The Guardian June 21, 2000

US Longshoremen and their unions under attack

by Roy Rydell

Longshoremen and their unions around the world have been under attack in 
recent years and continue to be under fire. The Maritime Industry with its 
international ramifications has been one of the earliest to feel the 
effects of the globalisation of industry.

The Liverpool dockers and the Australian wharfies have been involved in 
tough struggles against stevedores who want to casualise the industry and 
do away with conditions that the Longshoremen have won over years of 
struggle. That would reduce dock labour to part-time labour with no 
benefits or work guarantees.

On the East Coast, the Charleston, South Carolina, local of the ILA 
recently fought against the efforts of a Danish steamship company, Nordana, 
to hire a non-union Longshore company to load and discharge its ships.

Today a 900-foot cargo ship loaded with containers is discharged in 24 
hours by 10-man gangs.

Other workers drive the carriers that shift the containers around the 
docks, but many of the containers are loaded directly onto flat bed 
container trucks that deliver the cargo directly to its final destination, 
a factory or warehouse.

In the US most of these truck drivers are hired as independent contractors 
at fixed rates.

The Teamsters Union has been trying to organise these drivers  so far 
with not too much success.

Today the shipping industry is dominated by huge companies like Maersk 
which recently bought out the US-owned Sea Land.

Maersk has ships so large they can't enter the Panama Canal. Maersk and Sea 
Land recently threatened to move their operations out of New York Harbour 
unless they got cheaper rent at their cargo terminal.

They also demanded that the NY Port Authority deepen the harbour to 
accommodate the newer deep draft ships, and forced the ILA to give them a 
two-tier wage scale so that newly hired Longshoremen will work for $14 an 
hour for the first three years, rather than the $24 an hour paid to older 

Here you have the underside of the so-called booming economy: ships 
bigger than ever, hauling more cargo per trip, with smaller and smaller 
crews manning the ships, with Longshoremen whose productivity has soared as 
the size of the Longshore crews has dwindled and a combination of ship 
owners and stevedore bosses who will never be satisfied in their search for 
more profit.

In the old days when cargo was handled piece by piece, the struggle was 
around the size of the gang, the weight of the sling load, the length of 
the day, but always the question of how the Longshoreman was hired was of 
primary importance.

The notorious shape up [``bull'' system in Australia] was abolished on the 
West Coast of the United States in 1934 when the ILWU broke away from the 
ILA and won the demand for all hiring through the Union Hall (incidentally 
the ILWU won a six-hour day in that first contract).

On the US East Coast the shape up lasted until 1953 when the Waterfront 
Commission was set up which transferred hiring to Waterfront Commission 

The shape-up was used to hire longshoremen off the street at the dock. This 
promoted all kinds of favouritism or often payment to a hiring boss in 
exchange for a day's work.

Today the ILA on the East Coast and the ILWU, on the West, are two unions 
whose main jurisdictions are the same, that is they are both primarily 
unions of Longshore workers, even though both unions have organised other 
groups of workers.

Both the ILA and the ILWU are members of the International Transport 
Workers' Federation and support its activities, which include monitoring 
crew conditions on flag of convenience ships which arrive in US ports.

The ILA and ILWU both supported the Australian wharfies and Liverpool 
dockers' strikes by black-listing ships loaded by scab labour.

Today the ILWU is a leading force in the fight against the WTO and set a 
fine example for the entire labour movement in the battle for fair labour 
standards in the WTO and in setting aside a larger share of their budget 
for organising the unorganised.

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People's Weekly World

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