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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 ( stamper@harborside.com) is a longshoreman in North Bend, Oregon.

phone: phone: (541) 756-5115
address: address: P.O. Box 133, North Bend, Oregon 97459

it's the money honey 12.Oct.2002 17:00


Willamette Week story
Cargo Kings (Chris Lydgate)

the view many people take, that the relatively "high wage" that the dockworkers earn on average is more than enough, is besides the point in my opinion. since when has it ever been fruitful to worry about how much money someone else has in their coffers?

i think 'envy' (as well as self-centered greediness) lends to this view that the valuations made with regards to work wages received are fairly determinate and that there is a golden rule for worker-value, i.e., people will get paid fairly according to the jobs they work and the tasks they perform. it is assumed that there never is an attempt made on the part of the employers to get more bang for their buck and to short change the workers.

when some people hear about how much more money others make than they do, sometimes they start to feel bad about the fact that they don't make that money forgetting that what another earns is on some level besides the point (unless it relates to blatant bias in wage payment, such as when firms try to pay women less money than men for performing the same duties)--issues like worker safety (unfair working conditions) get pushed under the table. some people, because of enviously generated vitriol, may be inclined to feel that because of the money someone makes they can *afford* to take such risks as speeding up on the job.

again, why would i worry about how much money SOME OTHER PERSON BESIDES ME IS MAKING? if the PMA is willing to pay them what they're paying them that's their business. even if the workers want more money, so what. some longshoremen (as i've been told, with $eattle-based workers being used as examples) might very well be lazy bastards--there are lazy ass people all over the world. they take extended lunches, they make the newer workers do their jobs, so what, that's on them. when it comes to safety and work conditions, that should be on the bosses.

the important issues should not be glossed over because of socio-economic playa hatin'. stop the hate.

China sport 12.Oct.2002 17:01

Dingo Dizmal peptodizmal@aol.com

Hey yall! I'm all for the workers, and that's for sure, but those ships that got stopped for a bit are full of garbage that we don't need.
Man, when I saw on the news that Christmas was in those ships I laughed my butt off, I hoped they would sink!
Anything that says "made in China" WILL break within days or weeks and the creeps that sell that stuff are counting on it.
The shipping comanies don't care about their workers, anyway. There are plans to replace a lot of them with machines. I wish them all luck in finding another line of work, hopefully something more sustainable.

For my part 12.Oct.2002 19:00

Katy S

I for my part would like to know what's being unloaded off the ships, and where it's being sold. So I can avoid shopping there.

West Coast Waterfront Coalition membership 12.Oct.2002 19:18

Rosie the Riveter

Here are some of the companies who supported the lockout. This is from their own website.


Agilent Technologies
Agriculture Ocean Transportation Coalition
Best Buy Co., Inc.
Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corp.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad
C.H. Powell Company
California Cartage Company
Chiquita Brands International
Columbia Sportswear Company
ContainerFreight EIT, LLC
Del Monte Foods
Don Breazeale and Associates, Inc.
DSL Integrated Logistics, Inc.
Ernest & Julio Gallo Winery
Evergreen America Corporation
Expeditors International of Washington, Inc.
Family Dollar Stores, Inc.
Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America
Gap Inc.
Great Western Steamship Co.
Hewlett Packard
Intermodal West, Inc.
International Mass Retail Association
JCP Logistics L.P.
Kellogg Company
Kurt Orban Partners LLC
Limited Logistics Services, Inc.
MAERSK Pacific
Marine Exchange of San Francisco Bay Region
Mega Toys
National Retail Federation
Otis McAllister, Inc.
Pacer Stack Train
Pacific Maritime Association
Pacific Merchant Shippers Association
Panasonic Logistics Company of America
Payless Shoesource, Inc.
Rail Delivery Services, Inc.
Target Stores
The Home Depot
Toy Shipping Association
TransSolve, LLC
U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel
WAL-MART Stores, Inc.
Yamaha Corporation of America

I'm 100% behind the lockout 12.Oct.2002 21:40


Anything we can do to help eliminate labor unions would be a step forward.

Harry Bridges helped destroy the American Merchant Marine.

Militant labor unions are a pox.

hmmm 12.Oct.2002 22:05


BA, what do you mean by that?

Put it on the ground, spread it all around... 12.Oct.2002 22:49

BA groupie

Using BAs logic, the minimum wage and all us poxy ASSHOLES who who refuse to work for 25 cents an hour are "destroying" America's industrial base by making it uncompetitive and "forcing" those benevolent 8-and-9-figure-salary CEOs to export all our factories / manufacturing jobs.

Stinky hippies might talk about IMF, world bank, friendly dictators, the CIA, AIFLD, NED (etc. ad nauseam) conspiring (yes, I used the forbidden word) to drive down the wages of others...or about immigration restrictions warping the labor market (i.e. workers are not free to go where the jobs pay well, this keeps wages artificially low in, say, Sri Lanka) ... or corporate greed and the legal requirement to maiximize profit ... etc ad nauseam, but BA knows better cuz he's much farther RIGHT than those silly Nobel economists who point out the failures of neocolonialism.

This is why we must visit the compost bin regularly, to worship the great BA!

OH Well 12.Oct.2002 22:56


Time to start voting with my pocket book.