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
"There's always a bit of a conflict between Local 13 and 63," says one steamship-company manager. "The guys in Local 13 are the ones who made this union, and the clerks are overpaid prima donnas."
THE ILWU'S NEMESIS, THE PACIFIC MARITIME ASSOciation, is an amoebic bureaucracy that began life in 1948 as a maritime payroll service. It has, in some ways, become bigger than the companies it represents and the union it does battle with. Besides acting as the industry's liaison with the ILWU, the PMA is responsible for training union members for skilled jobs and for port safety standards — it even has veto power over how many new union members the ILWU can register. All of its constituent companies I contacted declined to discuss the negotiations and referred questions to the PR firm of Steve Sugerman, a former L.A. deputy mayor under Richard Riordan.
No one seriously believed the ILWU would call a strike to win a new contract, either after its agreement with the PMA expired in July or when their subsequent talks went nowhere. The owners' version of a strike, the lockout, was another story. The PMA knew that closing port gates, just as Christmas inventories were literally appearing on the horizon from Asia, would give President Bush the political cover he needed to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act. The 80-day injunction worked like magic for the association since, under its "cooling off" terms, it guaranteed that the ports would remain open through the end of the Christmas shopping season, while removing even the possibility of a union strike.
The PMA says it locked the gates to its West Coast ports on September 29 (the negotiations did not involve union locals in Hawaii, Alaska and Canada) after the union had both failed to send out sufficient numbers of workers from its hiring hall and begun a "work to rule" slowdown, in which employees strictly observe every safety regulation. Yet even some non-ILWU observers deny there had been any sign of an ILWU slowdown prior to September 29.
"There was nothing out of the ordinary going on when the shutdown happened," says one Maersk company supervisor who requested anonymity. "The PMA manufactured this 'slowdown' on their books and bar charts to justify its lockout." Kevin Kucera, the president of Local 1484 of the International Association of Machinists, told me that, in the days preceding the lockout, he personally observed yard managers turn away ILWU casuals that their companies had requested from the hiring hall operated by Local 13.
In the past, it's been universally acknowledged that the shippers, rather than risk work stoppages and bad blood with the ILWU, would just give the union what it wanted. But this time the PMA, led by president and CEO Joseph Miniace, was determined to stonewall the union. And for once it was the stevedoring companies, which manage dock space on behalf of the smaller shippers, spearheading the talks instead of the shippers themselves. While many of the bigger, richer lines like Maersk and American Presidents Line control their own docks and stevedoring operations, smaller lines must lease storage facilities and docking access from independents such as Stevedoring Services of America, a privately held company based in Seattle that was said to be the force behind the PMA's newly acquired backbone. The rise of the stevedoring companies' prominence reflects the fact that available dock space in L.A. harbors is vanishing — ports have built as far inland as they're legally entitled, and are still landfilling out toward the breakwater. By the year 2020, it is estimated that trade with Asia will increase 300 percent and, according to congressional testimony by Miniace, L.A. ports will require an additional 5,000 acres by 2010. Partly because of this, stevedoring companies have made technology a panacea that will solve the harbors' space crunch.
LOCAL 13 IS THE ILWU'S LARGEST BARGAINING UNIT, having some time ago surpassed San Francisco-Oakland's storied Local 10 — Harry Bridges' old power base. Like so many other symbols in California, 13's ascendancy marks the eclipse of Northern California by Los Angeles, for the international's president is James "Spinner" Spinosa, who was previously the head of the L.A. harbor clerical unit, the 1,100-strong Local 63. That last fact, in turn, italicizes the growing importance of white-collar unionists, who, like AFL-CIO head John Sweeney, a former activist of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, have moved to the fore of organized labor over the last decade.
Since its inception the ILWU has run its own dispatch halls, a unique arrangement that means the union tells the PMA who'll be working for its member companies. As a result, the same people are not likely to work for the same company year after year unless they want to. And, since there are far more jobs than full-time union workers, this means that ILWU members have maximum flexibility in how often they work. But the companies bitterly complain that ILWU halls are woefully inefficient and that workers rarely arrive on the job on time.
"They get to pick and choose what jobs they get," says one management employee of a shipping line. "And no one ever starts work on the hour. Right now the ILWU can't control its members or handle its own hiring halls."