Friday, December 28, 2012

ILA strike averted, contract extended 30 days

by Richard Mellor

It seems a strike by East and Gulf Coast longshoremen has been averted temporarily through the intervention of federal mediators from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS).  The major sticking point has been the employers attempt to eliminate or cap payments made to longshoreman that were to compensate for job losses through automation, and containerization.

The payments are known as Container Royalties and the bosses are claiming these costs now amount to $15,000 a year for each worker at the ports.  The federal mediator announced today that, “The container royalty payment issue has been agreed upon in principle by the parties, subject to achieving an overall collective bargaining agreement.” 

So now the bosses and the Union leadership have agreed to extend the ILA Master Contract 30 days beyond the December 29th deadline.  The Wall Street Journal reported this morning that the bosses wanted to place caps on the payments and also eliminate them for “newer workers”.  Whether “newer” refers to those with low seniority or new hires is not clear the way it is phrased.

As they always do as some sort of reverence for confidentiality that prevents the members from knowing what is being discussed in detail as it happens, , the federal mediator stated that “….
negotiations will be continuing and consistent with the Agency's commitment of confidentiality to the parties, FMCS shall not disclose the substance of the container royalty payment agreement. What I can report is that the agreement on this important subject represents a major positive step toward achieving an overall collective bargaining agreement.”

The contract term under negotiations is six years as contracts become longer and longer in order to maintain Labor peace, and negotiations began in March.  In the last ten years container cargo at ILA operated ports has grown to 110 million tons from 50 according to the WSJ. Almost half of the country’s containerized maritime trade amounting to some $454 billion a year passes through Gulf and East Coast ports.  Retailers would be hard hit as would trucking companies as well as exports of manufacturing goods and agricultural products.

Not being in the industry it’s hard to tell but the usual procedure in these situations is that new hires get screwed, as I have mentioned many times before, they are in the unfortunate position of not being able to vote on contracts that harm them---they have no voice. The Union leadership generally presents the new deal that denies future workers the gains that took 150 years to win as a fait accompli and that’s that.  We have to be “realistic”.

The key language in the short announcement made public is “…subject to achieving an overall collective bargaining agreement.”   What are the bosses demanding for their agreement to royalty payments “in principle”.
We all know through years and years of experience that the Union leadership comes to the table cap in hand seeking a fair and harmonious deal and with the understanding that concessions have to be made.  The issue is where the ax falls and new hires are generally the sacrificial lambs as well as younger workers with less seniority.

The Obama Administration has refused to say whether the President will invoke Taft Hartley if a strike occurs but we can be pretty sure he would.  US capitalism is not about to allow such an economic disruption to an already fragile economy.   Nations like China that export to the US would also feel the pinch.

What stands out is the tremendous potential power of this section of the working class.  Both the ILA and the ILWU could bring this economy to a complete halt.  The problem is that the Union officialdom cannot see any advantage going down that road.  We have had since the onset of the Great recession an uptick in Union activity and general social struggle from the Occupy Movement to Wisconsin events and independent struggles around housing, education, health care and in other areas. A strike of this nature that had an offensive as opposed to a defensive strategy could kick off the beginning of a national movement that would transform the situation and change the balance of class forces in this country.

But to do that would mean to confront this capitalist offensive, challenge it.  It would mean rejecting their view of the world and the idea that society cannot provide a decent living and secure existence. It would mean rejecting the “realism” of the bosses, a realism that leaves people homeless, without health care, without jobs and without a decent public education system. It would mean defying their laws that maintain this inequality and punishes those that oppose it. It would mean relying on the strength of all workers as opposed to their courts and their judges and their mediators.

It would mean refusing to shy away from the term class war, a term the bosses like to use only when we fight back but a war that exists day in day out with the 1% as the aggressors.  It would mean putting an end to $5 and $10 billion a year paydays for coupon clippers. It would mean recognizing that a class war already exists and having a strategy and tactics for winning it as we end wars that set us against other workers who have done us no harm, wars fought for the profits of the global corporations.

It would open the path to a democratic socialist society and it would certainly begin to reduce the alienation and despair that drives people to annihilate their entire family and themselves.  Fighting back always pays.

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