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USA: Half measures won't win longshore and steel workers' disputes

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In the long lasting retreat of the organized labor contingent of the American working class, any signs of life are seen as major victories. The latest manifestations are two situations brewing in major industrial sectors, the oil refinery strikes by the United Steel Workers and the west coast ports “slowdown” affecting a choke point in trade between Asian and American capitalism.

Of course, labor unions themselves, as they are constituted today, especially in the United States, are at best, defensive organizations concerned in the vast majority of cases with wresting a few more pennies from the tight-fists of the owners of society and the stranglehold they maintain on the economic life of those who actually do the work. But even in defensive struggles, there comes a time when only offensive tactics will prove effective. In both the above situations, that time has come.

The difference with the run-of-the-mill contracts that have been negotiated in recent times is that they go to the very core of the union movement and the age-old question of unionization itself, who holds the power in the workplace?

The USW Strike

The strike by the steelworkers against selected refineries in the US, called on January 21st, has affected 11 plants which include nine oil refineries. It is the first nationwide strike by the steelworkers' union in 30 years. Although negotiations include traditional items like wages and health care deductibles, they are also concerned with safety for workers and the environment.

Refinery work is dangerous, not only to the worker, but also to the surrounding communities. In addition, the oil companies have been notorious for caring only for meeting quarterly Wall Street profit expectations, rather than something as mundane as the lives of workers or even the future of the Earth itself. The proof of this callous disregard which puts profit over people, is witnessed by way too many oil company disasters through the years causing the death of scores of workers and the degradation of, among other natural areas, the Gulf of Mexico.

In their never ending quest for increased profits, the company outsources maintenance of the refineries to under-qualified and less experienced subcontractors who are cheaper to pay. Cheaper because they are non-union. They are also cutting the workforce and keeping up production, and their profits, by forcing the remaining workers into working overtime. That leads to fatigue, which sharply increases the chances for accidents in an already dangerous job.

Of course, the major oil companies, led by Shell Oil, are demanding the right to staff the refineries any way they see fit without any input from the people who, literally, put their lives on the line for their bosses’ profits. Last year, those profits for the big 5 oil companies were estimated to stand at $90 billion. What's a few lives compared to that?

So far, the union has called out only 6,550 workers in 12 refineries from the 30,000 oil workers it organizes at 63 refineries.

The ILWU and the West Coast Ports

There is another simmering labor dispute that hasn't exploded into active strike action yet, but could at any time. This action involves the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, ILWU, and their counterparts in management on the west coast ports. The ILWU has been working without a current contract since July 1st, 2014 while they attempt to negotiate a new one. The low level tension has resulted in a backlog at these port facilities, what's being characterized as a “slowdown”.

The west coast ports handle all trade coming into and out of the Pacific Rim, estimated at 40 per cent of all exports and imports in the USA. Who is responsible for the slowdown is itself in dispute. The owners blame the union for “working to rule” while the union blames the owners for cutting out an entire shift as the reason for the mounting backlog.

Here, too, outsourcing is an issue. In this case, it is the maintenance work on the cranes and other jobs that historically have been done by the longshoremen and the ILWU. Now, management wants to outsource these jobs elsewhere. Although the outsourcing would initially go to other unionized labor, it's clear that the shippers want this as a way to bleed off more power from the ILWU as they move towards breaking this traditionally powerful and militant union.

The tension has recently been ratcheted up and strike action could come at any time as the blame game has exploded into the press with the Obama administration now getting involved in the negotiations.

Missed Opportunities

The situations in these two industries bring up a number of important questions about union tactics and strategy. The first question that fairly leaps off the page is why are these actions so limited? Neither of these unions is working under a contract and so they have every right to strike, even under the crippling rules of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act (1947), and at any time, too. And yet their workers are still on the job! Especially in the case of the USW, where the issues concern the very lives of union members, why are those members still there putting their lives at risk? Meanwhile, the ILWU, despite a proud tradition of militancy, has taken no action at all, even though management has been completely intransigent in its bid to neuter this once proud class struggle union.

Nevertheless, activists in both unions have done the groundwork to garner community support and, in the case of the ILWU, they have many radical and even revolutionary elements in these communities ready, willing and able to assist them in their struggle. So why not go all-out?

Although the timing is merely happenstance in that two unions in critical industries are negotiating and working without a contract at the same time, this happenstance would be the perfect opportunity to fire a shot across the bow of the employers and their neo-liberal agenda for both industries. It's time to show the bosses that the workers demand a say in the conditions they have to work under.

But there can and will be no settlement that guarantees workplace safety or anything else, until the leaders and members of the unions decide to risk a strike. Without an all-out strike the only thing “guaranteed” for the workers is another in a long list of give-back contracts that further erode the power of the organized working class and provide yet another defeat for the workers.

The Time is Now

Of course, there is nothing guaranteed in taking the next step and calling an all-out strike in both of these sectors at the same time. But if there ever were a time to attempt it, that time is now, when there would be no legal penalties to a strike because neither union has a current contract.

In addition, there are ancillary workers who are struggling just to organize, notably trucking contractors on the west coast, who could probably be brought into strike action in support and put further pressure the owners. It's even a reasonable possibility that other workers who are struggling to organize might join the fight. The fast food and retail trade industries, for example, could be encouraged to take strike action at the same time.

The point is that there is a vast reservoir of dissatisfaction, and sympathy for action, that could be tapped. Because of the sensitive and nationwide nature of these industries, publicity is guaranteed. All of this could publicly pressure the owners in both industries, forcing them to settle on terms more favorable to the workers than will be won by behind the scenes negotiations. Without that public pressure, the owners will continue to press for concessions that will, literally, kill workers.

There is another advantage to the USW and the ILWU calling for and leading a strike. The entire working class needs inspiration and an example from the organized sections. Taking this action now could begin the process of regaining the trust of the more oppressed and unorganised workers in the United States. Unions are all too often seen as both unnecessary and useless in helping workers better their status and their livelihoods, which is the reason for the massive decline in membership over the last four or five decades.

Words and even statistics proving how important organization is, will never have the impact of actions that show a union militantly standing up for its members. Workers need to see an example of a union that fights. While victory cannot be guaranteed, if you fight you build up loyalty and solidarity. What can be guaranteed is that if you don't fight, you can't win, and a defeat without a fight is the worst sort of defeat.

All Out!

In conclusion, the timing is right for both of these major unions to strike and to call for as much community support and sympathy action as can possibly be mustered nationwide. Due to the lack of any consistent and widespread far left or socialist movement to provide a vanguard at the present time, militants in the unions must pick up the mantle of leadership of the entire class.

Yes, this action would be fraught with peril, which is something that the union leadership(s) don't accept readily but, in this case, the risks are manageable and the rewards are greater than doing nothing. Because to do nothing is to guarantee another concessionary contract that will lock in those concessions for years to come.

USW and ILWU we call on you to take the next step and fight for a victory rather than another defeat. If the union tops won't call for a strike, we call on the membership to force the issue on them.

Editor's Note

Since this article was written, an agreement between with the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association, the employers' organisation, has been reported. It was reached after an intervention from U.S. Secretary of Labor, Tom Perez and Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service Deputy Director, Scot Beckenbaugh. Neither union nor management have issued any details yet, but it is a five year deal which is a victory for the owners in itself. A joint statement by ILWU President, Bob McEllrath and PMA President, James McKenna said:

“After more than nine months of negotiations, we are pleased to have reached an agreement that is good for workers and for the industry”. It concluded “We are also pleased that our ports can now resume full operations”.

Such an endorsement, before the terms are even published or the workers have had a chance to discuss or vote on them, is a sure sign that the union leaders want members to rubber stamp their deal.