Union reunion

Port workers flex collective muscle

"Maybe we can even pull off a general strike again," declared Teamster Bob Hasegawa to the cheers and raised fists of around 1,000 dockworkers, truck drivers, engineers, oilers, and union activists at Pier 66 earlier this spring, "but it'll take us working together."

The rally was a militant lovefest for the unions, some of which have been at odds with each other in recent years. Since all International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) contracts up and down the West Coast expire this summer, this new waterfront solidarity is undoubtedly raising the eyebrows at the Port of Seattle and beyond. After all, port workers were the catalysts of the Seattle general strike of 1919 and the near general strike of 1934.

The ILWU's Tony Moreno, a straddle operator on Port of Seattle docks, recounts how in past years the ILWU was locked in "jurisdictional battles" with the Teamsters and other waterfront unions to determine who would represent which workers. "Now we're saying enough is enough. We're going to make union jobs together."

Since longshore workers in Australia, England, and New Zealand have been hit hard by mass firings, benefit takebacks, and union-busting attempts in the last two years, US waterfront activists are anticipating similar rough waters and are seeking strength in numbers, explains Moreno.

In 1996, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), an umbrella organization of West Coast port companies, hired Joe Miniace as president. Miniace was formerly an administrator in New York state hospitals, and has a history of combative labor relations, Moreno says. He continues, "Miniace's wish list is to hold down benefits and tie up grievance procedures." Larry Hansen, president of ILWU Local 19, adds Miniace "has his own way of doing things that is foreign to us here on the West Coast."

Joey Parr, PMA spokesperson, responds, "I don't think it has to do with what coast you're on. It has to do with providing the best service. Joe Miniace's goal is for theentire West Coast to be successful and competitive." Parr further states, "We're not looking to take anything away from people. We just want a fair day's work for a generous day's pay."

Truck drivers also face a rough ride on the waterfront. Trucks running to and from Seattle docks used to be mostly unionized. Now, few are. Over the years, trucking companies have increasingly eliminated union jobs by using "owner-operator" truck drivers, then claiming that such drivers are not employees but rather independent contractors who are ineligible to organize into unions.

"I made a dollar a mile in 1980, and I make less than a dollar a mile now because insurance and fuel have gone up," says Bob Ehrler, an owner-operator trucker for the company Elliott Bay Service Transfer. Owner-operators must pay all their own costs. Ehrler, for example, has to maintain his10-year-old truck, which he still makes payments on. He drives loads of paper, clothing—"you name it"—between the Port and various in-state destinations, and sometimes has to wait in line for two or three hours to load or unload. These hours are unpaid, because he's paid per haul, not per hour. Managers at Elliott Bay Service Transfer refused to respond to questions on labor relations.

Ehrler explains he was never interested in being a Teamster until he felt the squeeze. But driving his rig in the afternoon solidarity march along Alaskan Way preceding the Pier 66 rally, Ehrler is obviously now an avid Teamster. He's joined the union to personally support the organizing campaign for the drivers, even though the company he works for is not yet organized. "We've got 300 people to sign union cards. We all should be union."

Other unions are fighting for issues that affect not only union members but the general population and the environment. In recent decades, labor standards and safety have been a growing international maritime concern. Roughly 900 of the 1,200 American-owned large ocean freight vessels fly foreign "flags of convenience"—particularly Liberian or Panamanian flags—which enable them to employ Third World crews with substandard training, poor safety standards, and harsh labor conditions, says Larry O'Toole, national president of the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association (MEBA), which represents deep-sea engineers. An example is the New Carissa, which crashed off Oregon recently, polluting the coast. The Japanese-owned ship was flying a Panamanian flag and employed a largely Filipino international crew.

Labor activists with MEBA and other unions were revved by the rally. "I'm so pleased to see a united front," says MEBA's John McCurdy. "I haven't seen something like this on the waterfront for 20 years." As the rally disbands and workers walk away with their picket signs, two strolling teenage girls ask a couple of ball-capped truckers, "What are you protesting?" The men simply reply, "We're Teamsters."

 
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