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Solidarity Still Counts at L.A.'s Harbors

July 09, 1986|Harry Bernstein

There was a time not long ago when just one striking West Coast longshoreman wearing a black armband could stroll along the waterfront of any port and all cargo operations there would quickly come to a halt.

The armband meant one or more workers with a beef against a company had gone on strike, and all other longshoremen would immediately walk off their jobs in sympathy with their unhappy co-workers. Members and officers of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU) believed in and acted on an old union slogan, "an injury to one is an injury to all."

While many other unions, although certainly not all, seem to have forgotten that slogan, it still has meaning for the ILWU. This was clearly evidenced last week by the strike in the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors by about 250 office workers.

It did take one or two pickets with signs at each gate to achieve the goal instead of just one strolling picketer. But still, about 4,000 longshoremen refused to go to work when they saw the few pickets of the white-collar office workers. They didn't return until early Monday, when shipping and stevedoring companies agreed not to transfer office jobs changed by new technology to supervisors or non-union companies.

That kind of labor unity has enabled ILWU members over the years to win substantial economic gains. The average top-rated longshoreman now earns nearly $50,000, and such jobs are ardently sought after. Two years ago, 350 new openings were announced and more than 20,000 job seekers in cars, vans and Jeeps formed a line nearly 10 miles long to apply--on a Sunday.

Because of remarkable productivity increases, harbor employers have made gains along with the workers. In 1961, the ILWU reached agreement with management to allow unrestricted technological advances in return for a share in the resulting gains that have brought increased business and company profits along with higher wages and benefits.

The ILWU clerks last week did not strike for more money. They make about $14 an hour plus substantial fringe benefits--considerably more than clerks in most other offices. Instead, the disputed issue involved technological change.

Like their blue-collar co-workers, though, the clerks are not Luddites, those English workers who smashed new labor-saving textile machinery in the early 1800s in a futile effort to block wage cuts and job losses stemming from those technological advances. When the harbor companies here began using state-of-the-art computers, it meant fewer clerks were needed, and some of their jobs were going to their supervisors or non-union companies. The clerks got a guarantee against such job losses. Unlike other dock workers, clerks negotiate their own contracts with each employer separately, so the longshoremen were refusing to work only to help the clerks, not themselves.

The longshoremen also respected the picket line of the International Assn. of Machinists, which has a much smaller strike of its own. But that ILWU action was stopped by arbitration.

Until the 1960s, there were frequent strikes in the harbor over both major and minor disputes. But the Pacific Maritime Assn., representing management, and the ILWU learned to cooperate with one another. The companies don't attempt to break ILWU strikes. And together they set up an "instant arbitration" system that has been used effectively to settle all minor disputes on the spot as they occur. The number of strikes has been reduced dramatically. Until the latest strike, the last major work stoppage here was 15 years ago.

Union membership in this country has declined significantly in recent years. There are many complex economic, social and political reasons for that decline. But one cause seems to be that unions are frequently unable to provide the economic gains that workers expect from unionization. If union members and their leaders would follow the example of labor unity still practiced by the ILWU, that membership decline might stop or even be reversed.

Bum Rap for Presser

Teamsters Union President Jackie Presser was given a bum rap recently by the nation's news media for his starring role at a party given for him at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas during his union's convention. The lavish, costly affair was unrelated to Presser's indictment by a federal grand jury on labor fraud charges just four days before the convention opened May 19. That sour-note indictment preceding the convention was followed by additional, though less serious, negative publicity for the head of the nation's largest union, not the least of which were the widely distributed accounts of the party.

News stories, some with pictures, accurately described his entry to the party, seated like a Roman emperor on a sedan chair being carried around the huge ballroom by four weightlifters dressed as Roman soldiers in togas and red-plumed gold helmets.

Because of his size (he weighs about 300 pounds) and the opulence of the setting, the stories seemed to hold him up to ridicule.

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