The Spark

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

West Coast dockworkers locked out

Oct 7, 2002

On September 29, the PMA (the Pacific Maritime Association, the association of the owners of shipping lines and stevedoring companies) locked out members of the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union), effectively closing all 29 ports on the West Coast.

This attack by the PMA was hardly a surprise. The old contract had expired on July 1, and the big shipping companies have been pushing to impose a new contact with big takeaways that include the outsourcing of clerical work. The bosses justified this by saying that they wanted to automate the clerical work, that is, to bring in scanners and computers to keep track of cargo. But when the ILWU proposed that current clerks be trained to do this work, the companies turned them down cold. Obviously, the shipping companies are trying to whittle down higher-paying jobs covered under union contracts – shipping them instead to low-wage workplaces.

Finally, at the end of September, the owners denounced the ILWU because its members were "working to rule" – that is, observing all the safety rules. The owners called this a "strike with pay." They used that as the pretext to do what they had been threatening to do throughout the summer: lock the workers out. Once the lock-out began, the ILWU organized picket lines.

The lies the PMA and the news media have told about the ILWU workers are absurd. Supposedly, for example, they make $100,000 to $150,000 per year. In fact, they make between $60,000 and $80,000 – but only if they are in the top categories, working with overtime. And a big percentage of dockworkers are temps, or "casuals." In the largest port in the country, Los Angeles-Long Beach, for example, which handles more than two-thirds of all the cargo on the West Coast, half the dockworkers are "casuals." These supposedly high-paid workers have to scrape by on irregular pay and benefits while they wait for a possible opening as a registered, full-time longshoreman. Of those who finally make it to full-time work, they often have only 10 or 15 years left to go before they retire.

Obviously, these kinds of lies are aimed at isolating the unionized workers who make somewhat better pay (or at least have the hope to, if they ever make full-time) from the rest of the workforce.

The best response the longshore workers could make to this kind of attack is to propose to other workers to fight to improve their own pay and conditions. We are all under attack.