by increased corporate power over the last 13 years, PMA has dusted off the lockout and given it a new twist–this lockout is temporary and called randomly so that it doesn’t completely shut down port traffic but does affect the wages that workers take home.
But the temporary lockouts are starting to cause trouble for businesses in the imported goods supply chain.
“The PMA can only cut back on work so much before total gridlock results and then a total lockout could happen,” reports the Journal of Commerce (JOC).
If a total lockout does happen, it would trigger a return to work order like the one issued in 2002.
“West Coast ports would then face 80 days (the cooling off period required when such back to work orders are issued) of continued ILWU slowdowns, and at the end of the cooling-of period, nothing would have changed,” reports the JOC.
In the meantime, McEllrath said that union negotiators are prepared to bargain until a fair contract is achieved and said that he hopes PMA is ready to do the same.
He also criticized PMA for its divisive tactics and told ILWU members to stay strong and united and “don’t listen to PMA bullshit.”