Ports face labor discord


Members of a small clerks union have voted down a proposed contract, which raises the prospect of restarting the strike that paralyzed the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach for eight days late last year.

Bargaining units of the 800-member International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 Office Clerical Unit failed to ratify the tentative contract with harbor employers in voting that ended this week.

The union and employers aren’t talking about why some members went thumbs down on a settlement, which was celebrated by both sides at its Dec. 4 unveiling and initially appeared headed toward easy ratification.


The accord was the culmination of tense negotiations between the clerks union and the Harbor Employers Assn., which represents shipping companies at the ports. The late November standoff, which ended shortly before federal mediators were set to intervene, shut down 10 of 14 cargo container terminals at the nation’s largest port complex as 10,000 regional members of the ILWU honored the picket line and refused to work.

The clerical workers’ union had voiced frustration about shipping-line employers outsourcing jobs, an accusation the shipping lines had denied.

The timing of the action this week comes as retailers, including Wal-Mart and Home Depot, are receiving spring shipments. Unlike last year’s strike, which occurred after much of the holiday merchandise had cleared the ports, any potential disruption this time around could prove to be more damaging, said Jock O’Connell, an international trade economist.

“Whether they plan to walk out again and resume the strike … that’s unclear,” O’Connell said. But “this does create a great deal of uncertainty over operations at the port.”

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was instrumental in helping forge the agreement, said he planned to be involved in negotiations once again.

“Some differences still remain between the parties, as reflected in the ratification vote results earlier this week,” Villaraigosa said in a statement. “However, the parties continue to talk and all terminals remain open and busy.”


Calls seeking comment from the union Friday were not returned.

A week earlier, worried employers settled with another relatively small maritime union that had threatened to close key seaports — this time on the East and Gulf coasts. That union was the 65,000-member International Longshoremen’s Assn., a sister organization to the 50,000-member International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

Coalitions of retailers, manufacturers and farmers were so nervous about the possibility of a strike that they took the unusual step of asking the Obama administration to intervene even before picket signs went up.

That’s the kind of sway that larger unions, which have been losing members, can only dream about.

Labor experts say the two maritime unions draw their strength from their control of important trade gateways.

Since the early 1900s, workers have been organized at all of the nation’s major ports. That has given dockworkers a level of control over their work — loading and unloading ship cargo in a world increasingly fueled by globalization — that is unparalleled in the labor movement, said Robert F. Millman, a senior partner at Littler Mendelson and an expert on labor management.

“They have a monopoly over what they do,” Millman said. “There is no one else who can do the work. They are the only game in town.”

Both unions were strengthened by the shift of American manufacturing overseas and the fact that 80% of the world’s cargo volume crosses an ocean somewhere along its journey and enters the U.S. across unionized docks, said Paul Bingham, economics practice leader at consulting firm CDM Smith. The ILWU, for example, has seen its ranks grow by 10,000 over the last decade, reaching 50,000 members currently.

In contrast, the nation’s biggest unions have been shrinking.

Union membership fell to 11.3% of wage and salaried workers last year, compared with 11.8% in 2011, and 20.1% in 1981, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The 2.2-million-member National Education Assn., for instance, has lost more than 100,000 members since 2010.

Even bastions of traditional union strength, such as Michigan, are under assault. There, new laws will make Michigan the nation’s 24th “right to work” state when they go into effect in March, making it harder for unions to organize and maintain their influence because members under union contracts will no longer be required to pay dues.

Seeing labor’s losses in other industries is part of what galvanizes the longshoremen, union leaders say.

“The ILWU stays strong because we’ve remained a bottom-up, member-run organization that isn’t afraid to confront injustice, fight for the working class and stand up for community concerns,” ILWU International President Bob McEllrath said recently. “We know that good jobs in the supply chain were born out of struggle — and they’ll only remain if we stay true to our roots.”

Some of those roots have helped solidify the organizations’ position even as they gear up for future challenges.

The dockworkers unions, for example, have been aided by seemingly anachronistic practices such as maintaining physical hiring halls, which dispatch the workers needed by the various terminal operators.

“The longshore workers are not tied to the fate of a single company,” Bingham said. “They can work for a different shipping line and terminal operator any day. It would be as if an autoworker who got laid off by Ford could just go work for GM the next day.”

Some of the unions’ power also comes from generations of family members who have worked on the docks.

David Arian grew up in San Pedro and started working on the docks when he was 18. He was elected president of the Southern California Local 13 for three terms before serving as ILWU International President from 1991 to 1994.

“When I started on the waterfront, my dad was there,” said Arian, who now serves as a member of the Port of Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners. “You are not going to embarrass your father or your family. If you screwed up, you heard about it when you got home, or your dad came over to your house to tell you.”