BUSH THREATENS DOCKERS'
By David Bacon
RIGHT TO STRIKE
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
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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