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Labor Unions and the Courts

Many will recall the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) lockout of 2002, which shut down the west coast ports for 10 days and idled approximately 10,500 union workers, before President Bush invoked the Taft-Hartley Act and forced the parties back to the table.

Even for the relatively short time the docks were shut down, given the enormous volume of cargo the west coast handles (tens of thousands of tons a day), there were hundreds of ships stacked up for miles out into the Pacific Ocean, with hundreds more still moored at home ports around the globe awaiting word as to when the docks would reopen—all dressed up with no place to go.

Of course, during all this, the PMA (Pacific Maritime Association), the business organization that represents the shipping companies and terminal operators, was having a spaz attack.  Millions of dollars an hour were being lost.  The parties eventually settled their dispute and the ILWU proudly walked away with what was characterized by independent observers as a “victory for labor.”

The ILWU and PMA are currently locked into another round of contract negotiations.  And even though the union’s contract has long since expired and both parties have complained publicly about the lack of movement from the other side, no one believes that another strike or lockout is imminent.  The precarious state of the nation’s economy, plus the fact that the union and PMA have already settled the health care issue. more or less precludes a strike as an option.

Still, recalling Bush’s injunction, in 2002, it’s interesting to note the government’s role in labor relations.  While it’s accurate to say that the U.S. government, once upon a time, supported and assisted organized labor, it’s also accurate to say that, for the last 60 years or so (certainly going back to the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947) the government and courts have systematically sought to thwart if not undermine the labor movement.  Indeed, to that hackneyed question of What have you done for me lately? the government’s answer to labor would be “Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.”

Okay, maybe “nothing” is too strong a verdict.  Because there have been a few half-hearted attempts to assist labor, perhaps “precious little” would be the more accurate description.  For example, in regard to the ILWU itself, it’s been the pro-labor Democrats in congress who have successfully held off several attempts to remove the Longshoremen from the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act) and place them under the auspices of the Railway Labor Act, a move that would essentially prohibit the dockworkers from going on strike.

But, in truth, since the end of World War II, on those occasions when labor hasn’t been pointedly ignored by the government, it’s been harassed and attacked by it.  Taft-Hartley, right to work laws, prohibitions against strikes, rulings against labor PACs, the Landrum-Griffin Act (1959), and a multitude of missed opportunities where the NLRB failed to uphold workers’ rights—these have all combined to put unions in the position they find themselves.  The grim truth is that it’s not only American corporations who fear a strong, organized labor force, it’s the U.S. government as well.

It’s been said that the passage, in 1935, of the Wagner Act was, for labor, analogous to what the Declaration of Independence was for the colonies.  Although unions had been flourishing (growing in size and influence, negotiating contracts) for a full century before the New Deal, it was Wagner that energized, stimulated and, most importantly, legitimized the labor movement.

However, even though the Wagner Act gets all the credit and glory for launching the modern labor movement, it was, arguably, the lesser known Norris-La Guardia Act, passed three years earlier (1932), that truly “liberated” the unions.  Named for its congressional sponsors—Nebraska Senator George Norris and New York Representative Fiorello La Guardia—the Act was important for two reasons.

First, Norris-La Guardia made it illegal for employers to use so-called “yellow dog” contracts (where companies hired new employees only after they agreed, in writing, never to join a union); and, second, it drastically limited the authority of federal courts to prevent strikes by issuing blanket injunctions against them.

Prior to the Norris-La Guardia Act, pro-business judges were notorious for cutting the legs off union members by taking away their right to strike, using the old “general welfare of the public” as their catch-all grounds for forcing the rank-and-file back to work.  Strikes are tough enough to use as leverage against management, even with a level playing field; but when a judge can step in on behalf of the business community and arbitrarily end one, labor doesn’t stand a chance.

Injunctions are tricky propositions.  Knowing when to step in can’t be easy.  While the courts have an obligation to protect citizens from undue hardship, when is a strike a genuine “threat” to the welfare of public, and when is it merely a monumental inconvenience?

Obviously, the loss of revenue to a business or industry can’t be the determining factor, even if that loss is staggering.  After all, inflicting financial punishment on the bosses via economic self-sacrifice by the workers is the whole point, isn’t it?  Take that right away, and you’re left with nothing.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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