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From the June-July 2004 issue of UDR #151

Dockworkers campaign against ILA master agreement
by Carl Biers and Marsha Niemeijer

Demanding a "wage bridge" to end a multi-tier system that leaves many longshore workers earning far less than others who do the same work, a group of members and local officers in the International Longshoremen's Association is calling for rejection of a tentative master contract covering 15,000 workers who load and unload containerized cargo in East Coast and Gulf ports. The contract is scheduled to be voted on by June after local bargaining is completed.

If the contract is defeated, it will be a tremendous victory for reformers who have been agitating for democratic reforms and a more militant stance against shipping companies. A defeat will be a stinging blow to the embattled top leadership of the ILA, which has been criticized by reformers for its failure to stop the growth of non-union shipping companies that undermine the union's bargaining power. The ILA is also under scrutiny by the Department of Justice for alleged ties to organized crime.

The group, informally called Concerned ILA Members, includes members and officials from locals in New Jersey/New York, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, Jacksonville and several other major ports on the East Coast. Its members are circulating a "Vote No" flyer - downloadable on its web site (see below), conducting a rolling, port-to-port caravan complete with buttons and stickers, and seeking media coverage - all to encourage other dockworkers to reject the contract. There has been no union-wide campaign to defeat a contract in recent history.

Tiers maintained

Opponents' main complaint is that the contract does far too little to narrow the gap between the two tiers of longshore workers, even though their employers, international shipping and stevedoring companies, are immensely profitable. They point to the West Coast ILWU which has fended off employer demands for a two-tiered system.

A small and dwindling percentage of ILA members in the top tier who were hired before 1996 earn $27. Opponents estimate that a growing majority are in a second tier earning $16 to $21. (The ILA has statistics but will not release them.) The lower tier will get raises of $7/hr over the six years of the contract never reaching the top and, opponents say, the proposed contract will create a third tier of new hires starting at $16. They stress that employers will have a tremendous incentive to favor the lower-paid tiers in the distribution of work.

They also criticize the agreement for establishing tiers in the health plan. Workers who work less than 700 hours a year will receive no benefits whatsoever. In order to get full coverage, 1,300 hours are required instead of the 1,000 hours under the current contract.
Many members say that it will be difficult to get enough hours to qualify for the health benefits. Work on the docks is supposed to be distributed by a seniority system but it is extremely complicated (it can be by dock, port, or company), and in some ports is routinely violated. Favoritism in job referrals means few workers will be able to count on full health care benefits.

ILA spokesperson James McNamara told the Journal of Commerce, a trade journal, that "the dissident opposition is perplexing and baffling, but this contract is not going to be voted down. It's one of the greatest contracts in the history of our industry."
Opponents disagree. "We oppose this contract because we want an end to a permanent two-tier wage and benefit system," said Royce Adams, vice-president of ILA Local 1291 in Philadelphia. "We want equal pay and benefits for equal work. Our union is allowing the employers to divide us-senior against new hire, west coast against east, one ethnic group against another. It's time to fight back."

Fair vote

ILA spokesperson McNamara says he expects the contract to pass overwhelmingly, but the International seems worried. In April, after Baltimore Local 333 president Garris McFadden posted the "Vote No" flyer at the union hall, he was suspended from office for 90 days - a period coinciding exactly with referendum campaign. (He had been charged a year earlier for leading illegal work stoppages, charges which he denies)

"If we can secure fair balloting, the ILA leadership will have good reason to worry. In ports like Charleston, Wilmington and Baltimore members have longstanding grievances against the International for imposing concessions or for retaliation against local officials who have criticized the International for its passivity," said Rick Cephas, a member of ILA Local 1694 in Wilmington, Delaware.

And opposition could run just as deep in what is by far the largest of the ports, New York/New Jersey. Here, waves of new hires have flooded to the docks in the past decade, bulging the lower tiers. Many of these workers were lured to the dangerous, difficult, and irregular work thinking that one day they would have a shot at the higher-tier wages, good pensions, and medical benefits enjoyed by the old timers.

Members in New Jersey said that as the flaws of the contract become apparent, the referendum will become a vehicle for members to express their resentment over the favoritism in job referrals and the inability to work enough hours to qualify for benefits. Their campaign, they say, is catching fire.

And they are taking measures to assure a fair balloting process. They have consulted attorneys and sent a letter to ILA President John Bowers requesting the details on how the balloting will be conducted and what rights they will have to observe the process. Legal action is their recourse should the union fail to offer proper reassurances of a sound process.

For the Concerned ILA Rank-and-File website
For the Longshore Workers Coalition, a longstanding reform group in the ILA.

Other articles on the ILA:
Reform movement spreads in ILA (12/04-1/05)
Longshore workers nearly reject master contract (9/04-10/04)
Question and Answer: RICO monitorship in ILA? (9/04-10/04)
Who will police the Longshoremen's ethics code? (1/04-3/04)
ILA Baltimore local threatened with trusteeship (5/03-6/03)
Nine years without a contract in ILA Lake Charles Local (3/03-4/03)
Reformers win majority in harbor workers local 333, ILA (8/9 2002)
AUD at Charleston ILA meeting (News 4/02)
Charleston Longshore unions win major victory
2/3 2002
"Charleston Longshore workers lead battle for reform." 8/9 2001
Links to Longshore worker websites


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