The International Longshoremen’s Association and the United States Maritime Alliance reached a tentative agreement Feb. 1 on a union contract covering all 15 East Coast ports and nearly 14,000 port workers. They were facing a Feb. 6 deadline and potential coastwide strike if negotiations had broken off for a third time. The original contract expiration date was Sept. 30.
Many local issues are still to be resolved in regional and local contracts, and the master agreement must still be ratified by the union membership. Even of the issues tentatively agreed upon, many workers, though glad to settle important issues such as beating back some aspects of job-killing technology with the container royalty agreement, believe the rank and file are not totally satisfied with other issues such as pensions.
Pensions especially affect workers at many of the local ports in the South, where there is a largely Black workforce, who feel that the Maritime Alliance proposal for a dollar increased contribution to their pensions over six years is unacceptable. Many ILA rank-and-file leaders are currently organizing for their locals to sign onto a letter calling for the ILA national leadership not to agree to a contract without adequate pension terms.
The ports are a source of enormous profits from and also vulnerability to the flow of international commerce, which gives port workers lots of power. The bosses know this, and have been attempting every way possible to break the port unions, including most recently in Longview, Wash. There in 2011, the bosses were stopped by the strength and solidarity of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and community allies such as the Occupy movement. Then, last December, members of four ILWU locals voted overwhelmingly to reject the final contract offer from grain export terminals in Oregon and Washington. (See accompanying update on that struggle.)
Community, labor support critical for ILA struggle
Community and labor support for the ILA struggle for a decent contact was very important. The Southern Workers Assembly, which had its second mass meeting in the ILA Local 1422 union hall in Charleston, S.C., in December, initiated a “Bargaining in Good Faith Campaign” to support the ILA negotiations. The campaign called for President Obama to have “hands off” of a possible strike. That was partially in response to Florida’s Republican Governor Rick Scott’s request that President Barack Obama invoke federal right-to-work laws and order a cooling-off period. A national on-line SWA petition gathered 1,000 signatures.
Then, starting on Dr. Martin L. King Jr.’s birthday in January, the Black Workers For Justice, the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, United Electrical Workers Local 150, and other groups in the Southern Workers Assembly began distributing a printed petition to call for support for ILA negotiations with the Maritime Alliance. The SWA called for the formation of delegations to deliver the petition to the headquarters of the Democratic Party.
The Southern Workers Assembly believes that the current capitalist economic crisis is forcing many unions to suffer major concessions in contract negotiations, and the only way to reverse that trend is through building a mass movement in the U.S. South to support social justice and rank-and-file unionism.