Labor Love Lost

Judge Pulls the Plug on Longshoremen

A federal judge has been forced to intervene in a dispute between two unions over who is in charge of plugging and unplugging refrigerated shipping containers at the Port of Portland.

Oregon district court judge Michael H. Simon ordered the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) to abandon its efforts to snatch the responsibility of manning the outlets from the rival International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).

"[The ruling] simply means that the same people who have been doing the work since 1974 will continue to do it," said IBEW spokesman Norman Malbin.

The union squabble dates back to March when ILWU workers first attempted to circumvent the IBEW contract with International Container Terminal Services Inc. (ICTSI), a shipping company operating out of the Port of Portland. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled in favor of the IBEW in August.

That decision did little to deter the ILWU, according to Simon’s November 21 ruling. The union began filing a slew of lawsuits asserting that ICTSI’s contract with the electrical workers represented a "lost work opportunity" for members. The Longshoremen also worked behind the scenes to undermine the company and its rival union, which had been plugging and unplugging the units for nearly 40 years.

"It appears that [ILWU]’s grievances against the Carriers are simply (or at least primarily) intended indirectly to pressure the Port and ICTSI to assign the [refrigeration] work to ILWU members," Simon said in his ruling. "In fact, in response to Respondents’ grievances, one carrier, Hanjin, sent an email to ICTSI and the Port demanding that they use ILWU members."

"Nobody runs an anti-union campaign, nobody fights dirtier than one union against another," said Bret Jacobson, cofounder of formerly a researcher with the Center for Union Facts, a conservative labor watchdog. "The lofty ideal of international unions doesn’t translate down to the local during hard times. They’re looking out for their bottom line."

ILWU did not respond to requests for comment.

The two unions are technically allies. Both the IBEW and ILWU are members of the AFL-CIO, but their common interests do not extend beyond their mutual support for President Barack Obama.

Dr. Steve Allen, a labor expert with the Capital Research Center, said that union workers may put up a united front politically but often have little in common at the local level. Each union is trying to maximize wages and benefits for its members.

At the docks, a task as simple as plugging and unplugging containers can mean more workers for an individual union and additional hours for its members, extending the union’s influence.

"They’ll fight over turf, businesses do the same thing—and these unions are businesses," Allen said. "A major part of the history of the union movement has been that people fight over turf even within a union federation."

The AFL-CIO did not return emails for comment at press time.

Malbin, the IBEW spokesman, acknowledged that labor conflicts are inevitable at times, especially when members are confined to a fixed workplace, such as a port.

"Unfortunately, jurisdictional disputes between unions is something that seems to happen on a periodic basis," he said.

The Longshoremen are among the most well-compensated workers in the country. Oregon and Washington’s port workers earn an average of more than $63,000 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"While electricians have a craft that keeps them relevant, longshoremen are mostly focused on protecting their jobs from automation or anything, including other unions, that will infringe upon their generous living," he said.

Update 1:23 PM: Brett Jacobson's title was changed.