International unionism challenges the global economy on the docks
Radio commentary by David Bacon, 31 December 1998
Every year for the past three decades, cooperation has grown among transnational corporations, and their power to shape the global economy has increased. 1998 was no different. But this year, workers made some new efforts to respond to it. They took some hits, but also some important steps forward.
In 1998, the front line in this global battle was on the docks. As the year started, British longshoremen in the port of Liverpool finally conceded defeat, ending a strike which had gone on for over two years against the privatization of Britain's ports, and the near-total destruction of its dock unions. Many had hoped that a new Labor government would intervene and return dockers to their jobs, but Prime Minister Tony Blair declined to act on their behalf.
Nevertheless, the cause of the Liverpool dockers became a rallying point for longshoremen in ports around the world. In the U.S., dockworkers on both coasts stopped work in their support. Mike Carden, a leader of the Liverpool strike and officer of the Transport and General Workers Union, says that the situation faced by the Liverpool dockers had clear implications for other dockworkers throughout the world.
[Mike Carden:] "Obviously, the shipowners that use Liverpool are the same ones that use US or Australian ports or European ports. If an organized port like Liverpool could be dismantled, and companies given access to a non-unionized, deregulated port, that would have implications for their costs. They would obviously want the same thing in well-organized, disciplined ports like those in Australia.
"The Australian dockworkers strike began soon after the situation in Liverpool concluded. Now it looks like a possibility on the US West Coast, where the Pacific Maritime Association wants to implement some of the same drastic measures other ports have adopted."
But countering the growing power of employers, Carden says, was a burgeoning international movement for solidarity among workers.
[Mike Carden:] "There's a long history of solidarity between ports, across the world. We had relationships before this strike began, strong union relationships on a rank-and-file level with dockworkers in France and Australia. We knew that the work is the same work, that the struggle is the same struggle. That was brought home during the course of the Liverpool dockworkers dispute.
I think our struggle will be remembered as an important event in global trade unionism, not just unionism in the UK. The people who supported us were the longshoremen on the west coast of America, the longshoremen on the east coast, the Australian dockworkers, and the dockworkers in Europe. They showed what support meant, and physically they gave it."
As Carden predicted, the global war on longshore unions broke out again later in 1998, this time in Australia. Patrick Stevedoring Company, at the instigation of the country's Conservative government, decided to lock out union dockworkers and bring in scabs to take their jobs.
Here again, striking longshoremen received support from coworkers in other countries. But this time, those efforts had more success. In the port of Los Angeles, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union refused to unload the Columbus Canada, a ship carrying Australian beef loaded by strikebreakers. The freighter sat offshore for weeks. Its fate became a key factor convincing Australian employers and governmental authorities to settle the dispute. Australian longshoremen returned to their jobs on the docks, crediting solidarity from U.S. dockers with helping to win their victory.
In 1999, U.S. longshore workers may be on the receiving end of similar international union support. The master contract between the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association expires in July. If the shipowners take a hard line, dockworkers on the Pacific Coast may be appealing to Japanese, Australian and European longshoremen to refuse to work on the ships belonging to their common employers.
This struggle over the fate of workers in the global economy is far from over.
For Pacifica National News, this is David Bacon.
David bacon - labornet email