To raise wages in Panama, dockers join a US union

You see a lot of parked taxis in the Panama Ports terminal. But they are not waiting to give rides to dock workers.

It’s the dockers themselves who are the drivers.

Longshore wages in Panama are so low that after a shift driving a crane, a dock worker has to put in another shift driving a taxi, just to survive.

At Panama Ports, however, this situation has begun to change. A few weeks ago the union signed a new contract with big raises.

A container crane operator with ten years on the job, earning US$6.73 per hour before the contract, will see their hourly wages increased to US$9.24 over the next four years.

One factor that made this agreement possible was support from the US-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

That agreement will have a massive impact on the lives of Panama’s dock workers, where longshore pay is known as “hunger wages.”

Workers’ families live below the government’s own poverty line, and some families literally go hungry.

“That’s one reason why the company had to constantly hire new workers,” recalls Ramiro Cortez, a leader of the Panamanian port workers union SINTRAPORSPA.

“Most people who got jobs here were just working while they were actually looking for better jobs somewhere else. Many accidents in the port could have been avoided if the workers weren’t so exhausted. They go in at 7am, and leave at 8pm, and then go and drive or do some other job.”

The port does have a high accident rate, and two workers were killed a month apart at the end of last year.

The new union contract established five committees, the most important of which is safety.

“The challenge is now to implement this agreement and ensure the company abides by it,” emphasises SINTRAPORSPA president Alberto Ochoa.

“Before the company did what it pleased, and changed the hours, overtime, days off, and wages – whenever it wanted. Now they know we’re not on our own. Companies don’t want real unions because we open the eyes of the workers.”


Yellow unions

Panama Ports is a subsidiary of the Hong Kong-based Hutchinson Port Holdings Limited (HPH).

Workers at the terminal were trapped in a ‘yellow’ or company union there for many years.

Ochoa and other independent-minded dockers had a long history of trying to change this, and finally organised a new union – SINTRAPORSPA – in 2014.

They collected over 2000 signatures on a petition for recognition, and asked for a government-administered election to certify the body as workers’ bargaining representative.

In balloting last year, however, the Ministry of Labour claimed that 1500 workers had voted against SINTRAPORSPA.

Workers out on the docks found this unbelievable, since they knew how many votes they had lined up.

They also knew, however, that the Panamanian president himself, Juan Carlos Varela, is a partner in the law firm used by Panama Ports, one that specialises in helping company management fight unions.

So the dockworkers challenged the transparency of the election.

“It was obvious that we had the support of the great majority of the workers, including those who belonged to the company union,” recalls Cortez.

“Nevertheless, when we went to the ministry to protest, they did everything they could to stop us.”

Ochoa and Cortez appealed to the San Francisco-based ILWU.

ILWU International Vice-President Ray Familathe and Greg Mitre, president of the ILWU retirees in Southern California, flew to Panama City and met with the Labour Minister Luis Ernesto Carles Rudy.

They brought with them a letter signed by six US Congress members, asking for a rerun.

The government reluctantly agreed, and in a fair vote SINTRAPORSPA won by a comfortable margin.

“The support from the ILWU was very effective,” Cortez says.

“The Panamanian authorities were never concerned before about how they conducted themselves with us. Powerful companies, with the money at their disposal, got whatever that money could buy.”

The impact of that support was also felt in the subsequent contract negotiations, which only took a month to arrive at agreement.

In one meeting the company executive president even told union negotiators that he was “very concerned” at the union’s growing relationship with the ILWU.

These experiences led the Panamanian dock union to become the newest member of the ILWU’s Panama Division.

The division was established in 2012, when several hundred members of the Panama Canal Pilots Union decided to join the ILWU.

The division has now grown to include 2580 Panama Ports dock workers.

According to Captain Rainiero Salas, the Panama Canal Pilots’ Union secretary general:

“The Panama Division is growing as workers see what we can gain by working together. It’s not going to stop here.”

Adds Ochoa: “Unions in the ports and the Canal should get together so that we can speak with one voice, and get better benefits and respect for all workers.”



Panama division leaders are also meeting with the union for dockers in Colon on the Atlantic side of the isthmus, the Union of Workers at the Manzanillo International Terminal (MIT).

Like the Panama Ports workers, the dockers in Colon also rebelled against a former union leadership they viewed as too close to the company, electing a new slate of officers a few months ago.

The MIT terminal is operated by SSA Marine, a global company headquartered in US city of Seattle.

According to workers in Colon, container crane operators work eight hour days, for six days straight. For that, their pay starts at US$854 a month, or about US$4.27 per hour.

Base pay for an experienced longshore worker in SSA Marine’s home port of Seattle is US$35.68 per hour.

The low wages on Panama’s docks have a lot to do with the difficulty workers face in forming strong unions and negotiating contracts.

But poverty is also a product of trade and economic policies pushed by US corporations and the government trade negotiators who represent their interests.

The US signed a free trade agreement with Panama in 2009.

“In this country,” says Ramiro Cortez, “there is no middle class. There is just the upper class and the lower class.”

Resentment against the US still reverberates, and while the ILWU in Panama does not directly challenge the old colonial relationship, it does represent the interests of workers by advocating progressive policies on wages, trade and labour rights, while effectively defending workers on the job.

Over the past year pilots have fought, with the division’s support, to ensure that the huge ships that pass through the canal every day are operated safely.

The Canal Authority has launched a huge expansion project, building new locks capable of handling giant post-Panamax container ships [which currently make up 16 per cent of the world’s container fleet] carrying up to 13,000 containers.

The union has criticised the government for not working closely with pilots to design work rules and procedures for safely handling these larger ships in the new locks.

It is especially concerned over a new unilateral government directive that, for the first time, seeks to have ships pass each other in the narrow Culebra Cut.

Previously ships travelling in opposite directions had waited, so that only one ship at a time traversed the cut.

The government says the cut has been widened, but pilots says there is no room for error, and the consequences of ships hitting each other would be disastrous.

Panamanian port and maritime unions are also concerned at the government’s efforts to decertify the union for the canal’s tugboat captains.

The same legal technicalities used against the captains, they fear, could be used to undermine dock unions just as they are starting to change the basic living standards of workers.

“Our main objective as a union is to make a difference in the economic status of those who earn the least – the longshoremen,” Ochoa declares.

“As a union we will keep struggling to win better conditions, especially economic ones.”


An unabridged version of this article was first published on the International Longshore and Warehouse Union website.