“Whenever the legislature attempts to regulate the differences between masters and their workmen,” Adam Smith noted in The Wealth of Nations, “its counsellors are always the masters.” US president Barack Obama reaffirms this insight with his intervention in the dispute between shipping industry employers and longshore workers on the west coast.
That intervention comes at the behest of retailers concerned over supply chain bottlenecks resulting from the standoff. Obama’s primary motivation is to get cargo unloaded and on the road. “Out of concern for the economic consequences of further delay, the president has directed his Secretary of Labor Tom Perez to travel to California to meet with the parties to urge them to resolve their dispute quickly at the bargaining table.”
Meanwhile, the dispute drags on because management is simply unwilling to meet workers’ demands: Higher pay for weekend work. To resolve the impasse, one side or the other will have to do something it not only currently finds unacceptable, but has consistently found so unacceptable that it prefers leaving ports shut down to doing it. Either the bosses will have to offer higher pay, or the workers will have to return without higher pay. Three guesses which side will bear the brunt of the administration’s pressure to “compromise.”
Obama may or may not order workers back to the docks, but he has that authority under the terms of Taft-Hartley, which permits the president to order a “cooling-off” period in the event of an economically disruptive strike. In other words, the government can simply forbid workers to strike to keep the economy moving. The Republican Congress passed that provision in the late 1940s because they thought organized labor had too much power, not too little.
The general authority to impose a “cooling-off period,” and the specific authority to do so for railroads under earlier legislation, was granted in response to transportation sector strikes that had turned into regional general strikes or even threatened to become national general strikes. The most prominent example was the Pullman railroad strike of the 1890s, widely backed by workers in other industries, which Grover Cleveland broke with federal troops. ILU strikes in the 1930s turned into general strikes involving most of the west coast, as did transport strikes in the midwest. The CIO’s standard playbook was to enlist the support of teamsters who would refuse to haul scab cargo, thereby creating defense in depth up and down the corporate supply and distribution chains.
“Binding arbitration,” along with Taft-Hartley’s prohibitions against sympathy and boycott strikes, was meant to prevent this from ever happening again.
Fortunately workers are able to organize radical unions outside the Wagner framework (created to domesticate them), or engage in unofficial direct action to slow things down even if they belong to Wagner-certified unions. The automobile and other industries were paralyzed by wildcat strikes in the early ’70s despite union leadership’s best efforts to enforce labor contracts against rank-and-file action.
And non-workers can resort to direct action themselves, as evidenced by the success of the #BlockTheBoat campaign against the Israeli Zim shipping company during the IDF’s recent atrocities against the civilian population of Gaza. The shutdown action was joined by dock workers, and was so effective that Zim simply gave up on trying to unload cargo until the action was over. Port shutdowns were also part of the brief Oakland general strike in 2011, after Mayor Qwan’s uniformed thugs stormed the Occupy encampment.
Such actions show great promise. In Ken Macleod’s near-future novel The Star Fraction, an American general strike in protest against the US/UN Hegemony’s worldwide counter-insurgency wars shuts down ports and prevented export of all war materiel, causing America’s war effort to collapse.
When “progressive” states do anything to ostensibly regulate corporations in the “public interest,” they have the corporations for their counselors. Fortunately, we have a far more effective regulatory tool of our own: The monkey-wrench.
Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory.