US docks: automation versus union power

Submitted by AWL on 9 June, 2015 - 5:27 Author: Barry Docherty

Members of the American International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) have just agreed a five-year deal with the employers federation, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA). The deal covers 20,000 dockworkers at twenty-nine US west coast ports.

The nine-month-long war of attrition by the PMA which preceded the deal was the latest stage in an employers’ offensive against US dockers stretching back to the early 1960s. Before then, working conditions on the docks had been dictated by the ILWU’s victory in the 1934 US West Coast dockers strike.

The 1934 strike saw the ILWU effectively win control over hiring and firing. Work was allocated in ILWU-run central dispatch halls. ILWU members could be sacked only if a union grievance committee (on which employers were not represented) agreed.

The strike victory also saw the ILWU establish on-the-job controls, including overall staffing levels, gang sizes for all individual cargoes, and maximum weights for cargoes being loaded into or unloaded from a hold.

But from the mid-1950s onwards ports in the US, and around the world, began to be transformed by containerisation. By 1975 more than two thirds of all dry good shipped through US ports were containerised. Under the leadership of veteran Stalinist Harry Bridges, the ILWU response to containerisation was to trade away jobs and union controls over the work process in exchange for higher pay and bonuses for the remaining dockworkers.

In 1961 Bridges negotiated the first five-year Mechanisation and Modernisation Agreement (MMA) with the PMA. In exchange for one-off bonus payments of $7,900 (payable on retirement, provided the employee had 25 years service), Bridges surrendered all on-the-job controls.

Opposition to the deal among dockworkers was isolated and unorganised. Many dockers were unhappy with the deal, but still placed their trust in Bridges. The latter argued that it was better to sell away workplace controls now, while it was possible to get “a good price” for them, rather than surrender them for nothing in future years.

The first MMA was ratified by a two to one majority. The second one (1966) was ratified by a much narrower majority of seven to five. Again, Bridges had been able to persuade a majority that higher bonus payments (increased to $13,600) in exchange for allowing the PMA to select “steady men” (i.e. permanent employees) was a good deal.

The third MMA (1971) provoked the longest dockers’ strike in US history, lasting a total of 134 days (interrupted by an injunction served under the US equivalent of the Tory anti-union legislation).

Organised at rank-and-file level in the different ports, it was the first organised opposition to the ILWU bureaucracy in the union’s history. But it went down to defeat.

Outmanoeuvred by the bureaucracy — which did not even set up a strike fund, exempted military cargoes from strike action, and demoralised members by warning of the inevitability of modernisation — the strikers were driven back to work by economic hardship.

Still demoralised by the defeat of 1971, there was no strike action in opposition to the fourth MMA (1976). But three referendum of ILWU members had to be held before the ILWU leadership were able to secure acceptance of it.

The employer’s offensive over containerisation was equally successful on the US east coast, where the dockers’ union is the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA). In those years the ILA was run by the Genovese crime family (i.e. the mafia): “When your past branch chair is found floating in the Hackensack River with two bullet holes in his head, you don’t ask too many questions. When the man who takes over your branch threatens to settle disputes with a blowtorch to the crotch, you don’t go to the union office to voice concerns.”

As one ILA activist recalled: “Every once in a while you’d find out somebody got assassinated. The only copy of the contract was kept in the union office, and you didn’t want to ask for a copy.”

Another ILA activist who attended an ILWU congress after US anti-racketeering laws were used to undermine mafia control summed up the difference between the two unions: “You mean it’s possible to not get pistol-whipped when you go to the microphone at a meeting?”

In the early 2000s a further wave of technological change began to spread around the world’s ports: automation.

Automation involves the application of modern IT to port operations. As one port employer put it: “The way I see it, we’re not really in the transportation business anymore. We’re in the information business.”

Automation does away with crane-driver jobs (multiple cranes are run automatically by one individual in a control room) and driving and loading jobs (containers are moved around on automated carts or “chassis”, again controlled by one individual in a control room).

Automation also speeds up the loading and unloading of ships, allows a greater number of containers to be stacked in a smaller space (because they can be stacked higher) and has facilitated the outsourcing of a range of functions (such as chassis maintenance).

The potential benefits of automation for employers are obvious: job losses; increased productivity; lower costs; increased control over the labour process; outsourcing from the better-paid to the lower-paid; and weaker trade union organisation. All of which adds up to: bigger profits. Pioneered in Asian and European ports, automation has spread only relatively recently to US west and east coast ports.

Despite the setbacks suffered by the ILWU and the ILA during the years of containerisation, both remain a formidable force which employers need to take on to achieve automation on their terms. But even before automation began to spread through US ports the ILWU had started to concede control over crucial areas to the employers.

Following a ten-day lockout the ILWU agreed to the PMA to axing clerical jobs through the introduction of IT in the 2002 “master contract” (the national-level ILWU-PMA agreement covering a period of five or six years).

When Norfolk port semi-automated in 2007 ILWU members lost out on every front. Almost a hundred jobs disappeared. A shortage of work enabled break-bulk (i.e. non-containerised cargoes) operators to cut pay by 36%. Less workers, less hours, and lower rates of pay hit the pension fund, leading trustees to cut pension accrual by 39%.

In 2011/12 the EGT (a multinational grain conglomerate) went on the attack at Longview port when it opened a fully automated grain terminal which needed 40% fewer workers to operate it.

EGT recruited through a subcontractor that hired from a local branch of the Operating Engineers Union, expelled from the local Trades Council for previous acts of scabbing.

ILWU members responded by forming human barricades on railway tracks to stop grain trains, dumping 10,000 tons of grain on railway tracks to block trains, occupying the new terminal, defying court injunctions which banned picketing, staging solidarity strikes by ILWU members in other ports, and organising mass protests in alliance with the Occupy movement.

The police and the state hit back with physical attacks on protestors, 80-strong riot police escorts for grain trains, $300,000 worth of fines, and mass arrests.

The ILWU secured recognition rights in the new terminal. But to do so it made major concessions including console operations opened to non-union staff, lower staffing levels and a mandatory 12-hour day.

Employers in other ports quickly pounced on the ILWU-EGT agreement as a new benchmark for working practices. Nine months later the Pacific North-West Grain Handlers Association (PNGHA) demanded the same concessions from the ILWU in the ports where they operated.

After an 18-month lockout by the PNGHA — during which union leaders opposed rank-and-file efforts to repeat the militancy which had characterised the Longview dispute — the ILWU settled for a deal indistinguishable from the EGT deal.

In place of a rank-and-file campaign of industrial action, the union leaders had looked to appeals to the courts and a nationalist campaign against foreign corporations. In the meantime, the scabs had carried on working.

While the PGNHA lockout was underway 600 ILWU clerical workers in the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports went on strike in protest at job losses and outsourcing (to low-pay, non-union workplaces). Within eight days ten container terminals had been shut down by their picket lines, which 10,000 dockers had refused to cross.

But when the deal negotiated by ILWU officials was put out to ballot two months later (February, 2013), it was rejected by all 16 bargaining units covering the clerical workers. The deal included provisions for job cuts — defended by ILWU officials as a necessary concession to prevent outsourcing!

Against this background of repeated concessions the ILWU entered into negotiations with the PMA in May 2014 about a new five-year “master contract” to replace the one due to expire in July.

From the outset the PMA took a hardline in negotiations, backed up by periodically eliminating late shifts, night shifts and holiday and weekend working — effectively a partial lockout of 20,000 dockers — in an attempt to break the resistance of ILWU members by slashing their earnings.

The PMA blamed the ILWU for its own lockout tactic, claiming that the ILWU was operating an unofficial go-slow which meant that there was no space in ports to unload ships. The ILWU countered by releasing aerial photographs showing plenty of space.

The PMA also argued that the ILWU’s supposed go-slow should not be “rewarded” by allowing its members to work shifts which attracted higher rates of pay.

To strengthen its anti-ILWU campaign in the media, the PMA brought in the Burson-Marsteller PR company, whose previous clients include Union Carbide India (responsible for the Bhopal disaster), members of the Argentinian military junta, and Blackwater Security of Iraq War fame.

Its media campaign focused on the image of the overpaid docker, sponging off ordinary citizens who paid inflated prices for imported goods to cover the costs of dockers’ pay.

While the PMA went on the offensive in the workplace and in the media, as well as trying to provoke the government into issuing an eighty-day injunction banning the ILWU from all forms of industrial action, the ILWU failed to develop any kind of counter-strategy.

During nine months of negotiation (May 2014 to February 2015) the ILWU kept its members in the dark about the negotiations and made no attempt to mobilise them or the community against the PMA’s co-ordinated offensive.

In a break with past practice, the “master contract” is not being voted on in union meetings but by postal ballot. The ILWU appears to have again made serious concessions.

For example, new arbitration panels are to be created, consisting of one ILWU nominee, one PMA nominee, and a nominee from the American equivalent of ACAS — far removed from the control of hiring and firing which the ILWU once enjoyed.

The latest “master contract” bears of the hallmarks of the ILWU’s tradition since the 1960s: negotiate pay and benefits increases for the existing workforce in exchange for worse working conditions and a dwindling degree of control over the labour process for a reduced workforce in the future.

In many ports around the world, including some in the America itself, automation is still in its earliest stages. The sorry decline of what was once one of the most powerful unions in America is an object lesson in how not to fight automation.

What is needed instead is: exploiting the tremendous power which dockers can exercise because of their pivotal position in the economy; militant industrial action, organised and co-ordinated at rank-and-file level; mobilising support from local communities and other trade unions; and regular report-backs from negotiators, subject to lay-member accountability.

And above all: recognising that making concessions today will lead to making even greater concessions tomorrow.

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