On 31 December, the same day the US economy was scheduled to drive over the ‘fiscal cliff’ (averted at the eleventh hour), East Coast dockworkers planned to close down seaports from Massachusetts to Texas. Their union, the International Longshoreman’s Association, represents many skilled workers in strategically important jobs, giving them considerable potential clout, and the White House was reported to have had a hand in getting talks back on line and the strike deadline postponed till February.
Back in the 1960s, the dockworkers were confronted with the loss of thousands of jobs with the introduction of standardised 40ft shipping containers. The ILA’s response was to swallow the job losses in exchange for the establishment of ‘container royalty payments’ for the remaining employees, resulting in a much-diminished (though relatively better-paid) workforce. For example, employment of longshoremen in New York and New Jersey has dwindled from 35,000 in the 1960s to 3,500 today.
Now that the crisis is biting, the shipping companies want to freeze these payments for current staff and abolish them for new hires – hence the threatened strike. So long as the struggle remains at the level of a rearguard defence of perks secured in boom time, and secured at the expense of mass redundancies, East Coast dockworkers will be fighting capitalism with both hands tied.
And yet they have the power to bring the US economy grinding to a halt – as was demonstrated by their fellow dockers on the West Coast in 2002, when an a11-day blockade of 29 ports was estimated to have cost the economy $1bn a day.
Dockworkers on the West Coast are organised in a different union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which is regarded as further to the left than its sister union in the East.
In 2008, it shut down the West Coast for May Day in protest at the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, and more recently supported the Occupy movement. On 27 November, ILWU clerical workers began an eight-day strike that crippled the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in a fight to resist the outsourcing of their jobs.
However the ILWU is itself prone to getting side-tracked by law-abiding concerns. Longshoremen in the Pacific Northwest have overwhelmingly rejected a contract unilaterally imposed by the grain companies, which presented the union with 750 non-negotiable amendments, variations on a theme of ‘flexibility’ and ‘efficiencies’.
Yet, reports AlterNet, “the workers were back on the docks as of this writing, because, union sources have confirmed, the employers invoked a legal manoeuvre to unilaterally implement contract terms not agreed to by the union after employers deemed themselves at an impasse with the workers. Now officials at the West Coast union are committed to addressing the contract demands through legal channels.” (‘Massive East Coast dock strike averted’, 28 December 2012)
It is crisis-driven reverses for US (and British) imperialism that will encourage workers to advance from such defensive and law-abiding habits and resume the serious struggles for emancipation last seen in the 1920s and 1930s.