Longshore Union Faces Bankruptcy Over Two Jobs in Portland

A dispute that cost Portland its container shipping business could also cost the ILWU everything, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Leal Sundet. (Jarod Opperman)

There are few clearer examples of the strength of collective bargaining than the average pay of members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which the Los Angeles Times pegs at $171,000 plus free healthcare.

A story in the Times today, however, reports that actions by members of the ILWU's local placed both the local and the parent union at risk of bankruptcy.

The union's financial troubles stem from a dispute between the ILWU and ICTSI Oregon Inc., which operated the Port of Portland's container shipping dock on contract.

After ICTSI took over the facility, the ILWU wanted the company to force another union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, to forfeit two jobs plugging in refrigerated shipping containers while they were on the dock. A dispute over those two jobs simmered for years and, according to a federal lawsuit first reported on by The Oregonian, led to the loss of container shipping service for Portland and forced ICTSI to buy its way out of its contract with the port for $20 million.

As The Oregonian reported, a jury in U.S. District Court in Portland earlier this month found in ICTSI's favor in a federal lawsuit and told the ILWU to pay the company $94 million in damages.

As the Los Angeles Times reporter Rich Read explains today, the ILWU doesn't have that kind of money. (Read covered the dispute for years for The Oregonian, where he was a Pulitzer Prize winner.)

Read explores the role of Leal Sundet, a longtime leader in the Portland ILWU local who rose to be the union's second ranking official on the West Coast.

"In some ways Sundet, 63, whom McEllrath assigned to pursue the jobs at Portland's Terminal 6, embodies the proudly militant approach of the union founded by the late Harry Bridges, a Marxist who won respect championing civil rights and equality," Read writes. "But Sundet's scorched-earth tactics stymied judges, confounded three Oregon governors, increased costs of trade and affected his reputation among fellow union members, who in 2015 voted him out of his $307,000-a-year post."

Now the ILWU faces the consequences of its tactics. Judge Michael Simon will hold a hearing Feb. 14 to determine whether the jury verdict show be upheld—which would mean near-certain bankruptcy for the union, which has just $20 million in assets—or reduced.

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