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NEWS ANALYSIS

Dispute Shows a Union Firmly Anchored at West Coast Ports

The ILWU owes its staying power to its founders, who ensured members' total control over the seaboard.

October 13, 2002|Nancy Cleeland | Times Staff Writer

Along with enviable wages, generous pensions and work rules that hark back to an earlier generation, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union retain another relic of blue-collar America -- the proud swagger of being in charge.

"Longies" have owned the West Coast waterfront for six decades, through years that saw the U.S. labor movement grow strong and bold, then fragmented and weak.

The union represents just 10,500 dockworkers -- a fraction of its peak membership and a tiny pool compared with the numbers of unionized auto workers or machinists. Yet its power is gargantuan, as demonstrated by the recent labor dispute that brought ports from San Diego to Seattle to a standstill and drained billions of dollars from the U.S. economy.

Shipping company officials closed the ports for 10 days after presenting evidence of union slowdowns that cut productivity 50%. Under pressure from retailers and manufacturers, President Bush last week invoked the rarely used Taft-Hartley Act to get the ports open again.

Part of the union's power comes from being dealt a good hand. The union represents crane operators who move multi-ton containers off ships and forklift drivers who stack the containers onto rail cars and trucks.

Those are skilled jobs that cannot be shipped to Third World sweatshops, and they have become more important as the U.S. economy goes global.

Perhaps more significant, however, are the foresight of the union's founders, who ensured members' control of the Western seaboard, and the pit-bull-like determination of their successors to hold on to that legacy.

Union leaders view their current contract battle with the shipping industry as part of an old and justified struggle to retain the jurisdiction and control that keep them strong. In this case, they worry about holding on to jobs that could be chased off the docks by computers and the Internet.

"If you don't have the jobs, you don't have the wages, you don't have the benefits, you don't have the pensions and you don't have the union to protect them," said union spokesman Steve Stallone.

Once vulnerable day laborers, longies have become working-class icons, earning wages that range from $28 to $40 an hour, with high premiums for night or early shifts, for jobs that require no college education. Salaries for veteran clerks and supervisors easily can top $150,000 a year.

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Rivals' Resentment

Union leaders don't apologize for those high wages and benefits, explaining that their perks were earned through a bargain made decades ago, when employers offered to share the fruits of increased production if the union would accept drastic job cuts that would come with the implementation of contain shipping.

They also note that most members earn their union cards by putting in several years of apprentice-like "casual labor," a time of unpredictable hours and no benefits.

There is no question, however, that the ILWU's good fortune has evoked envy and resentment. Members of rival unions, terminal managers and truckers who move through the docks every day maintain that the union's long success has bred a culture of entitlement and greed.

And they say that change, more than intransigent employers, could be its undoing.

"It's really disappointing that collectively they don't see how good they have it," said Jim, a payroll clerk at a Los Angeles terminal who, like many union critics, said he feared repercussions if he used his full name.

"It's insanity down here," he said. "They work half the time of most people and make twice the money and gripe about it all day. And any loss, any concession -- it's like drawing blood from a stone."

Such grumbling is nothing new, said David J. Olson, a political science professor at the University of Washington who has made a specialty of studying the ILWU.

"People have been making the same kinds of charges for decades -- that the union is arrogant, strong-headed, too militant, too possessive of the space it occupies on the docks," he said. "I see greater consistency than differences here. It's been a fundamental principle of the ILWU from its first breath that the union controls the production process on the terminals. They see themselves as lords of the docks."

Nothing about the International Longshore and Warehouse Union can be understood fully without a look at its history, particularly its legendary founder, Harry Bridges.

Bridges was a scrappy laborer from Australia who worked the San Francisco docks when the job was demeaning, dangerous and barely provided a living. In 1934 he became active in a series of violent waterfront strikes and emerged as the leader of the union that was born out of them. On July 5, during a dramatic confrontation between striking longshore workers and police on San Francisco's Embarcadero, two men were shot dead and 30 suffered gunshot wounds -- a day remembered by longies ever since as Bloody Thursday.

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