Los Angeles and Long Beach Port Clerical Workers Strike

Workers show real solidarity while the unions' solidarity is with capitalism

The recent settlement of the port clerical workers strike in Los Angeles and Long Beach, California showed an impressive display of solidarity among port workers. While only 450 port clerical workers went on strike, some 10,000 port workers refused to cross their picket line shutting down 10 out of 12 port terminals in Los Angeles and Long Beach for eight days. While the capitalist press has cast its selective eye on the union pickets on the line outside Wal-Mart nationwide on "Black Friday", when big box stores put on their holiday sales, little attention was paid to the strike of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 that effectively shut down shipping into the Los Angeles area ports. While scant details have been provided regarding the settlement that was reached with the employers, union statements spoke of a tentative deal that would protect "good jobs" (1) The union effectively contained an impressive show of solidarity and has sold workers a contract that places controls on the number of port clerical workers jobs that are lost assuring that port clerical workers will bleed out jobs at a slower rate than that proposed by the employers. For workers the choice is a choice between bleeding to death slowly or quickly. For the ILWU this is called a victory.

In the background to this is the concessions bargained by the ILWU port workers in Portland, Oregon, that gave away far more, while port workers unions on the East Coast are in heated negotiations regarding their work contracts. The International Longshoreman's Association is busy negotiating a deal that will sell concessions to East Coast port workers and avert a much larger port workers strike. This is becoming an increasingly tricky dance for the union institution in American society, especially with a union like the ILWU that has long put itself forward as a "Progressive" or left-leaning union. A layer of activists from the various organizations of the left provide a militant appearance on an institution that is wholly in tow to the capitalist class via their fealty to the Democratic Party. This is the true nature of a "free" trade union in the west.

Since the advent of the modern shipping containers in which cargo is carried, employers threatened with any labor unrest at the ports have been able to offload cargo in Canada and Mexico far more easily and ship cargo into the US by truck. In a national economy where primary industries and exports are suffering while the bulk of all the manufactured goods in US markets are imported from cheap labor platforms potentially places a considerable amount of power in the hands of any workers who are capable of tying up the ports. The 14 container terminals at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports along account for close to 40% of all US container imports. (2)

The bulk of these goods coming from ports on the other side of the Pacific in cheap labor platform countries like China. For the port clerical workers the main issue is the constant attrition of jobs which the ILWU and the Los Angeles Mayor promise will stop. It is more likely that the attrition and outsourcing of jobs will not occur at as high a rate as before the strike.

In any strike major strike in the US there the constant threat that the current occupant of the White House will invoke the "Taft-Hartley Act" in order to lockout workers and break their strike using the force of their bourgeois legal apparatus as President Bush did in 2002 or as Nixon did in 1971. The Taft-Hartley Act allows the US government to declare an injunction against a strike, mandate a "cooling off period" where no striking is allowed. Breaking this injunction makes the strike illegal. It is a legal framework that acts like a noose or a straitjacket to put a stop to any mass struggle. When it was passed into law back in 1947 it unsurprisingly had the overwhelming support of both political parties. In fact, were it not for those "friends of labor" in the Democratic Party, the Taft-Hartley Act would never have been passed into law.

Unions have a long and practiced history of calling their own sellouts "victories". The victory won differs from a potential defeat only in the rate at which the jobs get shipped out. Workers at the ports are thus forced to choose whether they want to have 70 or more port clerical jobs a year shipped off to cheaper labor platforms abroad or 14 or less per year. Workers are getting a choice, in essence in how fast they want to bleed to death. While the union is promising to control the outsourcing of jobs there has been little said about state of the employers move to introduce non-union labor on the docks, or any other potential concessions that might be made in the new contract.

After an eight day strike, which amounted to an $8 billion dollar loss for the employers, the workers were called back to work and given time to wait to vote for a new contract. The ILWU, understandably, was not keen on releasing details of this contract to their members with enough advanced notice for them to actually look at it.

For port workers, being pitted against port workers in other countries in a constant race to the bottom in wages and working conditions is starkly apparent, perhaps more so than in other industries. For these workers as with all workers, the first step is to start developing the capacity to fight back on a global scale, something port workers have done before as they did in Oakland in solidarity with the Occupy Oakland protests. No matter how militant the struggle, as long as there is no clear conception of the need to develop their struggles from outside the orbit of the unions and capitalist reformist left there will never be a struggle that wont exhaust itself within the system. The impressive show of solidarity by thousands port workers for the 450 clerical workers who went on strike is a direct contrast to the weakness that characterizes the modern management-apparatus union.


[1] Phillips, Erica E., Dock Workers Return as L.A. Port Strike Ends. Wall Street Journal. December 5, 2012.


[2] Whitcomb, Dan. Gorman, Steve. Los Angeles port workers return to work after strike. Reuters. Dec 5, 2012



Sunday, December 16, 2012