The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

West Coast Longshore:
Workers Have to Spread Their Fights

Jun 26, 2023

On June 14, the union that represents 22,000 dockworkers on the West Coast reached a tentative deal with port operators set to last for six years. In no way is this deal a victory for the workers.

The new agreement does not stop the erosion of jobs and working conditions. These workers are increasingly being squeezed. Instead of hiring more dockworkers who are union, the companies pressure workers to work more hours and work through the night and other demands. The next six years under this new agreement promise to be more of the same, if not worse.

Neither does the new agreement stop the erosion of workers’ living standards. Workers at the docks haven’t had a raise in years. The new agreement includes a 32% pay increase spread over six years, which doesn’t come close to making up for how much the workers have lost to inflation.

Neither does the new agreement touch the horrible two-tier system of pay and benefits. In the first tier are the so-called Class A longshoremen, who routinely make $100,000 per year for operating heavy machinery under sometimes dangerous conditions. Making up the second tier are the “casual” dockworkers. These casuals earn $32 per hour. But they don’t get any health or retirement benefits. And they are not guaranteed any shifts. So, they are forced to survive without a predictable income, hoping that eventually they will be promoted to the first tier. The casuals don’t even belong to the union and can’t vote on the very contract that sets the terms of their employment.

The companies also advertised a 70 million dollar “hero” bonus for working through the pandemic, which turns out to be only a few thousand dollars when divided by the 22,000 workers. During the pandemic, dozens of dockworkers died and thousands were sickened keeping the ports open. What the companies are offering is much less than one percent of the profit bonanza the shipping companies made in one year during the pandemic, as they hiked prices to the sky and price-gouged with impunity.

The shipping companies never could have imposed such a horrible deal without the close cooperation and help of the U.S. government. Just look at how government officials pressured the union officials. Long before negotiations started, the Biden administration openly bragged that it had the authority to break any strike that it said would “cripple the economy.”

As negotiations dragged on for more than a year, the Pacific Maritime Association, the mouthpiece for the port and shipping companies, issued an open letter calling on the Biden administration to intervene and end the deadlock. So, Biden immediately dispatched acting U.S. Secretary of Labor Julie Su to the bargaining table. Two days later there was an agreement. Obviously, Su let the ILWU negotiators know that the Biden administration would follow through on its threats to make any strike action illegal, just like it had done last year against the railroad workers, imposing the bosses’ demands on the workers.

In fact, the Biden administration is no different than any other presidential administration. They all support the capitalists against the workers. This is nothing new.

Workers have to find an answer to this. Obviously, the dockworkers are at the center of world trade. Trillions of dollars in goods pass through their hands every year. And that’s an important bargaining chip that the workers hold. But the dockworkers cannot fight alone and win. Because it also means taking on the government. To do that, the workers have to be able to spread the fight from workplace to workplace. They have to turn their individual fight into a broader fight, a real social explosion. That’s what both the bosses and the government fear the most, because it’s what hits them where they hurt—their pocketbook. It’s the only way to win.