By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor, Photo by Phillip Cooke
On the morning of the first Thursday in March, Bobby Olvera was multitasking—typing emails, preparing bullet points for that night’s union meeting and taking brief calls—while paying attention to the news on the flatscreen TV from the ILWU Local 13’s downtown San Pedro office.
It was just eight days before Local 13’s elections, and it was in this context that the Local’s president spoke at length with Random Lengths News about the union’s future, its internal struggles, and its 21st century evolution.
Reflecting on his first term as president, Olvera spoke of his union’s successes, such as establishing greater use of social media and digital communication to keep the union informed.
“If the worst thing they have to say right now about me on social media is that I wore a Pendleton,” he said, referring to a string of Facebook comments about a shirt he wore to the Feb. 23 press conference. “If people see me in a suit, it would have been, ‘oh, look at Olvera trying to look big time, now he wants to wear a suit.’”
“If that’s the worst that could be said about me, then you can also say I wore steel-toed work boots with that Pendleton,” he said.
The Local’s membership has since returned Olvera to the presidency with a 55 percent margin of victory. With the election turnout being roughly 39 percent, that doesn’t mean he was completely happy with the victory.
“When I made vice president four or five years ago, the runoff [victory] was like 66 percent,” Olvera said. “I’m a pessimist… Less than 40 percent of the membership voted and I got 60 percent of that. So when you do the math, that’s 18-something percent of the 1,600 out of the 6,000 that got me 66 percent.
“I’m glad to be here. I serve faithfully. But that in and of itself should be a telltale sign to the union we’ve got to do something.”
The president-elect said he’s been preaching for probably five or six years about changing the way the Local conducts its elections.
“That’s … one of those changes that make people say, ‘whoa.’ Is it because of tradition? Yes,” Olvera said. “Because, if 5,800 show up to vote, some people may not get elected anymore.
“I’ve told people a thousand times, if 80 percent of our membership showed up to vote and I lost, I would be happy… I wouldn’t care who got elected.
“We’ve made a lot of achievements this year as a Local outside of the contract [negotiations],” Olvera said. “Like TraPac. This is the first time anywhere in the world, [a] labor union has taken on an automated terminal and prevailed the way we did.”
Olvera was referring to the Port of Los Angeles and TraPac joint venture in deploying a fully automated terminal that would replace much of the work crews that would unload cargo containers off ships.
His first term as president has been nothing but eventful, punctuated with failed recall elections of union officers, media battles with the Pacific Maritime Association, and rumor control after outbursts from a Web publishing critic of the union. And if that weren’t enough, Olvera took on the task of ushering a traditionally tightlipped union into the 21st century by communicating with the membership through social media, text messages and e-blasts, while hiring a public relations firm to communicate its message to the media.
Olvera replied to questions about whether contract negotiations were really held up by a single arbitrator and whether Teamsters and troquero critiques about their exclusion from the contract talks were legitimate by saying that it wasn’t personal, “it’s just a process to change the system.”
He said that no other union gets to have a say in its negotiation with its employer. These questions didn’t require Olvera to even look up from his computer screen. But when asked about the Port of Los Angeles’ recent congestion relief announcements, Olvera was fully engaged.
Rollout of Improvements since Tentative Agreement
The Port of Los Angeles announced, in quick succession after the tentative agreement, the rollout of the gray chassis fleet that would serve as a pool of interoperable truck-trailers to improve the flow of goods at the terminals. Eleven of the 13 container terminals at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, as well as the off-dock rail yards, are expected to participate.
The other announcement was the establishment of a container free-flow operation that allows TTSI drayage truckers to “peel off” cargo containers from big box shippers such as Walmart or Target after they have been placed in a block off the ship. This change was aimed at reducing port congestion while efficiently delivering import loads to retailers and other large shippers.
Olvera sees these advancements as a good thing, but also sees the improvements as just one step in the right direction, or rather a correction of an attempt to sabotage the contract negotiations in the first place.
“I think when we look at some of the changes that have happened just in the past few days and weeks… I think everybody recognizes that when the shipping lines and Marine Terminal Operators divested themselves of their chassis, it was purely a move to violate our jurisdiction and take away our work,” he said. “It turned around and bit them in the butt.”
Olvera is given to deploying military terms in describing the logistics of moving cargo, perhaps because of his service as a Marine.
“We have record volumes,” he said. “e have a backlog. We need as many assets on the deck, on the ground as possible. We need boots on the ground.”
“The addition of tens of thousands of chassis from these chassis companies [that] have been holding them hostage inland… in the yard unused, will most definitely help the process. When we’re talking about peeling off cans, no matter how many truckers you have, no matter how many plans you put forth, the root issue is how you discharged the cans and how they are loaded in China or wherever they are coming from.”
To remedy that aspect of the goods movement chain, Olvera believes that more has to be done to impress upon the shippers and big box carriers at most of the world’s major ports to organize their cargo in the most standard and efficient way possible.
“If you only have four or five cans on a ship, it really doesn’t matter,” he said. “When you’re bringing 150 to 200 cans and they’re kind of scattered, that means that they are going to be scattered throughout the yard.”
“We have 25,000 cans in the yard. Having them scattered here, there and everywhere doesn’t make for an efficient operation. So when we talk about peeling cans off, there’s a step before we can even get to that. The big box carriers, the marine terminal operators and all the other stakeholders all need to reach out to the shipping lines overseas and have them stow the cargo basically in groups.”
Olvera repeatedly said he couldn’t speak on any of the details of the tentative agreement, but he did make special note of some of the peculiar dynamics of some of the actors in the negotiations.
When asked which member of the Pacific Maritime Association were the bad actors during the negotiations, Olvera answered carefully. “I think, and I also hope, that a lot of the marine terminal operators and other PMA member companies that aren’t on Forbes Top 10 realize that democracy is a good thing.”
Olvera believes that the PMA’s board of directors is a balance of power that favors companies with commanding market shares, and that those certain large companies have monopolized either power on the PMA’s board of directors or tried to monopolize work on the entire West Coast.
“A lot of smaller marine terminal operators, a lot of independents that aren’t part of the supergiants, like SSA, they suffered at the hands of some of the big boys,” Olvera said.
“I hope they take a good hard look at the way they do business and realize that being dictated to by mega-companies on the West Coast isn’t good for their company. It’s not good for the industry. Our workforce and our industry have a lot of links in that chain. There are a lot of people whose livelihoods depend on us. I would hope the PMA makes some changes.”
Beefs from Without
Olvera spoke at length about dealing with critics from both within and outside of the union, and the Local’s adjustment to staying in control of their messaging, rather than allowing the Pacific Maritime Association and others within or outside of the union doing it for them.
Perhaps the biggest thorn in Local 13’s side has been Jim Tessier and his website longshore-labor-relations.com. When asked about Tessier, Olvera replied, “I have a very clear opinion of the man,” in a tone suggesting he was expecting this question and steeled himself for it.
On his website, Tessier identifies himself as a “longshore labor relations consultant” who’s a “proud member of the SEIU 775NW, healthcare division in Seattle, Wash. Other than that, his resume includes various roles with the PMA as an administrator of ILWU/PMA labor agreements covering Locals in the Pacific Northwest.
After leaving the PMA, Tessier went into business as a consultant representing longshore workers with grievances against the union in front of coast arbitrators. He fashions himself as a kind of muckraker journalist, uncovering and reporting on the Local’s alleged misdeeds, and editorially going after specific union officials for alleged instances of corruption. For the past several months, Tessier has been Olvera’s most virulent and persistent critic.
“I think he’s mad at the world,” Olvera said. “If you go through, chronologically, his website, you’ll see at times in last few months where he would attack somebody, then he’s cheering them on.”
“It used to bother me, Olvera said. “ Like, aw man, this guy is talking shit and I want to reply to everything.”
Olvera cited an example from about two years ago in which Tessier reported that he was on the run from the federal government for going AWOL.
“The Marine corps is still looking for you. You got thrown in the brig dog. I heard you got thrown in the brig,” Olvera said, recalling the reports from friends and colleagues that read the post.
“Man… I got all mad. I went home and got on the web. Kansas City is the repository for records and I started writing, I need a copy of my DD Form 214 (Discharge Papers and Veterans Separation Documents). I … had it sitting there next to my bed. He puts this out and I happen to see his co-conspirator on this website and I just happen to mention to him, ‘oh yeah I just picked up my DD-214 because I hear somebody is saying I was dishonorably discharged, I’m AWOL and on the run from the government.’ So that never hit the website. Other things did. It just became comical to me,” Olvera said.
In reply to whether he thought Tessier is an agent provocateur, Olvera quipped, “an agent of chaos and anarchy.
“I wouldn’t doubt that, but I have no proof of that. One of his co-conspirators likes to put out these cartoons depicting rank-and-filers and officers, or just members at large, depicting them in dresses and suggestive sexual innuendo.”
Olvera was reminded that the cartoons came out during the union election period. He admitted that was the case, but said it still played itself out later on. Longshore worker Eric Aldape was effectively suspended for two years from the fallout of the cartoons and the fight.
Aldape is probably best known for reports about being involved in a fist fight with the previous Local 13 president, Chris Viramontes.
Tessier’s website got recognition after he began posting blogs reflecting Aldape’s critique of the union’s equalization rules–rules that balances the amount of hours worked by Steady longshore workers (workers hired, trained and retained by the employer through Dispatch Hall) longshore workers out of the Dispatch Hall (otherwise called Hall men).
Aldape was also vocal about allegations of union officials using their position to benefit their personal business interests. In interviews with Random Lengths, Aldape said he ran for elected office at the time to tackle these issues from the inside, utilizing an internal media campaign featuring brief editorials and biting political satire cartoons highlighting the issues he was concerned about.
These posts gained Tessier a platform to write about a host of other issues and critiques unrelated to Aldape. To Olvera, they may as well be joined at the hip.
“That’s what they are,” Olvera continued, in reply to whether he considered Tessier an agent provocateur.
“[They’re] criticizing and dragging people through the mud. It’s just that he’s all over the map.”
Olvera noted that a coast administrator judge recently ruled against Aldape “pretty severely.”
Division of the Hall Between Steady Men and Hall Men
With Tessier’s website and Aldape’s advocacy for the hall man notwithstanding, Olvera has thought deeply about how to heal the perceived separation of steady men and hall men in light of vitriolic rhetoric on the issue within the union.
“I think that the larger the percentage of your workforce that becomes steady, the greater the challenge for the union as an entity to communicate, reestablish and maintain of not just loyalty, but participation,” Olvera said. “But when the rubber hits the road, our steadies are good union men and women. Regardless the amount of steadies we have, everybody is on the same page.”
Olvera suggests that union utilization of technology and a greater push to provide more and better training will help erase some of the division between the steadies and the hall men.
“Paper bulletins in the hall don’t work anymore,” Olvera said. “That’s why you must have the email blast and have different means…the website and different ways of communicating with our membership.
“I hear it all the time, ‘aw man I can’t stand steadies,’ and some will say, ‘I love my company. I’ll never go back to the hall.’ But the beauty of our union is that union members have that choice. You have the right to go steady or not go steady.”
Olvera also believes that some election reform could help heal the rift between steadies and hall men.
“I think the way we do our election is in dire need of change to increase participation,” he said.
The president doesn’t believe mail-in ballots are good for the union, but he said there has been some discussion of utilizing mobile polling stations at the terminals during both the day and night shifts. To keep up with technology, he said those stations could be linked to the Local’s computers so that the voter totals could be tallied in real time instead of days and weeks after the election.
“If we don’t try, if we don’t experiment or explore the options and try to make a change again, we’re going to miss the boat,” he said.
Olvera tells the membership and other observers to stay tuned. He believes the longshore workforce is going to grow.
“Coming out of these negotiations—and I can’t speak to what is and what isn’t contained in the contract—but I think the employers and the industry recognizes that there is a need to invest in the workforce,” Olvera said.
“We need better training. We’re still training guys on cranes the way we trained them 25 years ago. We’re training guys on top-handler equipment… it’s like teaching someone accustomed to driving an automatic to drive a stick shift.”
Olvera likened this nation’s approach to goods movement to the way it’s managed its education infrastructure.
“We’re still the best in the world, but I think we’re at that point where we say we’re still the best in educating and teaching our kids, but we didn’t invest the money in the school systems, the teachers, and the schools and the supplies for the kids,” he said. “And so we saw the whole world pass us by. Now look at where we are. No matter how much money or the lottery or whatever we do for education, we’re so far behind the eight ball that it’s going to take us generations to get us back to where we once were and that’s if we get the capital investment and legislative support we need for schools.”
Olvera said sometimes you have to flank your opponent.
“I don’t want to say by hook or by crook, but you can only beat your head against the wall for so long on an issue,” he said. “You gotta provide a way to where the men and women that trained on equipment have an expectation they’ll be paid on that equipment and that comes from work coming into the hall. Not by having an abundance of steadies and the leftovers get sent to the hall. The better trained and the better able we are to provide a high quality trained worker, the better we position ourselves for the future.”
Olvera said at the time all would become clear in a couple of weeks.
“You’ll understand because when everything becomes public, you’ll understand what I was leading up to.”