When the International Longshore and Warehouse Union violently protested the hiring of non-ILWU workers at a Pacific Northwest grain elevator, the union’s East and Gulf Coast counterparts were quick to offer moral support.
Harold Daggett, newly elected president of the International Longshoremen’s Association, said his union would provide “any help it can.” Ken Riley, an ILA vice president from Charleston, S.C., accompanied Bob McEllrath when the ILWU president surrendered to face misdemeanor charges for blockading a train at the EGT terminal in Longview, Wash.
The ILA’s symbolic gestures were a sign of increasingly close ties between the ILWU and ILA, a development that’s raised concern among shippers in advance of next year’s ILA contract negotiations. Those concerns were heightened this month when the Panama Canal Pilots Union signed on as an ILWU affiliate.
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As shippers and carriers become increasingly global in their operations, the major U.S. longshore unions are pursuing their own form of globalization through partnerships with each other and with overseas labor organizations.
Daggett is pledging to work with the ILWU and the International Transport Workers Federation, a London-based umbrella group, to organize workers “up and down the logistics chain,” including dockworkers at Freeport, Bahamas, and other Caribbean transshipment hubs.
“It is my intention to bring the ILA closer to the ILWU, as we have many matters of mutual interest in dealing with management in protecting our jurisdictions and memberships,” Daggett told ILA convention delegates in July.
Underscoring his desire for closer ties with the ILWU, Daggett invited McEllrath to sit in as an observer during next year’s ILA contract negotiations. “We’ll be there, because we are one,” the ILWU president said.
ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees said Daggett’s statements reflect “a growing understanding that as the companies we work for have a global reach, the unions need to cooperate at an unprecedented level on the international scene.”
The cooperative talk represents a significant shift from the dock unions’ sometimes strained relationship over the years. The talk may make shippers and carriers nervous, but legal and practical issues may limit the extent to which the talk will lead to concrete action.
The ILA and ILWU have made no move to seek common contract expiration dates, which would increase their negotiating leverage but would invite a public backlash against an all-ports strike. The ILA’s current contract expires Sept. 30, 2012; the ILWU’s in July 2014.
And although Daggett has pledged full support to the ILWU in its dispute with the EGT grain elevator in Longview, Wash., it’s not clear what the ILA can provide beyond moral support. Secondary boycotts, or sympathy strikes supporting other unions in unrelated disputes, are illegal under the Taft-Hartley Act.
However, every job action isn’t a formal strike. The ILWU is infamous for “hard-timing” employers through tactics such as work slowdowns that disrupt operations and force employers to pay longshoremen working at half-speed.
The U.S. dock unions’ cultivation of closer ties with their overseas counterparts also is getting the attention of shippers. The ILA and ILWU have long been active in the International Transport Workers Federation, and occasionally have sought and received help from unions in other countries.
The ILWU has proved its ability to make even loose international cooperative pacts work effectively. West Coast dockworkers have boycotted ships loaded in Asian and Australian ports in response to calls for cooperation for dockworkers in those countries, and overseas unions have reciprocated by supporting ILWU requests for help.
Last year, the ILWU supported Costa Rica dockworkers resisting port privatization. Merrilees said armed military forces supported efforts to replace the existing union with “puppet union leaders.” But with ILWU assistance, “the union dockworkers were able to resist that attempt and they held on to their jobs.”
The ILA has been less visible on the international front. However, Ken Riley, a member of the union’s activist Longshore Workers Coalition, credits the ITF’s Spanish dockworker affiliate with pressuring Nordana Line to rescind a 2000 decision to hire non-union longshoremen.
Five ILA members, including Riley’s brother Leonard, were arrested after a melee that followed Nordana’s hiring of non-union workers at Charleston. The ILWU’s Local 10 in the San Francisco Bay Area called a one-day work stoppage in support of the “Charleston 5.”
Over the years, the ILWU has periodically conducted boycotts simply to make a political statement. The union has limited those actions since Joseph Miniace, president of the Pacific Maritime Association employers group in the 1990s, began bypassing waterfront grievance procedures and taking the ILWU to court.
International labor solidarity remains part of the ILWU’s “bedrock foundation,” but that principle “has to be done according to the rules and processes we work with under the contract,” Merrilees said.
To avoid lawsuits alleging illegal secondary boycotts, recent ILWU job actions have been targeted at specific employers and limited in duration.
An example came in early September when ILWU locals closed container ports at Seattle and Tacoma to join the union’s demonstrators at Longview. The ILWU’s international office in San Francisco disavowed responsibility for the shutdown, and Seattle and Tacoma workers were back on the job for the next shift. ILWU locals in Southern California stayed on the job.
Under its longtime leader Teddy Gleason, the ILA was fond of using boycotts to express its views on foreign policy and other issues, often from a diametrically opposite point of view from the left-leaning ILWU.
The ILA lost its enthusiasm for international boycotts after being socked with a nearly $10 million legal judgment for boycotting Russian ships and cargoes following the Soviets’ 1980 invasion of Afghanistan.
Now the ILA is fighting a $6 million damage suit filed by the New York Shipping Association over a two-day work stoppage last fall in support of Philadelphia dockworkers protesting the shift of Fresh Del Monte’s fruit imports to a non-ILA terminal.
Carriers involved in the NYSA lawsuit said they pressed legal action not only to recoup losses from the surprise work stoppage, but also to warn the ILA that employers wouldn’t accept similar actions without fighting back.
The current ILA-ILWU cooperation is aimed not merely at employers but at fending off incursions into traditional longshore work by unions including the Teamsters and Seafarers International Union on the East and Gulf coasts, and the International Union of Operating Engineers in Longview, Wash.
The ILWU’s dispute with the EGT grain terminal at Longview stems from the company’s hiring of a subcontractor employing members of the operating engineers union. At Philadelphia, the ILA is upset with Fresh Del Monte’s shift to a terminal employing members of a small independent union.
Speaking at the ILA convention last July, McEllrath noted the word “longshoremen” dates to the sailing-ship era when seafarers docked their ships and asked for dockside help by calling out, “Along shore, men! Along shore, men!”
“They didn’t drift up to the dock and say, ‘Along shore, Teamsters!’ ‘Along shore, SIU!’ ‘Along shore, operating engineers!’ ” McEllrath said. “These are our jobs, and we are going to take them back.”
ILWU protests at Longview began last summer when demonstrators blocked a BNSF Railway train from carrying grain to the EGT terminal. Despite a federal judge’s restraining order, union demonstrators this month blocked another BNSF train, dumped grain from railcars, damaged terminal property and threatened workers.
The ILWU has gone to the mat with EGT because the union sees much more at stake than just the few dozen jobs at the grain terminal. The ILWU is determined to avoid what happened in the 1980s to the ILA, which lost virtually all its bulk cargo and much of its breakbulk work after high costs drove shippers to seek non-ILA alternatives.
The ILA’s bulk and breakbulk losses didn’t spread to the union’s container business. Unlike bulk and breakbulk operators, major container lines are tied to the ILA’s coastwide master contract.
Likewise, the ILWU’s dispute at Longview is separate from the West Coast union’s relationship with container lines represented by the Pacific Maritime Association. ILWU locals engaged in container work normally don’t become involved in contract disputes at Pacific Northwest grain terminals, which are covered by separate contracts. The bulk shipping operators that call at the grain terminals have, at best, limited affiliation with the container lines.
A similar situation exists with other ILWU-affiliated unions such as the Office Clerical Union in Southern California. The OCU has been working without a contract for the past year and, even though McEllrath has sat in on negotiations, the ILWU workers at the container terminals have refrained from taking job actions to support the OCU workers.
Notwithstanding the fears of many retailers and other shippers, the ILWU’s new partnership with the Panama Canal Pilots Union does not appear to be an attempt by two powerful unions to place a chokehold on Asia-U.S. trade.
Merrilees said the ILWU and Panamanians will discuss the framework of their partnership in the coming months but will wait until the ILWU convention next July 2012 before voting on the details of the pact.
If the relationship between the ILWU and ILWU Canada is any guide, the Panama partnership will most likely be a loose arrangement in which each union has its own contract with different starting dates. Panamanian law prohibits canal pilots from striking, and any ILWU sympathy strike would almost certainly be met by a secondary-boycott lawsuit by the PMA.
And ILWU Canada seemed to suggest at last month’s Journal of Commerce Canada Maritime Conference that there are limits to cross-border labor cooperation when it comes to job-generating cargo volume.
At a session on what U.S. ports say is unfair Canadian government support that is luring trans-Pacific container volume to the Port of Prince Rupert, ILWU Canada President Tom Dufresne said the Canadian port boasted “a motivated work force that’s dedicated to doing a good job.”