Ridge Tries to Bully Longshoremen

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

At the rate things are going, it won’t be long before labor organizers are being thrown into military prisons, held without warrant as "enemy combatants". Tom Ridge, director of the Office of homeland Security has been phoning Jim Spinosa, head of the West Coast’s Longshoremen’s Union, saying that a strike would be bad for the national interest. Next Monday sees the expiration of the current three-year contract between the Longshoremen and the employers, grouped in the Pacific Maritime Association. If the 10,000-strong longshoremen go on strike, ports from Seattle to San Diego could shut down, meaning a big jolt to the already floundering US economy.

A call to Spinosa by the Secretary of Labor would not be surprising, given the stakes, but a call from the man in charge of coordinating the battle against terrorism on America’s home turf confirms all the Left’s deepest fears that, as so often throughout the twentieth century, national security is being used to justify strike-breaking, invocation of the Taft-Hartley Act and declarations of national emergency to shut down labor activism and if necessary throw labor organizers in jail.

Longshoremen don’t need to be told this. They know it’s what happened to their most famous leader, Harry Bridges. In World War II the US government, particularly through the US Navy, cut deals with the Mob (mainly involving a hands-off posture on the drug trade), giving the Mobsters specific orders on which labor leaders to rough up and murder. Between 1942 and 1946 there were 26 unsolved murders of labor organizers and dockworkers, dumped in the water by the Mob, working in collusion with Navy Intelligence. (For more, reade our book Whiteout, which contains a chapter on this nasty affair.)

Jack Heyman, business agent of the San Francisco Longshore Union (ILWU), tells CounterPunch that Ridge called Spinosa, the ILWU international president, about 7 to 10 days ago in the midst of negotiations. "He said that he didn’t think it would be a good idea if there was a disruption in trade and went on to say that it is important to continue negotiating." Since then, according to Heyman, Spinosa has been talking not only to Ridge but also to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Ridge’s astounding and sinister intervention comes in the midst of tense negotiations between the Pacific Maritime Association representing shipowners and stevedores operating on the West Coast and the ILWU. The prime issue is technology, where the employers seek change in work rules. Today, Thursday, Longshore workers are staging a rally in Oakland.

"The big thing," Heyman says, "is the hiring hall. The PMA wants to computerize the hall. Longshore workers died in the 1934 strike for the hiring hall. It dictates who controls distribution of jobs, who controls the waterfront. We eliminated corruption and favoritism with establishment of union hiring hall. They want to put computer cards. When you go to hiring hall you schmooze, see what is going on. Employers don’t want that."

The PMA is also demanding that the workers begin paying for part of their health insurance coverage, a demand that would slice into rights won by the Longshoremen in the 1960s. "It’s not fair that all these foreign-owned shipping lines want American workers to pay more for health coverage," said Ramon Ponce de Leon Jr, head of the ILWU’s local for the Los Angeles-Long Beach port.

The trans-Pacific trade has grown to become one of the largest in the world. The West Coast now has four of the top six U.S. container ports. Wages for full-time longshoremen range from $105,278 for general longshoremen to $125,058 for marine clerks to $167,122 for foremen. Longshoremen have always made it a rule in negotiations not to make any concession without an equivalent concession from the employers. Heyman mentions the push by European unions for shorter work weeks as one model for demands here.

This year’s contract disputes are particularly fraught. The rapid gains in trade volume are over for the moment, as both the U.S. and Asian economies struggle to emerge from recession. Shipping revenues are down. Since Sept. 11, security has replaced commerce as the transportation industry’s main priority. Residents of port communities beef about the long lines of trucks at container terminals that cause gridlock on their roads and pollute the air. With the huge new container ships now being built, such problems will get worse.

According to the Journal of Commerce, "Over the past year, PMA President Joseph Miniace has publicly called for the introduction of contemporary technology to increase the efficiency of cargo-handling activities at West Coast ports. ILWU President James Spinosa responded that the union would never accept the type of robotics he personally witnessed at the Port of Rotterdam."

Ridge’s call comes in the context of urgent PMA lobbying in Washington. Again according to the Journal of Commerce, "Management forces, pointing out that shipments through West Coast ports account for 70 per cent of the nation’s gross domestic product, have been trying to line up support in Washington, D.C. PMA President Joseph Miniace has been a frequent visitor to the nation’s capital, meeting with members of Congress and administration officials. Importers and exporters have also joined the fray. They note that what happens on the West Coast will affect companies across the country. They’re trying to keep the pressure on the PMA to stand firm in the bargaining."

There are other sinister signs that "homeland security" is being used as a club to bash labor. The right wing is working fiercely to make the prospective new umbrella Homeland Security Agency non-union, again citing the paramountcy of national security. Once again this takes us back to the darkest days of domestic repression at the dawn of the Cold War.

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