By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The ILWU countered that much of the technology in question was already in use but that it didn't always work: Sometimes a worker will be staring at a container while his printout tells him the can is sitting in Shanghai, or a container's bar code has been so battered that it is unscannable. In the last decade the ILWU had dodged any new-technology proposals during the previous contract talks, and unions in general are not known for their computer acumen. The national ILWU Web site is a joke — a bland page that consists mainly of its logo, it makes for a East-West Berlin contrast with the PMA's busy and colorful site. Nevertheless, during this year's negotiations the union said it would accept the technological advances, even though they would cost an estimated 400 jobs. What the ILWU wanted in return was jurisdiction over the mouse jockeys doing the clicking and dragging at their computer terminals.
"Historically this is work that we've always done," says former ILWU international president Dave Arian, who also sat at the contract talks, "but the PMA has been shifting the work away from us since 1982. They've set up ship-planning offices in right-to-work states like Utah and Arizona. The key phrase is that our clerks gain jurisdiction through initial data input when it hits the waterfront. That's not a technicality to us. It's like [ILWU founder] Harry Bridges said — even if there's just one button left or one job to do on the waterfront, we want it."
THE RELATIVELY SMALL ILWU (ABOUT 42,000 STRONG, not including members from its autonomous Canadian branch) was born out of the bloody West Coast strike of 1934. Three years later, the strike's leader, Harry Bridges, led his men to split from the conservative and mob-tinged International Longshoremen's Association, whose members today work East Coast and Gulf ports.
Bridges, who died in 1990, lived the story of a vanished century when men carried enormous weight on their backs and often had to bribe labor contractors for the privilege. The Australian native began his maritime career during WWI as a merchant sailor who loved to play the mandolin, got shipwrecked a couple of times and joined the most radical union in American history, the International Workers of the World. Bridges would eventually move to dock work in San Francisco and orthodox Marxism, but he held on to the IWW's credo, "An injury against one is an injury against all," which remains the ILWU's motto.
Three U.S. government attempts to deport Bridges, along with the memory of the waterfront's old Dickensian working conditions and the class-consciousness that Bridges instilled in his followers, shapes the union to this day, invigorating ILWU members with a visceral hostility to management and a deep distrust of federal intervention. This hardened attitude has proved intimidating to others; some people consented to be interviewed for this article only on condition of anonymity. "My car wouldn't be worth driving after going through the gate if you used my name," said one marine surveyor, while one ILWU member begged off from being quoted even off the record, claiming, "I could be fined $1,000 a word if they found out."
To be sure, ILWU muscle has been flexed in other pursuits besides moving cargo. Although during the lockout it received a back rub of rhetorical support from the AFL-CIO, the ILWU has been engaged in a little-publicized street fight with other waterfront unions over jobs that currently belong to those unions. At the annual county Labor Day parade in Wilmington, the ILWU's contingent marched up Avalon Avenue as members of the International Association of Machinists Local 1484 unfurled a banner in front of their headquarters near M Street: "An Injury to One Is an Injury to All. ILWU Stop Raiding Our Jobs! We Need To Sit Down and Talk." Tensions have escalated to the point where an October letter signed by the heads of unions representing machinists, seafarers, ironworkers and operating engineers announced that those groups would not honor future ILWU picket lines. (Full disclosure: This writer is a member of a machinist local not involved in the waterfront-jurisdiction dispute.)
This kind of strife isn't confined to interunion arm wrestling. The ILWU is striving to preserve the ranks of its clerical units, such as L.A.'s Local 63, and like Americans in other formerly labor-intensive professions, brawny longies are increasingly becoming clerks whose occupational hazard is more likely to be carpal tunnel than hernias. (In fact, becoming a clerk is seen among many longshoremen and -women as a career advancement: After many strenuous years outdoors, a worker gets a high-paying job at a desk as a prelude to retirement.) During negotiations, however, there had been talk of a division between the dockworkers of Local 13 and the clerks of Local 63, with the "hooks" (the longies) claiming too much attention was being paid to the needs of the "clipboards" (the clerks). One harbor labor official told me he'd heard of a physical confrontation between members of the two locals at a Long Beach terminal, but, like so much of what one hears along the waterfront, this specific story could not be confirmed, and calls to the facility in question were not returned. Still, the overall rift was no secret along the docks.