Back To Basics
Commentary on Pacific Maritime Association lockout of longshoreman.
Here on the Docks, It's Back to Work and Back to Basics
Pacific News Service, Harry Stamper, Oct 11, 2002
A longtime longshoreman returning to work in a small Oregon port reflects on a tradition of solidarity and difficult, sometimes-deadly work far from Washington and Wall Street.
NORTH BEND, Ore.--The dock is empty of cargo, and the pigeon nesting under the planks pokes his head out, hoping I will feed him. My memory is reeling like a videotape.
I am a longshoreman living and working in North Bend, Ore. My boss is the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), an association of ship owners and stevedoring companies brought together in the late 1930s to deal with the success of Harry Bridges and his upstart International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).
The wind blows a piece of newspaper across the dock in front of me. It's dated Sept. 7, 2002, the last time a ship was here. Days ago, the PMA locked us out of the docks, claiming we had waged a work slowdown. Now, by order of the President of the United States, we're back on the job.
We've labored here for years. Forest after forest has been shoved across the dock to be hoisted aboard freighters bound for China, Australia, Korea and Japan. The ships came and went with monotonous regularity, trusting that teams of longshoremen would fill their yawning cavities and send them on their way.
The long wail of a ship's whistle startles the pigeon. He doesn't know how far away the ship is, but I do. It has passed over the bar and is turning up the bay toward the chip facility. It is coming to load chips of alder and Douglas fir bound for Japan. It's large and empty, and will take four days to load. It will hire two longshoremen per shift from our union hall. Eighty members are waiting for it.
It is the first ship to come here since President Bush evoked the Taft-Hartley Act and ended the 11-day lockout. All around us the newspapers are shouting about ships lined up to the sun. Wall Street is plummeting like a gut-shot bowling ball. Investors seem unconvinced that consumers will jump-start a tottering economy with vibrating tickle-me dolls and Christmas tree lights from China. Retailers say profits are down. They want longshoremen to risk their lives to prop them up.
A big "Safety First" sign hangs on the side of the empty warehouse, bruised and faded as if worn away by the gaze of countless eyes. In my 33 years on the waterfront, my employers have yet to tell me I was working too fast. I have been told that safety is No. 1. I have been told that profit is not worth the loss of even one life. I have been told the ILWU-PMA Marine Safety Code document is the bible of the industry. I believe all these things.
I was 26 when I saw my first longshoreman die -- I've seen two deaths in person. His name was Cy and he was a foreman trying to speed up the operation. I heard him give the order that killed him. We were discharging 10-foot sheets of thick glass, boxed in upright wooden crates. The 2-foot wide units were landed on the dock, then tacked together to stand upright. The driver of the forklift was waiting with his machine against the load so it wouldn't fall over. Cy angrily ordered him to pull out. Cy was going to try to tack the load and balance it at the same time. The driver hesitated and Cy demanded he do his job and pull out. As the glass fell, Cy's screams rose. The crate weighed a thousand pounds.
I watched in horror and decided: No one would ever force me to work faster than I felt was safe. No one. Ever.
As this is being written, some of my friends are in their cars, streaming to the larger ports where the union is working around the clock to unclog the docks. The congestion is a result of a PMA lockout. The backup on the docks aptly demonstrates how efficiently the ILWU normally keeps cargo moving. If the PMA can lock it's doors for 11 days and threaten the world economy, the government should appreciate what the ILWU has been going through for the last 70 years.
I hope my friends stay safe. Some are driving 400 miles to work, late at night. I hope their night vision is better than mine. As they drive, some are thinking about wages, pensions, or how important it is that a daughter gets those braces for her teeth. We are all kinds of people, thinking all kinds of things. The PMA has used the media to portray longshoremen as one-eyed, blue-collar piggy-banks intent on bankrupting the industry. Please.
We want to work. It's what we do, and we do it better here than anyone else. We love the new technology. In the early '70s we unloaded coffee, sack by sack by back injury. We certainly don't mind having a huge crane do the job for us.
We want to assimilate the new technology. Our entire history is one of change and modernization. Of social and ethnic equality. Of solidarity so tight it will hold water.
The pigeon and I wait together for the ship. When it comes in the bird will investigate, hoping for scraps of food from a sympathetic sailor. But he won't fly into the side of a ship to show how eager he is to live. Neither will I.
PNS contributor Harry Stamper ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a longshoreman in North Bend, Oregon.
phone: (541) 756-5115
address: P.O. Box 133, North Bend, Oregon 97459
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