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By David Bacon

SAN FRANCISCO, CA (8/7/02) -- A labor war is looming on the west coast docks, which could become the defining union conflict of the Bush administration. But the traditional issues of union bargaining -- wages, benefits and working conditions -- have been preempted this spring by a much more basic one: Do dockers have the right to strike at all?

Negotiating the west coast longshore contract every three years is usually a fractious affair, but there has been no coastwide strike since 1971. That marked the end of one era of great technological change, when the introduction of container cranes revolutionized shipping, and reduced the number of west coast longshore jobs from over 100,000 to its present 10,500.

Today dockworkers look with trepidation at the beginning of another era. Decades from now, the waterfront will be largely automated. Workers in front of computer screens, often hundreds of miles away from the docks, will control the movement of cargo on and off ships. Ports like Singapore and Rotterdam already have this new technology, and the world's shipping companies want to introduce the same system on the Pacific coast.

That would be a difficult problem to resolve in any round of negotiations, since these changes will eliminate many jobs, and create other new ones. But another issue has overshadowed it in this year's bargaining, which has every other union in the country watching closely. The Bush administration seems poised to take action which would affect unions as profoundly as President Ronald Reagan did when he broke the air traffic controlers union in 1982.

According to Clarence Thomas, secretary-treasurer of Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Homeland Secretary Tom Ridge, and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao have both intervened personally to tell the union's bargaining committee that the administration is prepared to prevent any strike. Elissa Pruett, media spokesperson for the Department of Labor would state only that "the department continues to monitor the negotiations." But according to Thomas, administration officials have done much more than that. They've made clear that Bush at least would invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, under which striking longshoremen would be ordered to return to work for 90 days.

But other steps have been discussed as well. Bush might call on Congress to place the union under the Railway Labor Act, instead of the National Labor Relations Act. Under the NLRA, the union now has a clear right to strike. Under the RLA, the government can order an end to any threatened strike, and impose a contract if the union doesn't agree. Bush has already threatened to use this act to force settlements at Northwest Airlines on terms favoring the employer, according to unions involved.

Department of Labor sources told the LA Times that the union's coastwide bargaining structure might be declared an illegal monopoly. All west coast ports have worked under a single contract since the end of the 1934 general maritime strike, in which the ILWU was born. The single agreement has not only equalized conditions, but given union members a great deal of bargaining leverage, since a strike closes all ports at the same time. The threatened administration action would mean that if the union struck one port, shippers could simply load and unload their cargo in another, making a strike pointless.

Finally, the administration might replace striking longshoremen with Navy personnel in the huge cargo cranes that load and offload the giant shipping containers. When President Reagan used the military to replace striking air traffic controlers in 1982, imprisoning the union's leaders for conducting an illegal strike, two decades of bitter industrial conflict followed. Large corporations viewed Reagan's action as an invitation to permanently replace striking workers, an act that, while legal, had been largely untested until then.

Thomas says that the union was told this would only happen in wartime, but since September 11, Bush has declared that a state of war exists and will go on indefinitely.

Long before negotiations began, shipping companies and the large corporations dependent on trans-Pacific vessels, like The Gap, Mattel and Home Depot, formed a coalition that approached the Bush administration for help. The government then set up a task force, headed by White House advisor Carlos Bonilla, to meet with them. Meanwhile a steady media drumbeat announced that a waterfront strike would send the economy into a tailspin.

All the Bush proposals have the same intent -- to make a waterfront strike impossible. But their longterm effect would extend far beyond the docks. The use of national security as a pretext for militarizing the workplace and replacing strikers could affect any union. Instead of defining a threat to national security in terms of vital life-dependent services, such as firefighting, this use of national security defines it as economic. Any strike halting the continued operation of an industry or large profitable enterprise could be defined as such a threat, and made illegal.

Wages and benefits are not the issue in these negotiations. The hourly rate for longshore workers ranges from 27.68 to 33.48 -- about the same as a plumber or electrician. According to the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents the shipping companies and negotiates with the ILWU, the employers paid $32,320 per worker for benefits in 2002, about $16 per hour. Most California longshore workers are African-American and Latino, and longshore jobs have become an economic backbone in many communities of color. And while these are good wages in terms of the US industrial average, the shipping companies are not claiming poverty in negotiations, and in general are making large profits.

What they would like, however, is to keep certain workers out of the union -- the vessel planners who tell the cranes where to put every shipping container, the clerical workers who help track container movement, and the drivers who haul containers in and out of the ports. Workers in these categories in many ports have already joined the ILWU, or tried to, attracted by its high wage rates. The union wants to include them in all ports, to make up for the potential loss of jobs among the clerks who currently track cargo manually. PMA negotiators have said no. The union looks at this as an issue of its own survival.

"As work changes, some jobs disappear, while others increase," explains ILWU spokesperson Steve Stallone. "Right now our jobs are the ones disappearing. When the companies say they don't want our members doing these new jobs, it's like saying they want the union to disappear too."

In the late 1960s, the PMA reached an historic agreement on the same issue with the ILWU's most charismatic leader, Harry Bridges. The union accepted the introduction of new technology, which cost jobs, while the shipping companies agreed that union members would do the new jobs technology created. The PMA now seems ready to abandon that agreement, which held for three decades, and a labor war on the docks is on the horizon.

In 1982 the rest of the labor movement complained when the controlers were replaced. But when William Winpisinger, then-head of the International Association of Machinists, called on unions to act to support them, the rest of labor did little more than mount picketlines. Over the next twenty years they paid a heavy price when their own striking members were replaced.

This time the AFL-CIO has set up its own task force to help the ILWU, hoping to prevent a defeat on the docks and its consequences. Unions across the board now face the corporate coalition, and a labor war on the docks could be on the horizon.

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