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Pier Pressure 

Signs of a rumble on the waterfront

Wednesday, Oct 2 2002
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Photos by Slobodan Dimitrov

"I'LL TELL YOU ONE THING -- THERE'S GONNA be some cracked heads before this thing is over," said the man as a waitress brought his check.

Tuesday morning marked the second full day of the Pacific Maritime Association's (PMA) coastwide lockout of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), and no matter how hard people tried, the talk at Canetti's Seafood Grotto in San Pedro kept returning to the port troubles.

"I'm not on anyone's side," said one woman. "They're both a bunch of spoiled babies who don't want to give in. I'm sick and tired of all the news people and TV cameras that've been coming into town since this thing started."

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The PMA had locked out the union for 36 hours beginning Friday night and then, in response to what it claims was an ILWU work slowdown, locked it out again after the first Sunday work shift -- effectively initiating an owner's strike that, by widely quoted sources, could cost the national economy $1 billion per day.


Landlocked at Long Beach.

A few blocks from the diner, small knots of ILWU men and women formed informational picket lines in front of berth entrances, with ships anchored in the background stacked four stories high with containers. Bigger demonstrations drew crowds further north along Harbor Boulevard and First Street, and in front of the gates leading to Berths 110 through 126. The support of honking motorists sounded like a baseball-game rally. The picketers were jovial walking the line, but curt with reporters, with whom they'd been instructed not to speak. The ILWU does not have a reputation for being the most media-friendly union, and its zipped-mouth approach to the press makes the PMA seem garrulous by comparison. The union will allow that the lockout, which has closed all 29 West Coast ports, was expected.

"Only someone who wasn't paying attention would have been surprised," Steve Stallone, the International's communications director told the Weekly by phone from San Francisco. "They've been saying they'd do this since January and got themselves a $200 million line of credit."

The ILWU's members are among the best-paid laborers in America, a fact that is bound to figure prominently in TV-pundit rinks and on op-ed pages.

"What's wrong with being well-paid?" Stallone bridled. "We raise the bar for all of America's workers, we raise their levels of pay and benefits."

LOCAL 13, L.A. HARBOR'S DOMINANT ILWU chapter, is headquartered on a grim side street in Wilmington. The building sports the usual union-moderne architecture -- a one-story brick structure with a POW flag fluttering on a pole beneath the stars and stripes, and the kind of "smokers station" wall lighters that you find in prison yards.

"I don't speak Spanish," the local's president, Ramon Ponce de Leon Jr., told a news crew from Spanish-language TV station Galavision-TV 62, and had someone translate his responses. Ramon Sr. had also been an ILWU member, and today the son recalled the big 1971 strike.


Labor cops: A new LAPD
detail talks picket strategy
with Local 13.


"I was 10 years old then," he said. "We got a 100-pound bag of beans and lived on it for four months."

But, he said, the ILWU had never been locked out during his lifetime, and he felt the mediations now under way in the Bay Area would favor only the PMA, especially with Republicans in the White House. "The PMA provoked this slowdown because they wanted federal mediation. They told us that there would be no overtime for three weeks, and so we said, 'Okay, then we're only going to work eight-hour days.' These are the last American jobs -- manufacturing has left the country. We're against the water."

Looming in the background is the likelihood that President Bush will invoke the Taft-Hartley Labor Act, which will force the ILWU back to work for 80 days, and the mere mention of which last year forced airline mechanics to settle their contract talks with United Airlines.

"We want to work right now, during the mediation," de Leon said, "but we're not allowed to. This is America, for chrissake!"

Indeed, Tim Kennedy, the PMA's area manager, confirmed that workers will not be let back in during the current mediation effort. "We've been talking since May 13," he told the Weekly by phone, "and feel that it doesn't make sense to try to fill orders when the union won't provide the personnel we need on time. We won't open the gates until either they extend the contract or resume negotiations."

YOU DON'T HAVE TO LOOK FAR AROUND THE harbor for labor history. Nearby Liberty Hill was the rallying point for striking longshoremen in the 1920s and where Upton Sinclair was arrested for reading the Constitution in public; and, of course, the main road linking San Pedro with Wilmington is named for Harry Bridges, who founded the ILWU following the bruising coastal shutdown of 1934. Bridges' lifelong animosity for the shippers was implacable and mutual. Decades of bad blood could lead to something America hasn't seen in more than 30 years, a good old rumble on the waterfront.

Ask both sides what the fight is over, and they'll tell you automation and benefits, but for diners at Canetti's Tuesday, the issue remained the stubborn pride and wealth of the two sides.

"It's just like the baseball strike," one man said. "Everyone's greedy."

Just then eight Redondo Beach motorcycle cops and a patrol car swung into the parking lot.

"Yesss!" cried a waitress, calling out to a co-worker. "Set up a table for eight, nine -- 10! Boy, maybe this lockout'll be good for business after all."

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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