West Coast dock workers battling push to gut ILWU

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SAN FRANCISCO - With their six-year contract about to expire, talks being held in San Francisco between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the managers of Pacific coastal ports are going down to the wire.

But there's a big difference between now and the time when the port managers locked out ILWU just over a decade ago: Barack Obama, not George W. Bush, is president. One other difference, but with probably less impact: ILWU was then in the AFL-CIO.  Today, it's not.

The Pacific Maritime Association, managers of the 29 West Coast ports - including the nation's busiest, Los Angeles-Long Beach - are battling to cut the number of jobs under ILWU control, make the 20,000 workers pay more for their health care, and allow further automation. 

Talks will go beyond the June 30 contract expiration.  ILWU's West Coast longshore workers handle 44 percent of all incoming U.S. seaborne freight.  A shutdown stops supply lines. (story continues after video)

That's what happened in 2002 - thanks to management.  PMA unilaterally declared an impasse in the talks, locked the ILWU out for 10 days, and then got Bush to issue a back-to-work order, which maritime labor law allows.  PMA had wanted Bush to send troops; he didn't.

"We've got an excellent negotiating team and solid support from longshore and clerk members who mapped out their priorities and gave us their marching orders to secure a good contract," ILWU President Bob McEllrath said when bargaining began on May 19.

The union said that its members, through their bargaining caucus delegates, set four key priorities for negotiators: Maintaining health care and retirement benefits, management respect for ILWU jurisdiction, fair raises and better safety conditions.

The jurisdiction issue involves other unions winning at several ports, notably Portland, Ore.  The health care issue could involve who pays the tax on "Cadillac" plans that, the Affordable Care Act says, will begin in 2018.  "In 2002, employers united with shippers and giant retailers to support a 10-day lockout that shut West Coast ports," ILWU noted.

Photo: Managers of the 29 West Coast ports are trying to gut the ILWU because of its long history of militancy. In this photo, union members strike in the state of Washington in 2011. Terrie Albano/PW

 Video: Workers at the Washington state port of Longview fought off attacks on their union, the ILWU, in 2011. 

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