West Coast dock workers overseeing billions of dollars worth of trade are threatening to walk off the job, after unsanitary conditions put them at increased risk of COVID-19 exposure.
At the port of Oakland last week, members of the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union (ILWU) gathered to address the media in the shadow of The Grand Princess cruise ship. The cruise liner, once home to some 2,400 passengers, has become a symbol in recent weeks of the looming fear of coronavirus after several hundred passengers tested positive for the disease and were quarantined in military bases across the country. Having departed from its dock in Oakland, the cruise ship now lingers off the coast in the San Francisco Bay as it completes a 14-day quarantine.
After all passengers disembarked, dock workers from the ILWU, who are a core part of the international supply chain, demanded that contaminated waste from the ship be disposed safely through water-side offloading and barge removal instead of the port operator’s proposed trucking through the Eastbay community—a decision that could have exposed both dockworkers and community members to the virus.
Standing with local leaders from the Bay Area’s Filipino community, the union also demanded the safe repatriation of all Grand Princess staff and adequate medical treatment for workers still aboard the vessel. As union leaders spoke to the press, port operators backed down on the decision to truck out waste, ceding to the ILWU and community members’ demands.
Now, ILWU members are continuing to put pressure on their employer to ensure the health of dock workers across the coast, going so far as threatening a work stoppage if cleanliness and sanitation standards aren’t met.
The recent agitation comes at a time when longshoremen are already feeling added strain from a lull in shipping brought on by the spread of COVID-19. Earlier this month, a Portland judge handed down a reduced judgment of $19 million in damages against the ILWU for a slowdown action against terminal operator ICTSI, which began in 2012 in Portland, Oregon. The $19 million in damages, reduced by a judge from the original award of $96 million, are still more than twice the ILWU’s total assets, offering dock workers few options to avoid bankruptcy and serving as a stunning blow to one of America’s oldest and strongest unions.
Despite the lawsuit, the ILWU holds a tremendous amount of leverage at a time when their workers continue to support the main artery of food, goods, medical supplies, and consumer items entering ports from Kodiak all the way to San Diego. This power was put on display in 1999 when the ILWU organized a shutdown to support the WTO protests, and in 2008, when the union organized a west coast shut down to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2010, ILWU local 10 shut down the port to protest the police killing of Oscar Grant, and again in 2011, in solidarity with workers in Wisconsin facing growing attacks on labor protections from Governor Scott Walker.
The near total command of west coast ports, won through decades of militant struggle, means that at any time, the union can halt the economy to agitate for workers rights—a reality made clear in a letter sent to management listing demands last week. But despite their overwhelming bargaining power, members of the ILWU don’t take the decision to use their control of the ports lightly.
Concerns abound over how direct action could be spun by the media and the Trump administration. As one union member told Motherboard, “this is a very dangerous situation. It’s not as simple as [calling a strike]. They could turn the public on them really bad.” The past two presidential administrations have used the coast guard to ward off ILWU direct actions, and coverage of the economic impact has not always been reflective of the disparity in financial impact to corporations and consumers respectively.
ILWU organizing director Ryan Dowling told Motherboard that right now, organizersare focused on using the infrastructure and coffers grounded at the docks to support the thousands of workers the ILWU represents in industries “on the other side of the gate,” referring to workers outside of the port terminals.
From the nearly 400 employees laid off at Powell’s Books in Portland this past week to the workers at Anchorsteam Brewing in San Francisco, to veterinarian and warehouse workers, the ILWU is working to ensure that their inland workers have safe working conditions and enough cash to survive the next two weeks as congress struggles to pass an economic lifeline for workers.
“Right now things are in flux. We had campaigns wrap up before the outbreak and we were able to bring those to the end of the election phase.” Dowling said. “But the biggest thing is trying to get petitions moving to address workplace issues. A good example is in Oregon where we have some early childhood education shops we just organized called Growing Seeds. We were able to get two weeks pay and no lay offs from the employer through a petition. They’re now working with parents and are talking about what's happening at their school programs and how it can be replicated in other places.”
As The ILWU regroups to support its members, the union is altering organizing strategies to meet the rapidly changing workplace environments of its members and to insure that all workers have access to the personal protection equipment they need to complete their work safely. “It’s hard to have a captive audience meeting when employees are on zoom. How do you file a petition with the boss for gloves or masks when you can’t find your boss” Dowling said.
In San Francisco, Tartine bakery workers who recently unionized with the ILWU are currently fighting what could soon become a protracted battle over the results of their union election, which took place earlier this month. But as stores shutter in response to the coronavirus, organizers have shifted to fundraising and administrating hardship funds to laid-off Tartine workers. Mathew Torres, an organizer with the Tartine union in Berklee told Motherboard, “a lot of our members are one paycheck away from being homeless, so right now we are just trying to get people cash to make sure they can buy their medication, buy their next meal, keep the lights on.”
Jack Heyman, a retired ILWU SF board member who helped initiate the 2008 anti-war shutdown said now is the time for the ILWU to re-energize it’s militant heritage in addition to supporting member’s basic needs.
“The ILWU has been hit with this massive fine that will have a chilling effect not only for the longshoreman’s union, but for workers far beyond the waterfront if we don’t act. Now is the time to organize in the face of this terrifying disease,” Hayman told Motherboard. “And as the saying goes, an injury to one is an injury to all. That’s never been more true than right now.”