Taft-Hartley, Bush and the Dockworkers

George W. Bush and the employers want to use the Taft-Hartley Act–America’s notorious “slave labor law”–to break the West Coast dockworkers’ union. But members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) have a message for Bush and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA): We won’t give up this fight.

“When the PMA dictates a speedup on the docks, we’re going to have more people dying,” ILWU Local 10 Business Agent Trent Willis said at an October 4 rally in Oakland, Calif., referring to the deaths of five longshore workers in the last seven months. “Bush and [PMA President Joseph] Miniace and the PMA are economic terrorists, and we’re not going to put up with it.”

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Rich Trumka issued a statement opposing Bush’s intervention–including the administration’s threat months ago to use the military to break an ILWU strike. Bush’s intervention is “a historic juncture in the labor movement,” said Jack Heyman, a business agent for ILWU Local 10.

“By invoking Taft-Hartley against the longshore workers, Bush is effectively declaring war on the working class here and the Iraqi people simultaneously,” Heyman told Socialist Worker. “We must either go forward, or we will go backwards. But never before has there been so much solidarity for a union as has been expressed for the ILWU in our struggle now.”

That solidarity was on display at the October 4 rally. Speaker after speaker condemned Taft-Hartley and pledged solidarity with the ILWU. “We consider the use of Taft-Hartley to be an anti-labor act, and we’ll oppose it,” said Chuck Mack, the top official in Teamsters Local 70 and Joint Council 7, and the union’s Western Region vice president.

Sue Sandlin, co-chair of the Portworkers Solidarity Committee, said, “Taft-Hartley is a slave labor act because it forces people to work under the conditions of the bosses’ choosing, and it makes solidarity between unions illegal–and that’s outrageous.”

Members of United Auto Workers Local 2244 from the GM-Toyota NUMMI plant in nearby Fremont–partly closed due to the dock bosses’ lockout of longshore workers–were on hand to show their support. Local 2244 President Tito Sanchez told the rally, “Anything you want the UAW to help you with, we’ll do it. We’ll be on your picket lines.”

Rank-and-file Teamsters organized a delegation from Stockton, Calif., and transit workers attended from San Francisco. Teachers, nurses and government workers also turned out–as did students and unorganized workers.

The ILWU will need to build on this solidarity during the 80-day “cooling-off period” to be imposed by a federal court injunction under Taft-Hartley. Under the terms of the injunction, ILWU members will have to work under conditions imposed by the PMA–and the employers have been imposing speedups and unsafe conditions since the old contract expired July 1.

Now, with the backlog created by the lockout, conditions will be worse–and management will once again try to provoke workers through disciplinary actions and dismissals.

It was just such a showdown on the Oakland docks last month that led to dozens of members of Local 10 being fired from a job for refusing to work in unsafe conditions. When the ILWU bargaining committee responded by instructing members to work safely, the PMA accused the union of a slowdown and locked workers out on September 29.

The PMA wanted to keep the lockout going until Bush intervened, so management negotiators showed up at a federally sponsored mediation session with armed bodyguards–and union leaders rightly stormed out.

Negotiations in the following days seemed to show some progress. But on October 6, the PMA suddenly presented a worse offer than was on the table in order to provoke another union walkout.

Taking the bosses’ cue, Bush invoked a Taft-Hartley “board of inquiry” the next day, which will issue a report allowing Attorney General John Ashcroft to seek the 80-day injunction in federal court.

Unfortunately, ILWU President James Spinosa and other union leaders have done far too little to prepare the rank and file for this kind of attack–even though it was clear for months that the PMA wanted an all-out battle. Spinosa refused to even authorize a strike vote, and he witch-hunted union members who called for mobilization and job actions.

Rather than go on the offensive against Bush and the PMA, he has consistently tried to wrap the ILWU in the flag by claiming that dockworkers play a leading role in “national security.” This only plays into Bush’s hands by claiming that a “national emergency” has made it necessary to impose Taft-Hartley.

Even a week into the lockout, Spinosa wouldn’t mobilize the whole union for solidarity demonstrations. All this has made it easier for the PMA’s propaganda to go unchallenged.

It’s time for the ILWU–and the entire labor movement–to take a different course. The union has withstood attacks under Taft-Hartley before. When the law required a membership vote on the bosses’ rotten contract offer in 1948, every single ILWU member cast a blank ballot. And when the law was used to stop a 1971 strike, the ILWU hit the picket lines again as soon as the injunction expired.

The dockworkers need to build on that fighting tradition. The future of organized labor in the U.S.–and in ports around the world–depends on it. It’s time for every union member–and everyone who stands for workers’ rights–to support the ILWU.

Todd Chretien, Scott Johnson and Snehal Shingavi contributed to this report, which originally appeared in Socialist Worker.


LEE SUSTAR is the labor editor of Socialist Worker