Thursday, May 22, 2008

Dock Workers Protest Iraq War

From the San Francisco Chronicle:
Dockworkers from Long Beach to Seattle defied their employers and an arbitrator's ruling and brought cargo operations to a standstill for eight hours Thursday in protest of the war in Iraq.
At least 6,000 workers represented by San Francisco's International Longshore and Warehouse Union did not report for work for the day shift, effectively shutting down 29 West Coast ports. Their president, Bob McEllrath, issued a statement that read, "We're supporting the troops and telling politicians in Washington that it's time to end the war in Iraq."
A day earlier, an independent arbitrator sided with waterfront terminal operators and other employers who suspected a job action was in the works, and ruled that halting work would be a contract violation.
The ILWU was not dissuaded.
"It's important that these processes are in place and we respect them," ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees said of the ruling by arbitrator John Kagel. "We also have an obligation and are proud to respect the First Amendment rights our members have as citizens governed by the Constitution. This is a voluntary act of good citizenship to shake the tree in Washington, D.C., and get those folks to wake up and respect the overwhelming majority of Americans," who want to end the war, Merrilees said.
Thousand of people in goods distribution, including truckers and distribution center employees, were affected by the one-shift work stoppage, but it came on a relatively light day at the docks and it appeared that logistics planners worked around the action, which was long advertised. The evening shift Thursday began without interruption.
The ILWU's Longshore Caucus, the highest decision-making body of the union, overwhelmingly approved a resolution in February to request employers grant the union a "stop-work meeting" on May 1. The ILWU contract states that the union can use one shift per month to stop work and have a meeting to discuss union issues, and employers routinely grant those requests - but only for an evening shift, when there is less cargo to move.
The union wanted time off on the day shift, but the employers said it would be disruptive. On April 8, the union withdrew the daytime request but proceeded with the original plan for a stop-work meeting. According to evidence Kagel gathered, workers made it known that they would not be working on Thursday at several ports, including Tacoma, Seattle, Oakland, Los Angeles and Long Beach.
The action takes on another layer of significance because the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents terminal operators, shipping companies and other employers, are involved in contract negotiations.
"It's of more concern to us because it signals something that is more sinister," said Steve Getzug, a spokesman for the Pacific Maritime Association, suggesting the union may employ slowdown or other disruptive tactics if the current contract expires July 1 without a new accord in place.
"The ILWU indicated to us months ago it was committed to good-faith negotiations and said the union was hopeful we could reach conclusion without disruption. We believe today's coordinated work action flies in the face of that," Getzug said.
Merrilees, of the ILWU, said companies "have known about this for more than a month, and most made plans to adjust accordingly. The impact was negligible, and even with the companies huffing and puffing, there will be very little impact when all is said and done."
The West Coast ports, and in particular the major facilities at Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland, on an average day move 10,000 cargo containers, loading and unloading ships. The workload is greater in the second half of the year, so Thursday's demand, said the PMA's Getzug, was probably similar to that of Thursday the week before, when 6,000 longshore workers were dispatched to handle cargo for 30 vessels at the major West Coast ports for the day.
Fifteen cargo ships arrived at the adjacent Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles on Thursday and were unattended by the ILWU during the day, said Arley Baker, a spokesman at the Port of Los Angeles. By late afternoon, there were 12 ships at Los Angeles, he said.
During the busier time of the year, with holiday-related cargo arriving from the Far East, there would be 2o or more ships arriving at those two ports alone, Baker said. "The sky is not falling, and ships are not backed up from here to China," he said.
While three to five ships typically are docked at the Port of Oakland on any given day, only one was due to arrive Thursday during the work stoppage, said port spokeswoman Marilyn Sandifur.
"There was awareness by terminal operators of a possible labor action," and shipping companies acted accordingly to minimize disruption, Sandifur said.
"If I'm a logistics expert with a major retailer, I'm going to work around it," Baker said of the labor dispute.
Indeed, Merrilees said, "We hear ships reduced speed out in the Pacific, to adjust to the schedule on May 1, and we are pleased by the added benefit of reduced air pollution."
Nevertheless, the work stoppage recalled the disastrous effects of the 10-day lockout of workers by the PMA in 2002, during fruitless contract talks. The dispute damaged both sides and ended when President Bush obtained an order to open the ports under the Taft-Hartley Act. Estimates of daily losses in the economy exceeded $1 billion at the time, as produce rotted on docks, wheat never got out of Montana silos to be exported, and holiday toys were delayed on their trip to market.
Getzug, the Pacific Maritime Association spokesman, said its president, Jim McKenna, was unavailable Thursday as he is focused on contract negotiations.
Annual business activity related to the West Coast ports is about $1.2 trillion, 10 percent of total U.S. gross domestic product, according to John Martin and Associates, a company that does economic impact analysis. The company said shippers pay $50,000 to $100,000 a day to have a ship sitting at a berth for an extra day, and the costs eventually reach consumers.
E-mail George Raine at

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