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Dying to Organize

Bennett Baumer Dec 1, 2004

On Nov. 5, a group of armed men gunned down Teamsters representative Jose Gilberto Soto at his mother’s house in Usulutan, El Salvador. It appears Soto was murdered because of his interest in organizing Salvadoran port truck drivers that haul goods for shipping giant Maersk-Sealand. Bullets struck Soto at close range in the back and the side, and he died minutes later. There was no attempt to rob him. Soto, a Salvadoran immigrant, worked as a Teamster organizer in Port New Jersey/New York and sought to draw connections between workers in the global North and South. The Teamsters and longshore unions have had limited success using their power on the piers to organize non-union truck drivers and warehouse and dock workers.

“We will bring justice to these workers as a tribute to Gilberto Soto. We know he would not have it any other way,” said Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa, Jr. in a press release.

The El Salvador government has downplayed any political connection to Soto’s death and accused American unions of using the murder to thwart free trade deals such as Central American Free Trade Agreement. Teamsters leaders have been highly critical of Salvadoran officials investigating the matter and rejected an investigation by Maersk.

“If the Salvadoran police engage in a cover-up, we will seek the assistance of human rights organizations with a track record of integrity and independence,” said Chuck Mack of the Teamster’s Port Division.

Truck drivers in New York and New Jersey who carry goods from ports into inland warehouses earn on average $7-8 per hour without benefits.  Most are Latino immigrants. Their counterparts in Latin America earn on average $1-2 per hour, and work up to 16 hour days, according to the National Labor Committee. In 2001, Maersk truck drivers in El Salvador organized a union and the company responded by waging an anti-union campaign and blacklisting workers. There are about 6,000 freight drivers in El Salvador, around 2,500 of which are owner-operators.

The Teamsters are interested in organizing truck drivers that haul goods from Port New Jersey/New York to inland storage facilities, and Soto had been involved in past efforts. These port truck drivers wait in long lines even though work is not guaranteed.  The Teamsters and Maersk have battled over alleged company harassment of non-union truck drivers and Maersk’s plan to move its regional headquarters out of New Jersey to an undetermined overseas location.

Organizing drives along East and West Coast waterfronts have met little success despite the efforts of union activists like Soto. Historically, the Teamsters have wrangled with the East Coast International Longshoremen Association (ILA) over work jurisdiction further hurting truckers.

Both the East and West Coast longshoremen unions have considerable leverage and power on the docks and this could be used to organize nonunion workers. However, the ILA has stumbled even with small organizing drives.

On the West Coast, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) beat back maritime industry attempts to break the union by successfully striking in 2002 for pension increases and maintaining quality health insurance. Organizing non-union workers has proved more difficult.

“The unions sit in the dock with a relative amount of power,” commented ILWU Organizing Director Peter Olney. However, “the work is moving away geographically and in jurisdiction from the ports.”

In the past 20 years technology has advanced and the productivity of the longshoremen has increased. The number of dock laborers remained stagnant at about 10,000 workers. In this same time period employment in the marine cargo chain has risen by 50 percent, from 198,000 to 290,000 mostly clerical and trucking workers.

In order to carry on the work of Gilberto Soto, unions will have to form coalitions to tackle transnational corporations and use their power in the docks to leverage inland companies. Strategic vision on organizing targets and linking global port struggles is powerful and will not come without costs. There’s on old saying in the labor movement, “don’t mourn, organize.” It is as relevant now as it has ever been.