"It’s All About Power on the Docks"

Shipping bosses have thrown down the gauntlet to West Coast dockworkers–and the entire labor movement. The employers’ Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) has locked out more than 10,500 longshore workers from Seattle to San Diego, and International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) members are picketing.

With $300 billion of goods passing through West Coast ports every year, the stakes of this struggle are clear. As one worker on the picket line in Oakland, Calif., told Socialist Worker, “It’s all about who’s got the power on the docks. We don1t make enough money for them to worry about.”

What’s more, the Bush administration has threatened to use the anti-union Taft-Hartley law to ban any work stoppage–effectively giving management a gun to hold to the union’s head.

“The issues are the survival of the longshore union and even the very survival of the American trade union movement,” said Jack Heyman, a business agent in ILWU Local 10 in San Francisco. “Because if the ILWU goes down the tubes, other unions will follow. The labor movement must learn from the history of PATCO,” the air traffic controllers union busted by President Ronald Reagan in a 1981 strike. “This is not a PATCO, a union that had supported Reagan, but a union with a long tradition of supporting social struggles around the world.”

Ken Riley, president of Local 1422 of the International Longshoremen’s Association, which represents dockworkers on the East Coast, recalled the support that the ILWU gave his union during the victorious struggle of the Charleston Five–longshore workers put under house arrest for nearly two years after a police attack on their picket line.

Riley pledged to return that support. “Workers in Charleston recognize the type of solidarity that was given to them and recognize that we could not have come out of the South with a victory like that without it,” he told Socialist Worker. “We are forever joined at the hips.”

The AFL-CIO Executive Council has pledged to support the ILWU, and the San Francisco Labor Council authorized member unions to honor the picket line of ILWU Local 10.

In July, ILWU President James Spinosa offered changes in the contract that would cost hundreds of union jobs due to technology changes and outsourcing. But the PMA–and big U.S. importers like Target and Wal-Mart in the West Coast Waterfront Coalition–want much more.

The bosses want to break the union’s control over the pace of work by weakening the hiring hall system and speeding up the number of containers loaded and unloaded per hour. These changes would endanger workers’ lives. Several workers died in just the past few months because of speedups and old or missing safety equipment.

The PMA has also used the “war on terror” as a cover for its union bashing. With the contract due to expire July 1, Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge called the ILWU to say that any job action could damage “national security.”

Although Spinosa declared that the ILWU wouldn1t be intimidated, he has adopted a conservative strategy in the face of the PMA onslaught. ILWU officials hoped that their concessions at the bargaining table would satisfy management’s greed–and that support from Democratic lawmakers would force the White House to back off threats to intervene.

For weeks, Spinosa opposed job actions–and he still refuses to call a strike authorization vote. Instead, he has tried to claim the mantle of “national security.” The ILWU is “the first line of defense for anything that may happen like September 11 again,” Spinosa said in a September 30 press conference. The ILWU, he said, has “told the military that our obligation to this country and to our military effort is one that we will not move away from.”

In fact, the military isn1t part of the PMA and is unaffected by the lockout. And trying to wrap the ILWU in the flag will only help justify intervention on “national security” grounds.

What’s more, Spinosa is opening the door to government intervention by agreeing to meet with a federal mediator–something that he had vowed repeatedly never to do.

Tensions on the waterfront have been building since the old contract expired July 1. The agreement was extended on a day-by-day basis through Labor Day until negotiations broke down, and the ILWU refused to extend the deal. That gave the union the right to take job actions such as a work-to-rule–but union leaders at first refused to authorize them.

Meanwhile, the employers pushed harder and harder at the terminals, imposing speedups and firing workers without cause–until anger from the rank and file began to break through.

In a series of spontaneous actions that stand in the best traditions of the ILWU, workers in Portland protested management’s decision to terminate night shifts. Some workers in Oakland refused to work excessive overtime, and individual ILWU locals began passing resolutions to enforce the safety code.

This anger from below at employer speedups, along with stonewalling from the PMA at the bargaining table, finally forced the ILWU leadership to call for a “work safely” campaign last week.

The PMA immediately charged that this was a work slowdown–which is legal when there is no contract–and locked out the workers. After first announcing that the lockout would last only 36 hours, the PMA declared that it would continue indefinitely.

Now, the fight is on–and the union has to make up for lost time by mobilizing. Every shift on every gate will need picket captains and a plan to mobilize dockworkers and supporters in case the PMA tries to pick out strategic gates to open with scabs.

If union leaders refuse to act, the rank and file should take the initiative. And now is the time for union leaders who have pledged to support the ILWU to put their money where their mouths are–and mobilize members of all unions to support picket lines and organize rallies and marches up and down the coast.

The ILWU motto–“an injury to one is an injury to all”–has never been more fitting.

Todd Chretien and Sue Sandlin write for Socialist Worker, where this article originally appeared.


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