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imperialism & war | labor

ILWU Antiwar Shutdown of West Coast Ports on May Day is Blocked -- For Now

ILWU's planned antiwar West Coast work stoppage on international workers' rights day would have been one of the first such actions of its kind by a major American union since the Iraq war began.
ILWU backs off its planned antiwar May Day actions
ILWU backs off its planned antiwar May Day actions
Plans for an unprecedented display of labor muscle on May 1 in support of the peace movement have been blocked for now, though it remains anybody's guess what might actually happen.

An estimated 25,000 longshore workers of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) were planning to take part in a May Day antiwar shutdown of all West Coast ports, including the ports of Portland and Vancouver.

ILWU caucus delegates voted 97-3 on Feb. 8 for a resolution to do an 8-hour stop-work dayshift meeting on May 1 to protest the Iraq war. The resolution calls for the immediate and safe return of U.S. troops. Organizers of the stop-work action, which means longshore workers show up only for a mandatory closed-door union meeting but don't work, had hoped the action would speak loud and clear that they want an end to the 5-year-old war in Iraq.

"We will be sending a message to elected officials about the urgency of ending the war, to save lives, and (stop) the carnage, and the fiscal fiasco," ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees said earlier this month from union headquarters in San Francisco.

The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), charged with negotiating and administering maritime labor agreements with the ILWU, however, has nixed those dayshift May Day stop-work sessions.

After the ILWU requested the dayshift stop-work meetings (stop-work meetings are regularly held on a predetermined day each month during overtime hours on the second shift), the PMA responded on April 3 with a letter officially rejecting the union's request. PMA President James McKenna had been quoted in press reports that his Association would not allow the dayshift stop-work meetings. According to current contract language, "any other stop-work meetings must be mutually agreed to by the PMA and the Union."

The ILWU then responded by letter on April 8 stating, in part, "no local will move its regularly scheduled May stop work meeting to the day side of May 1, 2008 . . . May stop work meetings will be conducted as regularly scheduled."

When asked to comment, Merrilees said that the original plans to shutdown all West Coast ports by way of the May 1 daytime stop-work meetings had indeed been cancelled.

"I think we're going to . . . The level of passion and concern about the war is very high, and was confirmed by the democratically elected caucus delegates. I'm going to leave it at that. That's my comment," Merrilees responded when asked if the ILWU would engage in any kind of antiwar actions or statements to take the place of the cancelled May 1 stop-work dayshift meetings. "I do know that people care passionately about the war and the way in which it's destroying this country and Iraq."

Peace advocates welcomed the earlier news about the pending labor support. William Seaman from the Portland Peaceful Response Coalition says "anytime you get a significant disruption in the economy as a result of a principled action against the war, I think that's the sort of action that is far more likely to have an impact on political leaders in Washington D.C. than the kind of mass mobilization we see locally. I think you get tremendous impact (with a longshoremen's shutdown) because you're influencing not just the political leaders in Washington, but very often their paymasters in the private sector."

ILWU Local 8, which represents 400 members in Portland, now plans to carry on with business as usual on May 1, according to the local's chief executive officer Bruce Holte. He received notice of the stop-work meeting cancellations on April 9.

"I'm a little pissed off, you know," Holte said from his office. "I'm very disappointed the PMA went on a stance that denies us the dayshift stop-work meeting." He noted a dayshift stop-work meeting, though rare, had been granted during the previous round of contract negotiations in 2002. The PMA and ILWU are currently in talks for a new contract as the current 6-year deal expires on July 1.

Holte says he was strongly in favor of the antiwar resolution, having voted for it himself as a member of Local 8's 5-person delegation to the February caucus. All 5 members voted for the resolution. "I'm totally against this war," he remarked. "I believe I was lied to by President Bush."

Local 8 does intend to hold a brief waterfront wreath laying ceremony on May 1 in memory of US dead in the Iraq war. Members can voluntarily take their lunch breaks to attend the wreath laying, but no dayshift stop-work meetings or other kinds of organized protest will be held, Holte noted.

The economic impact of a West Coast one-day ports shutdown would have been huge. During a 10-day lockout of West Coast ILWU workers in 2002, loses were estimated at $1 billion a day. The Port of Portland had made plans to deal with the expected May Day work stoppage. Port spokesman Josh Thomas said all West Coast ports had already rescheduled work to the days before and after May 1.

Representing 25,000 longshore workers in California, Oregon and Washington and an equal number of retail and warehouse members, the ILWU's planned antiwar West Coast work stoppage on the date recognized internationally as a workers' rights day would have been one of the first such actions of its kind by a major American union since the Iraq war began in 2003.

"As of now, the May Day stop-work meeting in Portland is off," Holte said on April 10. "But then again, May 1 is 3 weeks off. Things may change by then."

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(By April 14, notice of the ILWU antiwar May Day stop-work meetings had been deleted from the union's web site, although an article about the issue remains in the current issue of the union publication Dispatcher, available from the site.)

Lawrence J. Maushard is a journalist living in Portland.

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