West Coast longshoremen find strength in tradition

Published: Monday, July 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, July 1, 2002 at 12:00 a.m.
SAN FRANCISCO - On the sidewalk outside the longshoremen's hiring hall, a man paints the white outlines of two dock workers killed during the 1934 strike that forever changed how billions of dollars of goods enter and leave West Coast ports.
Inside the hall, any longshoremen will tell you how those killings helped form a militant union that turned brutal waterfront work into a blue-collar job with white-collar wages and perks.
Ever since that bloody strike, longshoremen have controlled job assignments in every port on the West Coast - leverage unrivaled among labor unions and a reliable trump card at the negotiating table.
The latest contract between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the shippers expires at 5 p.m. Monday.
The two sides have been negotiating in San Francisco, where both are based. After weeks of a news blackout, word came Wednesday from the union that the talks were stuck on issues including salaries and benefits.
The shippers' latest offer on a three-year contract was rejected Saturday and the union plans to present its version Monday. Neither side would speculate what will happen after the deadline. At rallies last week, the Teamsters union promised to join any strike.
With the outcome governing all of the 10,500 longshoremen in the United States' 29 major Pacific ports, it wouldn't take long for labor unrest to cripple trade with Asia and send a shiver through world economies.
The shippers' Pacific Maritime Association says the $260 billion worth of cargo that moved through ports from San Diego to Seattle last year supported 4 million American jobs.
With Pacific Rim trade expected to double in the next decade, the association says U.S. ports must become more efficient to remain competitive.
"In the post 9/11 era, there is no question that the need for technology and modernization is even more crucial," says spokesman Jack Suite. "Modern workplace practices and the introduction of basic technology are absolutely necessary for ensuring national security, relieving mounting congestion on the terminals and removing this bottleneck in the global transportation system."
Longshoremen fear that's simply employer doublespeak cloaking an attempt to outsource union jobs and regain control over work assignments, something the union can't afford to give up.
Not only has the union won longshoremen high salaries - $80,000 on average for full-time dock work, up to a $167,000 average for the most experienced foremen - shippers pay practically their entire health care costs.
They also like the freedom the hiring halls afford - each morning, longshoremen decide what assignment they want and who will be their boss.
"When you come through this window, you can have any of those jobs," says Richard Mead, president of Local 10, gesturing to slips of paper inside the dispatch booth, where a woman calls workers by number. "Or you can look in here and say 'I don't want to do any of that today,' and leave."
And they know their work is vital. "The job that we are blessed to have affects the whole economy," says Henry Pellom III, known as "Gloveman" for the goods he sells to fellow union members. He plays $5-a-hand card games with friends at the hall each day before heading to the docks to work the giant cranes and move acres of containers.
"Our job dictates that we have some type of leverage," Pellom says.
In 1999, longshoremen kept working past a contract deadline and a contract was settled after two weeks. But they struck in 1936-37, 1948 and 1971.
Among the rank and file, talk of a strike or a lockout was common during rallies Thursday.
"A culture of resistance has emerged in the union," says David Wellman, author of book on the ILWU's San Francisco local and a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Union founder Harry Bridges refused to buckle despite repeated federal investigations and constant police surveillance. He created a union culture that still embraces racial inclusion and spurns hierarchy - local leaders can serve no more than two one-year terms before returning to the rank-and-file.
Inside the hall near San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, photos of Bridges compete for wall space with murals of pre-union hardships. Their motto is ubiquitous: "An injury to one is an injury to all."
New longshoremen must take classes on union history. And every July 5, San Francisco Bay area ports sit idle as the union memorializes the two men shot by police in 1934.
Tom Villeggiante, one of six sons who followed "Watermelon Charlie" Villeggiante into the union, speaks of the hall as hallowed ground.
"Longshoremen lost their lives for that hall," says Villeggiante, 47. "That's like the lifeline of the union. Everybody takes care of everybody at the hall."
--- On the Net: ILWU: http://www.ilwu.org/main.htm Maritime Association: http://www.pmanet.org/
The Associated Press A man walks past a painting on the sidewalk in front of the Longshoremen's Union Hall in San Francisco on Wednesday. The painting symbolizes the outlines of two dock workers who were killed during a strike in 1934.

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