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New Turns In The ILWU’s Year-Long Contract Fight

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At the beginning of June, West Coast ports were shaken by a series of labor disruptions staged by members of the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union (ILWU). On Friday, June 2, marine terminals at Long Beach and Los Angeles were effectively shut down. Similar actions across the west coast either shut down or disrupted terminal operations at the ports of Oakland, Tacoma, Seattle, and Hueneme. Even when some operations resumed on Monday, disruptions continued at Long Beach, with Total Terminals International forced to cancel operations in the city. Further actions shut down the Port of Seattle.

However, by Wednesday, June 14, actions stopped as the union and the bosses released a joint statement announcing a tentative agreement for a six-year contract. The deal was brokered by Julie Su, the Biden administration’s acting Secretary of Labor. The announcement of the tentative agreement says nothing about what was agreed beyond  a vague assertion that it “recognizes the heroic efforts and personal sacrifices of the ILWU workforce in keeping our ports operating.”

The actions at the beginning of June and subsequent tentative agreement come as the ILWU has been stuck in protracted contract negotiations for over a year. The previous contract, covering 22,000 workers spanning 29 ports in California, Oregon, and Washington, expired on July 1 of 2022. Contract negotiations began May of the same year. Throughout the contract negotiation process, ILWU leadership remained insistent that talks are running smoothly and that an agreement is in sight. Even during the recent disruptions, the ILWU denied that any breakdown occurred.

Nonetheless, port workers have been met with intransigence from the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), the bosses’ organization representing ocean carriers and terminal operators on the west coast. This has driven resistance to the PMA, primarily centered around workers in ILWU Local 13, representing ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach. Although a tentative agreement has been announced, it’s far from clear that it include the demands workers were fighting for and it may yet be voted down, leading to renewed escalations.

Behind The Breakdown

While the pandemic severely set back maritime trade in 2020, the opening up of the economy in 2021 saw massive profits in the industry. These soaring profits didn’t translate into gains for workers, who were still confined by their old contract. Going into the new contract, the PMA has tried to put forward paltry single-digit raises, while increasing automation to reduce hours. As contract negotiations have drawn out, the PMA has also refused to make wage increases retroactive to the expiration of the old contract last July.

The ILWU has a militant history going back to the 1934 San Francisco general strike. That reputation still exists in the public consciousness as the union has staged high-profile strikes in support of political causes like the Occupy movement or Palestinian liberation. However, going into the contract negotiations, the ILWU leadership has adopted an opaque, business-unionist approach of backroom negotiations that has left union members in the dark.

From the start of the negotiations, the ILWU made an agreement with the PMA to refrain from publicly commenting on the negotiations. As early as February 23, they issued a joint statement assuring the public that both sides were “hopeful of reaching a deal soon.”

As the deal became less hopeful, workers in Local 13 began pressuring the bosses through a series of “work to rule” actions, designed to grind production to a halt while falling short of all-out strike action. In March, workers in Los Angeles and Long Beach began arranging their lunch breaks at the same time to disrupt the port operations. In May, actions included “red-tagging” equipment to trigger extra safety inspections.

By May, there was another push toward conciliation. An agreement was reached regarding manning requirements. Stephen Lyons, the Biden administration’s supply chain envoy, declared “we should see tentative agreements soon.” However, the PMA’s intransigence on wages, especially their refusal to make wage increases retroactive, continued. The most recent disputes arose over these issues.

Throughout disputes, the ILWU stuck to its commitment to refrain from public comment. But the bosses didn’t respond in kind. When the PMA attacked Local 13 over the lunch break actions, ILWU President Willie Adams refused to go on the offensive, simply declaring that workers are allowed “to take a lunch break just like everyone else.” PMA attacked the union for the most recent disruptions, the ILWU continued insisting that talks hadn’t broken down.

But the actions of the longshore workers, point the way to the more militant approach necessary to take on the bosses.

Where Is The Dispute Going?

When contract negotiations first stalled back in March, bosses organizations like the National Retail Federation, the American Trucking Associations, and the US Chamber of Commerce, showed their true colors in a letter urging the Biden administration to intervene. The Chamber of Commerce repeated this call after the June actions. This brings up the specter of the railway dispute last December where Biden, the self-proclaimed “most pro-union president,” intervened to break the rail workers’ strike.

There are reasons why the Biden administration opted to oversee negotiation this time around, rather than repeat the railway situation. With an election coming up, Biden isn’t eager to have two major acts of strike-breaking on his hands. More importantly, the Biden administration and the PMA are expecting to force concessions from the ILWU through a drawn-out battle of attrition. The resulting tentative agreement has allowed Joe Biden to proclaim “collective bargaining works” while still producing something that Chamber of Commerce president Suzanne P. Clark could hail as “a win for American businesses.”

Throughout the year-long contract negotiations, the bosses have been shifting away from the west coast towards the East and Gulf coasts, which are represented by the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), rather than the ILWU. The bosses blame this on the US-China conflict, but it’s fundamentally a maneuver to put the squeeze on the ILWU in order to force a concession. This has become even more clear after the announcement of the tentative agreement when retailers and importers announced that they will bring cargo back to the West Coast ports only after the agreement is ratified.

In addition to economic pressure, the bosses are retaliating against the workers, with mass firings within the first hours of each shift. The ILWU’s acceptance of closed contract negotiations helps the bosses’ maneuvers.

The ILWU leadership’s bad approach extends to their silence on the content of the tentative agreement. Before Su’s arrival, there were massive differences between the ILWU and the PMA on both the amount of the workers’ wage increases, and the retroactive application of the increase. An agreement that makes the Chamber of Commerce happy is likely to leave many workers disappointed. As the tentative agreement goes to a vote, we could see a no vote and further actions analogous to those during Striketober.

In spite of the bosses’ attacks and the poor leadership from the union, longshore workers have enormous economic power. The disruptions that have already taken place during the contract negotiations show what can be done to fight back. Even after the labor actions concluded, their impact was felt. The Los Angeles and Long Beach ports have faced a massive backlog, with 31 ships delayed for at least a week and another 16 delayed for at least four days. In Oakland, there was a seven-vessel backlog, and crane productivity in Seattle and Tacoma took a serious hit. When the Chamber of Commerce sent its most recent call for the Biden administration to intervene, they warned “A serious work stoppage at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach would likely cost the US economy nearly half a billion dollars a day – and a more widespread strike along the West Coast could cost approximately $1 billion per day.”

The ILWU negotiations have been going on so long that they are now stretching into the end of the Teamsters’ contract with UPS. Like the Teamsters, longshore workers can show the entire working class what it looks like to fight and win.

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