Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Clash Ahead Over Longshore Union War Protest

Clash Ahead Over Longshore Union War Protest

By George Raine

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Members of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union are proceeding with plans for a work stoppage at 29 West Coast ports on May 1 to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the fact that union leadership has withdrawn its request to waterfront employers that they accommodate closure of the ports.

Planning for the protest began in February when the Longshore Caucus, the highest decision-making body for the 25,000 members of the longshore division within the ILWU, overwhelmingly approved a resolution in support of a day of protest.

According to its contract, the ILWU is entitled to schedule a "stop-work meeting" each month to discuss union business. It must give adequate advance notice to employers, who are represented by the Pacific Maritime Association, a group of shipowners, stevedore companies and terminal operators that negotiates labor contracts on their behalf.

The PMA routinely grants these requests, but only for meetings that are to be held during the second work shift, beginning in the evening. For the war protest, the ILWU said it wanted stop-work time during the day, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., the busiest cargo-handling shift of the day.

After the matter was approved by the caucus, ILWU President Bob McEllrath said on the ILWU Web site, "The caucus has spoken on this important issue, and I've notified the employers about our plans for stop-work meetings on May 1."

However, in March, the president of PMA, James McKenna, said he would not agree to the request. Employers do not want the ports to be shut during the first, or day shift, as it would be disruptive to the flow of cargo. The PMA said Friday that about 10,000 containers are loaded and unloaded coastwide during an eight-hour day.

On April 8, the union leadership withdrew the stop-work request for May 1.

The employers wanted the union to convey the withdrawal to its members, but management sources said it was unclear whether that had happened. So the PMA took the issue to an arbitrator. On Thursday, he issued an opinion that the union is obligated to inform members that the request has been withdrawn. There was no mention of the matter on the ILWU Web site on Friday.

Craig Merrilees, a spokesman for the ILWU, issued a statement seemingly supportive of a war protest: "The Longshore Caucus resolution calling on all locals to honor May 1 by taking action to end the war and bring the troops home safely from Iraq continues to move forward. Various voluntary rallies and public demonstrations are scheduled for May Day."

The protest was advanced by Jack Heyman, a longshore worker who is a member of the Local 10 Executive Board. He said Friday he expects the ports to be shut down May 1. He added, "I have never seen our membership so resolute on a given issue."

He said it was Vietnam War veterans in the caucus who drove the discussion.

Steve Getzug, a spokesman for the PMA, said, "They informed us they had dropped their demand for a stop-work meeting May 1. An arbitrator has ruled they inform their members, and in light of that we hope the day (May 1) will come and go without disruption."

Heyman and other organizers said there will be a rally at noon May 1 at Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco. Speakers will include activists Danny Glover, Cindy Sheehan and Daniel Ellsberg.

In the meantime, the PMA and ILWU are negotiating a labor contract. The current contract expires July 1.

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