Employers lock out longshore workers at West Coast ports on September 27, 2002.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 7/17/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8692
See Additional Media

On September 27, 2002, the Pacific Maritime Association, representing shipping and stevedoring employers, closes all 29 ports on the West Coast during a contract dispute with the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union. The lockout, which lasts 11 days, is the first major work stoppage on western docks since the 1971 longshore workers strike that closed the ports for several months. Work resumes in October 2002 after President George W. Bush (b. 1946) invokes the Taft-Hartley Act and obtains a court order opening the ports. Negotiations will continue for another six weeks before agreement is reached on a new contract that gives dock workers hefty benefit and pay increases and union jurisdiction over additional waterfront positions while allowing employers to utilize labor-saving technologies for cargo tracking.

No Agreement

After the lengthy 1971 strike, which included a court-ordered cooling-off period under the Taft-Hartley Act and was not settled until early 1972, the dock employers' Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) and the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU) had succeeded in negotiating subsequent contracts without strikes or lockouts. However, 2002 proved to be different. ILWU and PMA negotiators began working on a new contract that spring, but the sides were still far apart when the existing contract expired on June 30, 2002.

Employers wanted the ability to introduce new computer technology, including scanners, sensors, and bar coding, to make cargo-tracking faster and more efficient, which the union feared would cost the jobs of many longshore clerks. The PMA also proposed cutting back on employer-funded medical benefits, while the ILWU sought to keep the health-care coverage and to increase wages and pensions. Day-to-day extensions kept the old contract in effect until September 1 as negotiations continued, but no agreement was reached.

Locked Out

Longshore workers continued to work without a contract until September 27, 2002, when PMA President Joseph Miniace locked out the workers and shut down all West Coast ports. The PMA said the union had forced the closure by engaging in a work slowdown in which workers strictly and literally obeyed safety rules and dock speed limits. The union denied a slowdown and accused the PMA of trying to divert attention from its refusal to negotiate. With the ports closed, cargo trains sat empty and huge container ships, unable to unload their cargo, crowded harbors, including Tacoma's Commencement Bay and Seattle's Elliott Bay.

Closing the Port of Tacoma had a major impact on Alaska, since nearly 70 percent of Alaska's consumer goods were shipped through Tacoma. A week after the lockout began, Totem Ocean Trailer Express (TOTE), a leading shipper to Alaska that was not a PMA member, bypassed its labor contractor (a PMA member) and agreed to let ILWU Local 23 members load its Alaska-bound ships. PMA member CSX Lines followed suit and by October 4, 2002, goods for Alaska were again flowing through the Port of Tacoma.

Except for the Alaska-bound ships in Tacoma, West Coast trade -- typically a $300 billion/year chunk of the economy -- remained at a standstill. Perishable cargo spoiled and retailers worried they would not be able to build inventories for the upcoming holiday shopping season. Business leaders concerned about the impacts of the lockout urged President Bush to use the Taft-Hartley Act, which allows the president to request a court order temporarily ending a work stoppage that threatens the economy by imposing an 80-day cooling-off period during which work continues.

Federal Intervention

The Taft-Hartley Act had not been used for nearly 25 years and the last time it was invoked, by President Jimmy Carter (b. 1924) in 1978, the court declined to issue an injunction. Nevertheless, Bush requested a Taft-Hartley injunction on October 8, 2002. A federal judge granted the request and ordered work on the docks to resume. Ports re-opened the following day, although it was several weeks before the backlog of cargo was cleared.

Meanwhile, negotiations on a new contract continued amid fears that the dispute would remain unresolved when the cooling-off period ended on December 27. As it turned out negotiators, working practically around the clock by the end, hammered out a tentative agreement on a new contract by late November. After negotiations collapsed in September, workers and employers had agreed to have Peter Hurtgen, head of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, mediate the issues. Hurtgen and AFL-CIO Treasurer Richard Trumka, an experienced labor negotiator sent in by the AFL-CIO when the talks were falling apart, were credited with helping resolve the often-bitter dispute.

In the end, both sides claimed the new contract gave them what they wanted. The PMA won the right to introduce new cargo-tracking technology. The contract also contained arbitration procedures that management wanted and had a duration of six years, twice as long as prior contracts, giving employers stability on labor issues for a longer period.

"The Richest Contract"

Longshore leaders touted the contract as a union victory. Roger Boesflug, president of ILWU Local 23 at the Port of Tacoma, called it "the richest contract we've ever negotiated" (Gibbs, "Longshore Proposal"). Most dramatically, workers won a 58 percent increase in their employer-funded pensions. ILWU spokesman Steve Stallone said "We got the largest pension increase in the history of the American labor movement" (Gibbs, "Longshore Workers Vote"). Workers also gained a pay increase of $3/hour over the six-year term of the contract. Full-time salaries, already among the highest of any union workers in the West, rose to $85,000 by 2007, the final year of the contract. With overtime, longshore workers could earn $100,000 or more. Workers also retained their full employer-paid health benefits.

In addition, although the union agreed to new technology expected to eliminate as many as two-thirds of the 600 or so longshore clerk jobs on the West Coast, the contract ensured that all currently employed clerks would keep their jobs until they chose to retire. Perhaps most importantly to the ILWU, which saw control over port jobs as key to its survival, the union not only retained jurisdiction over the clerk jobs, but won agreement that some terminal and rail-planning jobs that were previously non-union would become union positions.

Rank and file longshore workers shared their leaders' enthusiasm for the new contract. The January 2003 vote to approve the contract was 7,405 to 888, or nearly 90 percent in favor. Tacoma Local 23 voted 521 to 20 in favor and the vote at Seattle Local 19 was 440 to 41 to approve. Union members at five smaller state ports unanimously approved the deal.

Sources: Al Gibbs, "Shippers Shut Down Docks; 'Defensive': Employers Say Closure Is 'Cooling Off' Period in Talks with Longshore Workers," The News Tribune, September 28, 2002, p. A-1; Gibbs, "Docks Bustle with Cargo for Alaska; 2 Shippers in Tacoma Quit Lockout; Rest of Coast Still Shut Down," Ibid., October 5, 2002, p. A-1; Gibbs and Stefano Esposito, "Back to Work on the Docks, but Not Back to Normal; Port Officials Say it Might Take 3-4 Weeks to Catch Up," Ibid., October 10, 2002 p. A-1; Gibbs, "Union Likely to OK Pact; Docks: Pension, Health Care Details Good, Local Leader Says," Ibid., November 28, 2002, p. D-1; Gibbs, "Longshore Proposal Called 'Win-win' Deal; Negotiations: Workers' Pay Will Increase $3 an Hour over 6 Years If Plan Ratified in Voting That Begins Jan. 6," Ibid., December 27, 2002, p. D-1; Gibbs, "Longshore Workers Vote 'Yes'; Almost 90 Percent: 6-year Contract Gets Record Support," Ibid., January 23, 2003, p. D-1; Frank Vinluan, "Agreement Reached on Dockworker Contract," The Seattle Times, November 24, 2002, p. A-1; Nancy Cleeland, "Threat of U.S. Role Aided Port Deal; the Union and Shipping Lines Resolved Issues with an Imposed Settlement Hanging over Them," Los Angeles Times, November 25, 2002, p. A-1; Steven Greenhouse, "Both Sides See Gains in Deal To End Port Labor Dispute," The New York Times, November 25, 2002, p. A-14; Jeanne Cummings, Carlos Tejada and Queena Sook Kim, "The Lockout's Ripple Effect: Use of Taft-Hartley Act Often Gives Poor Result -- Bush Reluctance to Step In On West Coast May Be Due To Historical Assessment," Wall Street Journal, October 4, 2002, p. A-9.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You