April 4 saw hundreds of solidarity actions across the United States, but only one reported work stoppage. On the national day of “We Are One” actions defending the right to collective bargaining, thousands of longshoremen shut down the ports of San Francisco and Oakland for 24 hours by not showing up to work.
The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which comprises the longshoremen’s employers, responded by filing a federal lawsuit against those workers’ union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Workers union (ILWU) Local 10. Now, only a month after filing their lawsuit, the employers have reportedly reached out to the union to discuss dropping their charges.
Participants estimate that over 90 percent of Local 10 members did not show up to work April 4. The PMA, in an e‑mailed statement, blamed union officers for having “significantly disrupted commerce and operations at area ports.” The PMA lawsuit alleges that Local 10 leadership illegally encouraged a work stoppage prohibited by the “no strike” clause of its union contract. A PMA spokesperson said she was currently unable to answer a question regarding the grounds for that allegation.
Trent Willis, chair of the Local 10 Defense Committee and a past president of the local, doubts that management truly believes its own claim that the action came from the top down.
Willis, a seventeen-year crane operator, said the decision to stand down was made by members at a membership meeting. “Our officers, whether they supported it or not, were powerless.”
As Mike Elk reported here, Local 10 has a long history of industrial solidarity actions, from refusal to unload goods from apartheid South Africa to a work stoppage last year protesting the police killing of Oscar Grant. Ken Riley, President of Local 1422 of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), described ILWU Local 10 in an interview as “first reactors to whatever crisis may be facing working people.”
Defense Committee member Jack Heyman, who retired in January after 31 years as an ILWU boatman, said the local’s long history of industrial action has built members’ sense of their own power. He sees the lawsuit as an attempt to discourage future solidarity actions.
Willis said some members were concerned about retaliation for the action, but took part anyway because of how seriously they took the nationwide threat to bargaining rights. He mentioned the connection members feel to Martin Luther King, who was inducted as an honorary ILWU member on a visit the year before his April 4 assassination. Even so, until April 4 arrived, “we weren’t even sure if everybody was going to do it.”
Willis said he learned at a May 17 union meeting that the PMA had reached out to the ILWU attorney to discuss a settlement. He said that a PMA settlement offer described at the union meeting would involve PMA dropping the lawsuit without damages. A PMA spokesperson said only that there is no settlement.
ILWU Local 10 Secretary-Treasurer Farless Daily confirmed that discussions have taken place between attorneys but said there has been no written offer from PMA. PMA has felt more pressure as it has “realized this is a bigger fight than Local 10,” Daily added.
Willis sees the lawsuit as PMA’s attempt to turn the public against the union, and thinks they were surprised by the speed and number of organizations rising to Local 10’s defense. The Committee to Defend ILWU 10 has gathered prominent supporters, including former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, and pledges from over 80 organizations, including the San Francisco Labor Council, Wisconsin’s South Central Federation of Labor, and the World Federation of Trade Unions.
Heyman compared the escalating defense campaign, including a rally outside PMA headquarters, to the successful campaign to drop felony charges against the “Charlestown Five,” South Carolina ILA members whose picket line was broken up by riot police in 2000. That campaign involved actions across the country, including by ILWU Local 10. Ken Riley, whose local was at the center of that case, said his members are eager to reciprocate the support they received then.
When unions chose demonstrations over strikes in Wisconsin, Riley says, “we were seen, but we were not felt.” He called instead for more actions like Local 10’s April 4 port shutdown. Riley has heard from “a direct source” that PMA is trying to find a way out of its lawsuit, and said if so, it’s because ILWU 10 “has walked the walk and talked the talk for a long time…It was not going to stop, it was going to continue to escalate.”