by CHARLES WALKER
Longshore workers & tree huggers
“It’s important to build an alliance not only among local unions,” says ILWU Local 23 President Roger Boespflugnot, “but also with other activists in the community. We showed the labor movement and local activists that we always take up the struggle on important social issues-whether it’s locked-out steelworkers or Mumia Abu-Jamal.
“We found out, despite efforts to split labor from our allies, the environmentalists and students were completely respectful of labor’s needs and priorities. … Our work with the environmental movement scares the hell out of the employers. When longshore workers are up in trees while the environmentalists are out on the picket line at the plant gate, the world will be ours.”
A business agent agrees, “These young people-environmentalists, anarchists, students-they are the future of our labor movement” (The Dispatcher, April 2000, International Longshore and Warehouse Union).
This goose lays fools gold
The good news is that the New York and New Jersey ports are going to hire 500 new stevedores, joining the 2700 dock workers now on the job.
The bad news is that once there were 27,000 longshore workers on those same wharves and docks. What happened to all those unionized jobs is told in a May 4 New York Times article.
In 1969, the International Longshoremen Association (ILA) “signed a contract to permit labor-saving mechanization and increased container shipping in exchange for a guaranteed annual income for its members, whether they worked or not. … The changes have cut the time and labor it takes to unload a 900-foot-long cargo ship to 24 hours and 10 men today, from three months and 500 men in 1969,” when new hiring ceased.
So-called mechanization agreements between unions and bosses weren’t new in 1969. The mine workers’ union, under its president, John L. Lewis, signed similar pacts after the end of World War II. Today, the terminally weakened miners’ union is struggling to force the bosses to maintain pensioners’ benefits, while the bosses close union mines one day and open non-union mines the next.
Why union bureaucrats push their memberships to ratify mechanization deals is largely based on the union tops’ refusal to engage in a showdown fight with the bosses over issues that are vital to the bosses’ competitiveness. So generally, the concessions unions gain from bosses are restricted to those that the bosses are willing (though reluctant) to make.
For decades now, unions have traded off working conditions, manning quotas, shop steward power, and jobs for a raise for some and pink slips for others. Once the unions are weakened, the bosses demand even more from their collaborators in the union offices. That happened to the New York/ New Jersey ILA. In the last contract, the ILA “agreed to a two-tiered system in which any new longshoreman would receive $14 an hour for their first three years rather than $24 an hour that longer-serving workers got.”
“This wasn’t a popular move with our people,” said ILA President Bowers, “but it helped the port become more competitive.”
Recently, New York and New Jersey politicians further weakened the union by adopting laws allowing workers to be hired “by the shipping companies rather than the unions, so that workers could be selected for the specialized skills that are needed.”
One final point: The same AFL-CIO officialdom that dreads losing jobs to overseas workers accepts the loss of jobs due to mechanization and speedup with barely a murmur of protest. Here too, the reason is their refusal to get into a bare-knuckle beef when the bosses competitiveness is at stake.
“Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg” is both the business unionist’s strategic cornerstone and the union’s downfall.
A first for immigrant workers
A year ago, the Social Security Administration notified a California motel chain that the social security numbers for nine unionized room cleaners making just $6.25 an hour didn’t match the agency’s numbers. In short order, the workers were fired. The Hotel and Restaurant Employees Local 2 took the firings to arbitration.
According to the San Francisco Bay Guardian (May 17-23), the arbitrator “found the company’s motivation suspect. A number of the fired workers had been listed in a previous no-match letter from SSA and the company had taken no action. … [The arbitrator] noted that they [the motel bosses] had no reason other than the letter to question the workers’ immigration status. … The workers’ immigration status was not an issue in the hearings.”
The protesting workers got re-hired, but it’s not clear whether they got back pay. The union recently won new protections for their immigrant members.
According to a Local 2 representative, “In our new contract, if the employer is aware of any INS action, they must inform us right away so we can represent the workers. If someone is fired because they don’t have papers, they have up to a year to some back and still have job rights.”
From the first, the workers fought for their jobs, carrying out countless protests, backed by Local 2. One of the workers says that it wasn’t just the favorable arbitration that got them their jobs back. It was also “because of all the protests we made. When people are united we can win.”