By FREDA COODIN*
(May 1, 2003) – SOME DOCKWORKERS on both coasts have been working double shifts, often in back-breaking jobs, due to the war in Iraq.
“We’ve experienced a 60 to 70 per cent increase in our work,” said Leonard Riley, a dockworker in the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422 in Charleston, South Carolina. “The members in our local have been really stressed out ensuring that all the work gets done. Ever since the conflict started to heat up we’ve been working around the clock. Along with our normal container work, we’ve doubled our output in terms of men working on the docks.”
Labour intensive, dangerous
The military has, among other things, shipped out trucks, helicopters, tanks, humvees, and ammunition from Charleston. Most of this equipment gets driven onto the ships and then requires extensive lashing down with heavy chains to secure for the journey.
“There is a lot of moving cargo on the docks that you constantly need to look out for,” said Riley. “Also, the ships are really noisy and then there’s all those military vehicles that have their motors running constantly while they’re in line to be driven onto the ships.”
Riley went on to explain that not only is the work more labour intensive than containerized cargo, but it is much more dangerous. “With all those motors running there’s a lot of exhaust fumes in the air, so there are huge ventilators that pull the smoke out of the yards, and they make an incredible amount of noise.
“So it’s really tough to stay focused and pay attention to all the moving cargo. We’ve already had a few injuries where people have been hit by the cargo. One was serious-someone who got smashed up in between two moving trucks.
“Folks are wary about the health and safety conditions,” Riley continued. “It boils down to having a job and knowing that there is some risk involved. But it really affects you when your eyes sting because of the smoke, and your nose gets all irritated. You know you’re going to die of something one day, but when you see all the old-timers with cancer, it makes you ask what you’re doing to yourself for money.”
A few members of a West Coast dockworkers local, ILWU Local 23 in Tacoma, Washington, have objected to moving military cargo for conscientious reasons. Vance Lelli, a member of that local, explains that these workers will be transferred to other work assignments on the docks.
Riley knows a few members in his local who have also objected to the work for religious reasons.
Personally, he says, he has mixed feelings about the war. “I have relatives and people that I don’t want to see go down in a war. But the fact of the matter is that the cargo is going to be moved. Even though I’m against the war, at the same time I don’t want my friends and relatives to not get the equipment they need to stay alive. So I try to detach myself from what I’m shipping.”
St. John, New Brunswick
At their general membership meeting in March, ILA Local 273 in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada, passed a “hot cargo” edict for any military cargo destined for the Iraqi war-meaning that the workers refused to load or transport any such cargo.
In February the executive board had passed a resolution condemning a war on Iraq without approval of the United Nations, and many members had participated in some of the peace marches that had taken place in St. John.
“Members had recognized in early March that if Canada did participate in the war, military cargo would be shipped through our port because there is a military training ground in New Brunswick,” said Patrick Riley, secretary-treasurer and representative for the local.
“However, a few days after the local had issued a press release declaring a ‘hot cargo’ edict and promising to request other St. John workers and citizens to adopt the same stance, the Canadian government announced that it would not participate in the war.”