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Labor's Edge: Views from the California Labor Movement

Out With Outsourcing: How Clerical Workers Achieved Victory at SoCal Ports

By Craig Merrilees, International Longshore and Warehouse Union

Four hundred and fifty ILWU office clerical workers ended their one-week strike on December 4th after securing new protections against the outsourcing for good jobs that support working families in the Southern California harbor community.

Key issue:  outsourcing

The tentative agreement – subject to membership ratification – includes significant new protections that will make it much harder for jobs to be outsourced to Texas, Taiwan and other locations around the globe.  

Power of solidarity

The clerical workers, who do everything from billing to complex logistical planning and management tasks, won their struggle against powerful multi-national companies because of solidarity and support from over 10,000 other port workers, including ILWU longshore and other unions, port truckers and harbor-area community members. Unions affiliated with the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor sanctioned the strike and provided important support – including plans for a massive mobilization that was cancelled after an agreement was reached.

The strike by members of ILWU Local 63’s Office Clerical Unit (OCU) began Tuesday, November 27, involving about 60 workers. By Thursday, the strike had expanded to cover most terminals at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach with about 450 clerical workers staffing picket lines against 12 employers.

Outsourcing scheme

The strike targeted huge carriers and terminal operators and their affiliated companies who have been secretly outsourcing dozens of good-paying ILWU clerical jobs to remote locations here in the U.S. and around the globe. Over 50 jobs have disappeared in the past 3 years, and another 60 were likely to disappear without action to stop it. The companies refused to admit they were outsourcing – and continued to insist throughout the strike that union members wanted “featherbedding.” The strike was triggered by the refusal of companies to address the outsourcing problem during two years of contract talks. The strike quickly forced the companies to reverse course, address the issue and agree on solutions that will help protect jobs from disappearing.

Widespread support

OCU members staffed around-the-clock picket lines at the port terminals. Local residents and business owners showed their support by dropping-off food and coffee to picketers. Other union members secured propane heaters that were delivered to many site.  Pop-up shelters were donated to protect against torrential rainstorms that lasted for much of the strike. The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor scrambled to plan a large caravan on December 8th to mobilize hundreds of Southland union families in autos, motorcycles and classic cars that were scheduled to meet at Dodger Stadium for a kick-off rally, then drive through the city, and climax at the Port with a giant solidarity rally. The action was cancelled when the settlement was reached.

Message battle in the media

The high-profile struggle immediately gained national media attention from all major print, radio and television news outlets. Rank and file clerical workers were quickly trained to serve as communicators who focused on a disciplined message: “we’re striking to save good jobs for working families in the community – and fighting for everyone in America who’s concerned about outsourcing jobs.”

Lobbyists in Washington

Company-paid media consultants churned out distortions and misinformation, claiming that workers were paid $196,000, and that the strike was damaging the economy to the tune of $1 billion a day.  The National Retailers Federation attacked in Washington, D.C. where companies like WalMart and Target lobbied the White House and members of Congress to intervene by having the President declare the strike a national emergency and break it for 80 days with a Taft-Harley injunction. 

Politicians choose sides

That effort failed, but the conflict revealed which politicians were willing to stand with workers – and which ones preferred to join the chorus of employers who focused on exaggerated claims of economic harm. U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer issued a joint statement with a sub-headline screaming:“Closures of Ports During Holiday Season Could Hurt the Economy of the Los Angeles Region and Nation.”

In fact, there was little or no impact on the holiday season because most goods had been delivered long ago. But the focus on “harm to the economy of the Los Angeles Region and Nation” was thinly-veiled code designed to threaten union members and encourage the White House to impose a Taft-Harley injunction.

Standing with workers

Several members of Congress took courageous stands that affirmed the efforts of clerical workers to save jobs from being outsourced. Congress members Janice Hahn, Judy Chu, Linda Sanchez, and Grace Napolitano made their support clear in public statements that expressed concern about the outsourcing of good jobs.  Similar statements came from

State Senator Alan Lowenthal, State Assembly member Bonnie Lowenthal, and others. Janice Hahn also made a special effort to visit with workers on the picket line.

Reaching a settlement

As the strike neared the one-week mark, pressure increased on all sides to secure a settlement. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa returned from a trade mission to South America on Sunday night, stepped off the plane and sped off to meet with both sides just before midnight. He remained at the talks all night and into the morning, as both sides edged closer to an agreement over the outsourcing issue.  In public, the companies denied that outsourcing even existed, while inside they were negotiating policies to curb their serious outsourcing habit. The final deal was reached shortly before 11pm and announced to the news media in a joint media event hosted by the Mayor.

ILWU International President Robert McEllrath who praised the unity and solidarity of members, their families and thousands of community supporters.

This victory was accomplished because of support from the ILWU family and backing from the harbor community.

ILWU International Vice President Ray Familathe helped coordinate support for the strike and assisted with the negotiations.

Our campaign was always focused on securing good jobs for the entire community, which was a tough because we were dealing with powerful multi-national shipping companies. This was truly a 21st century challenge that involved the use of new technology and the outsourcing of bargaining unit work.

Local 63-OCU President John Fageaux concluded:

This was a community effort that should provide benefits to working families for many years to come. The fight against outsourcing won’t stop when we sign the final agreement, but we’ll have some powerful new tools to use in the battles ahead.

 

Posted on 12/10/2012Permalink

More posts by Craig Merrilees

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