Workers Have the Power to Win: Tensions Build on West Coast Ports

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Truck drivers at the Port of Los Angeles walked out on strike on November 13, demanding to be classified as employees, not independent contractors. This action at the biggest and most important container port in the U.S. quickly spread from two companies to six.

Meanwhile, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) and 20,000 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) have been without a contract for the entire West Coast since July 1.

International shipping companies are relentlessly pursuing new labor-saving technologies to cut down on their costs and boost profits, intensifying competition between ports and presenting a challenge to ILWU, a union with a long record of militant action.

In 2011-2012, ILWU members in Longview, Washington waged a ferocious battle against EGT, a conglomerate of grain exporters that opened a new state-of-the-art grain terminal and sought to operate it without ILWU labor.

The Longview ILWU local worked with Occupy activists to build a powerful protest against EGT, the threat of which – alongside targeted action by the union – was enough to help force EGT to negotiate with the ILWU.

ILWU defended its jurisdiction on West Coast ports, but the final contract was a step backward, watering down the union’s control of the hiring hall and the work process. This set a precedent that the PMA wants to exploit.

The ILWU, because of its role in critical West Coast ports, has the power to bring important sections of the U.S. economy grinding to a halt. The National Association of Manufacturers estimates a West Coast port shutdown would cost the U.S. economy $2 billion a day, and business groups are calling on the federal government to intervene.

The ILWU’s power to defend itself has been unjustly restricted by laws imposed by the two corporate parties. But if the bosses’ relentless pursuit of profit gives the ILWU no choice but to break the law and mobilize its full power, it would undoubtedly inspire thousands of people to support port workers, just like what happened with with EGT.

Concessions are unacceptable. The entire labor movement must be ready to defend port drivers and the ILWU if needed. An injury to one is an injury to all!

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