Report from the Docks, This is Union Busting!

by LEE SUSTAR

An unprecedented alliance of transnational corporations and politicians of both parties is behind the U.S. government’s attempt to break the West Coast dockworkers’ union.

George W. Bush’s intervention under the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act ended a 10-day lockout by employers in October–and allowed a federal judge to ban any work stoppage on the docks for an 80-day cooling-off period that expires December 26.

The Justice Department sent the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) a letter October 25 threatening legal action after management alleged that the union carried out a slowdown after returning to work two weeks earlier.

Months ago, the White House threatened to use troops to move cargo under the guise of “national security.” But preparations for the attack on the union began earlier–when the Clinton administration commissioned a study on “modernizing” the ports.

The proposals were developed in a white paper published in December 2000 by the Marine Transportation System National Advisory Council (MTSNAC), an industry advisory group that reports to the Secretary of Transportation.

The white paper was produced by Joseph Miniace–president of the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), the employers’ group that bargains with the ILWU. The document spelled out Miniace’s goal of breaking the dockworkers’ power.

When the contract covering the 10,500 members of the ILWU expired in July, ILWU president James Spinosa agreed to accept the new technology despite the loss of 600 clerks’ jobs. In exchange, the ILWU sought continued union jurisdiction over new jobs. But Miniace wouldn’t take “yes” for an answer–and locked out the workers instead.

According to the Seattle Times, Miniace’s rise in the PMA was backed by Stevedoring Services of America (SSA), a Seattle-based company that’s one of the world’s biggest port terminal operators. SSA, which operates a massive facility in Los Angeles, has already moved about 150 ILWU clerks’ jobs from that port to a nonunion logistics operation and warehouse in Utah. These are the same hard-line tactics that SSA used when it worked with the Australian government in an attempt to break the dock union there in the 1990s.

The SSA is also pressuring the government of Bangladesh for permission to build a new private terminal to replace the government-owned port and its unionized workforce–and the U.S. ambassador has publicly intervened to support the company.

But Miniace has other powerful supporters, too. Like MTSNAC chair Chuck Raymond, who is also CEO of CSX Lines, the shipping line owned by the rail freight giant CSX–and a PMA board member.

While the MTSNAC includes unions, it’s run by executives from companies like Union Pacific, which dominates rail links to the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach–the biggest in the U.S. Union Pacific is the prime beneficiary of a new government-funded $2.4 billion container rail line at those ports.

Known for its hostility to unions, Union Pacific owns Overnite Transportation, which recently defeated the Teamsters in a three-year strike. The company was also a major campaign contributor to Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta when he was a member of Congress.

And Union Pacific CEO Richard Davidson–a major Bush donor–was named to chair Bush’s new National Infrastructure Advisory Board, which will make recommendations for more transportation legislation.

Transportation industry cooperation set the stage for the creation of the West Coast Waterfront Coalition (WCWC), a group of importers that includes Gap, Wal-Mart and Toyota. The WCWC endorsed Miniace’s document, which was later expanded into a formal report to Congress–and will serve as the basis for legislative proposals to be released in November.

All this set the stage for the PMA’s 10-day lockout–timed to induce Bush’s use of the Taft-Hartley law to force the issue into the spotlight. The employers want Congress to put the dockworkers under the Railway Labor Act–which “essentially eliminates the ability of a union to use the threat of a strike to gain the upper hand in contract negotiations,” the editor of the employers’ Journal of Commerce enthusiastically noted last week.

The ILWU has so far concentrated on electing Democrats in the November elections to try to avoid this fate. But it will take a far bigger solidarity campaign–and action on the docks–to defeat these union busters. It’s time for the labor movement to mobilize to meet this challenge.

LEE SUSTAR writes for the Socialist Worker. He can be reached at: lsustar@ameritech.net

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