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International Socialist Review Issue 26, November–December 2002

Power on the docks: Use it or lose it

by Lee Sustar

OUTSOURCING, ANTI-UNION labor laws, and government intervention have been major factors in the decline of the most powerful unions in the U.S.—and now, it appears, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) will be added to that list. Even if the settlement is approved without a further work stoppage, the West Coast dockworkers’ struggle has already highlighted the employers’ new, government-backed aggressiveness—and the urgent need for organized labor to develop a strategy to meet that challenge.

A tentative agreement on the central issue of technology and job security was reached November 1, little more than three weeks after George W. Bush invoked the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act to end a 10-day lockout by employers. If initial press reports were accurate, the union reportedly accepted the elimination of 400 clerical jobs with the proviso that those workers will receive alternative employment. The ILWU apparently did regain previously outsourced jobs on the docks and in the rail yards. The Associated Press reported that the union failed in its efforts to win jurisdiction over the crucial job of vessel planning as well as new jobs created through new technology. Although an ILWU spokesperson hailed the technology agreement as a victory, the New York Times cited an anonymous source close to the union who claimed that management had gotten nearly all it wanted on that critical issue. If so, employers grouped in the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) will try to use technological change to bleed the ILWU of members by moving an increasing number of jobs inland.

In any case, the ILWU was forced to negotiate this deal amid the biggest government attack on organized labor since President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in 1981. George W. Bush’s intervention under Taft-Hartley—the first such action in nearly 25 years—allowed a federal judge to ban any work stoppage on the docks for an 80-day cooling off period that was set to expire December 26. While it was the first time Taft-Hartley had ever been used to end a management lockout, Bush was in fact placing a powerful weapon in the employers’ hands.

On October 25, barely two weeks after ILWU members returned to work, the Justice Department sent the ILWU a letter threatening to take the union to court based on management’s allegations of a slowdown. Under Taft-Hartley, the judge who issues an injunction can fine the union for violations and imprison its leaders if they don’t pay—and there was speculation that Bush’s Justice Department was only waiting for the November 5 elections to pass before seeking such action. No matter how much any eventual settlement favors the PMA, the employers will continue to pursue their aim of putting dockworkers under the Railway Labor Act. That law, which also governs the airlines, “essentially eliminates the ability of a union to use the threat of a strike to gain the upper hand in contract negotiations,” the editor of the employers’ Journal of Commerce observed.

Once Taft-Hartley was imposed, the ILWU concentrated on electing Democrats in the November 5 elections to try to head off any legislative attack. Yet even after lining up support from Democratic officials from Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle on down, the ILWU was stabbed in the back by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), who promised to support the union but then publicly urged Bush to invoke Taft-Hartley during the lockout. And there’s no reason to believe that a party dependent on corporate campaign contributions would reject anti-union legislation aimed at dockworkers—particularly on the eve of war. After all, a Democratic senator singled out for support by the ILWU, Jean Carnahan (D-Mo.), has voted with Bush 70 percent of the time.

An effective campaign to defend the ILWU would have to go far beyond electoral politics. The Bush administration’s intervention in their struggle began even before the old contract expired July 1, when homeland security chief Tom Ridge threatened the use of military strikebreakers if the ILWU walked off the job. What is less well known is the fact that the groundwork for the government’s attack on the ILWU began when the Democratic Clinton administration commissioned a study on “port modernization.” Long before September11 made “port security” a catchphrase, transportation industry leaders and government officials put the issue at the center of their case for port modernization, creating the pretext to undermine hiring halls and carry out invasive background checks on dockworkers.

These proposals were first developed in a white paper published in December 2000 by the Marine Transportation System National Advisory Council, an industry advisory group that reports to the U.S. secretary of transportation. The introduction to the study states that it was “produced under the direction of Joseph Miniace,” the president of the PMA. Miniace’s document warned of “institutional barriers,” including “long-established work rules”—that is, resistance by dock unions. The document—which served as the basis for legislative proposals—was immediately endorsed by the West Coast Waterfront Coalition (WCWC), a group of big importers that includes the Gap, Wal-Mart, Toyota, and many other key players. Meanwhile, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has initiated its own study of port modernization. That effort is led by James Burnley, a secretary of transportation in the Reagan administration. More recently, Burnley served as a transportation expert on George W. Bush’s transition team and led the effort to kill the ergonomics standards implemented by the outgoing Clinton administration. Burnley also played a central role in the creation of the Airline Transportation Stability Board, which guarantees loans to troubled airlines on the condition that “labor costs” are reduced. He’s also a partner at Venable, the powerful Washington, D.C. law firm and lobbyist that lists “union avoidance” as one of its specialties.

All these efforts set the stage for the employers’ lockout of 10,500 dockworkers September 29. The issue of “national security” as war loomed with Iraq only gave Bush additional political cover for attacking the ILWU. The lockout was designed to demonstrate the power of the organized working class on the docks—and make the case for union busting. As the Journal of Commerce observed, “For the first time, a realization of the importance of ports to the nation’s economy has risen above the level of traffic managers to the chief executive officers of major corporations.”

While the PMA and its allies were intent on all-out confrontation, the ILWU tried to avoid the battle and outflank management on the right on the security issue. Apparently to avoid the appearance of aggressiveness by the union, ILWU President James Spinosa refused to call a strike vote. At several rallies and demonstrations, workers carried official union signs that read, “fight terrorism, not American workers.” This only legitimized the White House’s actions—and will give credence to the idea that the ILWU would bow to the war drive against Iraq and take concessions. This flag-waving is a retreat from the ILWU’s record of internationalism and support—and action—on behalf of progressive causes. The most recent examples were the union’s use of a contractual meeting time to shut down the ports in solidarity with death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal and again in solidarity with the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999. The ILWU also played a critical, and perhaps decisive, role in the victory of the Charleston Five, the South Carolina dockworkers placed under house arrest for 20 months following a police attack on their picket line.

The last time that Taft-Hartley was invoked in a work stoppage was 1978, when 160,000 striking coal miners defied President Jimmy Carter to continue a walkout that lasted 110 days. “Taft can mine it, Hartley can haul it, and Carter can shove it,” was the miners’ slogan. Taft-Hartley was last used against the ILWU by Richard Nixon in a 1971 strike. The union walked off the job as soon as the 80-day injunction expired.

But Taft-Hartley is much more than a strikebreaking weapon. Because it originally required union officials to sign affidavits that they weren’t members of the Communist Party, the law was used by the government and employers—and anti-Communist union leaders—to drive militants out of the unions. Taft-Hartley, which covers private-sector workers, also bans “secondary boycotts”—the solidarity strikes used in the 1930s to build powerful unions. It allows states to pass anti-union “right-to-work” laws that left workers historically weak in the South. The law also permits employers to conduct anti-union campaigns on company time, while forcing unions to respond off the clock. The law further prohibits supervisors from joining unions—which allows employers to classify millions of white-collar workers as “managers” to keep them from organizing. It’s one of the major reasons why union membership has declined from 35 percent of U.S. workers in the 1950s to just 13 percent today.

The use of Taft-Hartley was an opportunity for labor not only to expose Bush as a hit man for the employers, but also to launch a campaign against anti-labor laws. After all, Bush, who previously banned a mechanics’ strike at Northwest Airlines under the Railway Labor Act, has followed the well-worn path of Bill Clinton, who used his powers under that law to ban a pilots’ strike at American Airlines and prevent strikes at railroads 13 times. Government intervention in unions has taken other forms as well, including the threat of multibillion dollar fines against New York City transit workers to prevent an illegal strike in 1999 and the new Air Transportation Stability Board’s requirement for union concessions as a condition for guaranteeing loans to airlines. Already, unions at United Airlines, US Airways, and other airlines are handing over billions of dollars of concessions in order to “save” their companies. If they refuse, bankruptcy court judges may impose the cuts anyway.

The longest standing government intervention in the unions is the 1989 federal consent decree that provided for government oversight of the Teamsters. Supposedly assigned to rid the union of mob influence, government overseers also removed reformer Ron Carey as union president amid corruption charges following the union’s victorious strike against UPS in 1997. Earlier this year, Carey was vindicated in federal court—but remains banned from the union. The Teamsters are now run by James P. Hoffa, whose former law partner was killed in a mob hit and whose top union allies were recently ousted for corruption. Nevertheless, Hoffa, a Bush supporter, is now negotiating for the withdrawal of the government from the union.

Yet rather than join forces against government intervention on the docks, two important unions used the opportunity to take shots at the ILWU instead. The International Association of Machinists and the International Union of Operating Engineers, whose leaders accuse the ILWU of raiding their jobs, released a letter during the lockout highly critical of the ILWU and raised the prospect of crossing picket lines. During last summer’s convention of the California Federation of Labor, the Machinists used a parliamentary maneuver to prevent the convention from adjourning to attend a solidarity rally with the ILWU.

The result of all this was that labor missed an opportunity not only to mobilize to defend the ILWU, but to open up a long overdue debate about restrictive, pro-management labor laws that undermine unions in the workplace and place enormous obstacles in the way of organizing new workers. Given that 50 percent of workers told pollsters that they would like to be in a union if they could, the potential for workers to rally around the ILWU is clear. When the corporate media repeats management propaganda about $100,000 dockworker wages, organized labor should point out that only a minority of workers achieve that pay, and they do so by working more than 2,600 hours a year—the equivalent of 15 full-time weeks longer than the already-high national average. Of course it’s nothing compared to the amount that CEOs haul in, crooked or otherwise. Where the 1997 UPS strike electrified the country as people identified with the insecurities faced by low-paid, part-time workers, the ILWU could lead a fight for all workers to get a decent wage. Their reluctance to do so allowed management and the corporate media to complain that the employers’ “generous” offer was opposed by “greedy” ILWU members.

The power to change the direction of this struggle lies with the rank and file of the ILWU. A “no” vote on any deal that undermines their unions would send a message to employers and union leaders alike that workers aren’t willing to sacrifice for Corporate America’s bottom line. In fact, it was workers’ own actions on the docks that showed how to stand up to management. As negotiations dragged on until September, there were repeated confrontations on the waterfront over management violations of safety standards and attempts to speed the pace of work. When ILWU members refused to go along, union leaders were compelled to issue a “work safe” recommendation. Management immediately claimed that workers’ determination to defend their rights was a “slowdown” and they manufactured the crisis they wanted.

But the lockout also showed the world the tremendous power that the dockworkers have, as factories were affected from Seoul to Illinois. They only way to prevent the employers and Bush from destroying that power is to use it—on the waterfront and in workplaces across the U.S. The attack on the ILWU has shown that employers will keep pushing for more and more concessions until one or another group of workers draws the line. Avoiding such a battle is not an option. The only choice for union members is to prepare for the showdown that the employers and government have made inevitable.

Lee Sustar is an editor of the weekly Socialist Worker newspaper.

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