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Shipping are aggressively using George W. Bush’s intervention in the West Coast dockworkers’ contract dispute to gut the union’s power.
Technically, the Taft-Hartley Act invoked by Bush empowered a federal judge to order employers in the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) to end their lockout of 10,500 dockworkers. But Bush’s intervention was aimed squarely at the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU)–and threatens a repeat of the 1981 PATCO strike, in which then-President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 striking air-traffic controllers.
As Socialist Worker went to press, AFL-CIO leaders were meeting in Washington to plan labor’s response during the 80-day “cooling-off” period imposed under Taft-Hartley. Meanwhile, employers wasted no time in using the union-busting weapon that Bush put in their hands.
“We fully expect the PMA to use all the anti-union provisions of the Taft-Hartley injunction,” ILWU President James Spinosa said in a statement. “These 80 days will not be a “cooling-off period.” The PMA will start alleging “slowdowns” by Thursday [October 10] and will continue that. Taft-Hartley gives them 80 days of free shots at the union, and we expect the employers will be dragging us to court daily, trying to bankrupt the union and throw our leaders in jail.”
That’s exactly what Corporate America’s front man, George W. Bush, intended. Just hours before Bush invoked Taft-Hartley, the White House invited lobbyists from 50 companies and interest groups–but not labor leaders–to a White House briefing, the Washington Post reported. Three days earlier, top officials from the National Association of Manufacturers had met with Bush to demand that he invoke Taft-Hartley.
Meanwhile, the West Coast Waterfront Coalition–an alliance of big importers like the Gap, Wal-Mart and Target–helped to organize a barrage of anti-union stories in the media. Even supposedly pro-labor Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called on Bush to intervene.
In his October 12 radio address, Bush claimed that he acted because “the crisis in our Western ports is hurting the economy” and that “the work stoppage also threatens our national defense.” In fact, the administration had intervened months earlier, when Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge called ILWU leaders to threaten that Bush would step in to prevent a strike on “national security” grounds.
The government also leaked reports that U.S. Navy longshore workers were being trained as strikebreakers in San Diego. These harsh measures show that the employers are out to do more than simply introduce new technology. This contract demand is a cover for efforts to outsource longshore work to break the power of the ILWU–whose members handle a staggering $300 billion worth of goods each year.
For all the media hype about “overpaid” ILWU members, most earn around $80,000 a year–about what a unionized autoworker makes with overtime, and a pittance compared to vast sums pocketed by U.S. CEOs.
The PMA did everything it could to provoke the ILWU–from stonewalling negotiations to imposing life-threatening speedups. But after the deaths of five ILWU members already in 2002–compared to one or two in a typical year–workers drew the line.
A showdown on the Oakland, Calif., docks last month over management’s order for dockworkers to work in unsafe conditions led to a mass dismissal. With anger building in the rank and file, ILWU officials instructed members to “work safely.” The PMA responded with a lockout September 29–and Bush dutifully followed the employers’ script by invoking Taft-Hartley.
PMA President Joe Miniace bragged to the Wall Street Journal that employers would use detailed information on the productivity of each port terminal and shift to monitor workers’ performance. “Even the slightest slowdown can be detected,” he declared–and become an excuse for legal action.
In fact, just days after workers returned to their jobs, the PMA was already accusing the ILWU of a slowdown, claiming that productivity was 20 to 25 percent below normal. Yet it was the backlog created by the employers’ lockout that led to a slowdown on the docks–a problem compounded by the PMA’s refusal to hire enough workers to meet the additional demand or train more workers to become crane operators.
For example, dozens of ILWU members who showed up October 12 at the Local 13 hiring hall at the huge Los Angeles port were turned away. The day before, bosses at the terminal were outraged when an ILWU official ordered a halt in production for 30 minutes after a truck hit a cart and a union official was nearly hit by another truck.
And just hours after the nearby Port of Long Beach reopened October 9, a worker was hospitalized after being shocked by 480 volts when unplugging a refrigerated container, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
These are the miserable conditions that longshore workers face. But if they fail to meet production standards arbitrarily imposed by the shipping bosses, the PMA will run to U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup to crack down on workers.
For years, the PMA has collected data on workers’ productivity on a shift-by-shift, terminal-by-terminal basis. Now, this will be used as “evidence” in Alsup’s court to try to bankrupt–or break–the ILWU. We can’t let them get away with it.
This assault on the ILWU is an attack on the entire labor movement–and the rights of working people, whether or not they belong to a union. It’s time to tell Bush and Corporate America that labor won’t bow to intimidation and threats–and that we’ll mobilize to defend our unions.
Ken Riley on the lessons of the Charleston Five victory: “We won because of solidarity”
KEN RILEY is president of International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local 1422 in Charleston, S.C. He became a nationally known labor leader as the advocate of the Charleston Five–dockworkers placed under house arrest for 20 months after a police attack on a legal picket line of a nonunion ship in January 2000.
Thanks to an international labor solidarity campaign–including the threat of a dockworkers’ day of action worldwide if the five went to trial–the men won their freedom a year ago. “The struggle of the Charleston Five showed that the labor movement is collectively up for the challenge we face today,” Riley told Socialist Worker. “Through solidarity, we won that struggle.”
The first union to offer support was ILWU Local 10, which sent representatives to deliver a check for $5,000 to ILA Local 1422 just days after the police attack. In the months that followed, ILWU members contributed tens of thousands more dollars to the Charleston Five defense campaign–including a check for $167,000 even after the five won their freedom.
Despite the objections of some in the labor movement, the campaign focused on racial justice as well as workers’ rights. Four of the Charleston Five are Black–and the ILA in Charleston is overwhelmingly African American, in a state with a history of slavery and racism.
Riley took word of the struggle to local and national meetings of several unions, including the ILWU, United Auto Workers, Service Employees International Union, Transport Workers Union and the Teamsters, as well as civil rights groups such as the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney sent a letter calling on affiliated unions to form defense committees, and the federation backed a solidarity rally in Columbia, S.C., in June 2001. Defense committees raised thousands of dollars at labor rallies endorsed by local labor councils in San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, Cleveland and New York.
“Every facet of what we needed to win was addressed,” Riley said. “We had input from a variety of sources. We didn’t leave one stone unturned.”
After September 11 attacks, some in the labor movement felt that the push for “law and order” would sideline the issue of the Charleston Five and workers’ rights. But the defense campaign pressed ahead–and prosecutors finally threw in the towel.
“I think international solidarity was key,” Riley said. “The shippers started to realize the impact on their business that would take place if solidarity action would continue to build.”
Today, the stakes are even higher–and we need to apply the lessons of the Charleston Five victory on a bigger scale.