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By Dick Meister

President Bush's invoking of the Taft-Hartley Act to halt a lockout of West Coast dockworkers clearly is part of an attempt by Bush and his corporate allies to cripple the country's strongest and most progressive union and to weaken U.S. unions generally.

I know that sounds like hyperbolic union propaganda, but the facts lead nowhere else. Bush and friends obviously are out to get the San Francisco- based International Longshore and Warehouse Union. And if they manage to seriously hurt the formidable ILWU, they undoubtedly will try to do the same to less powerful unions.

Certainly the Il-day lockout that led to Bush's action on Oct. 8 was harming the economy. But though that might have been enough to justify presidential intervention in other circumstances, in this case it meant giving employers a great advantage in the stalemated contract negotiations between the ILWU and employers' Pacific Maritime Association, or PMA.

The major retailers, manufacturers, agribusiness interests and others who rely on West Coast ports for shipping and receiving goods and supplies lobbied hard for Bush's intervention and the 80-day back-to-work order that came with it. They were quite aware that the PMA had imposed the lockout in order to create a crisis that would give Bush an excuse to intervene.

His intervention blocks the ILWU from striking to enforce its contract demands during the busy holiday season that's the most lucrative time of the year for the PMA's customers and the highly profitable shipping lines and terminal operators who belong to the association.

Intervention also guarantees that employers won't have to negotiate seriously with the ILWU on a new contract until at least the end of the year. The momentum of what had been the union's militant drive for a favorable new contract will be slowed, as will the efforts of its many supporters in the labor movement and the political left here and abroad.

In the meantime, the pay and benefits of dockworkers will remain at the old contract rates rather than at the higher levels they are sure to reach in a new contract.

There's more, too: The Taft-Hartley Act subjects the ILWU to fines if members continue to engage in what the PMA and the White House call "slowdowns," but the ILWU calls strict adherence to safety rules in light ofthe unusually high incidence of injuries and deaths among dockworkers.

Also keep in mind that the PMA's main purpose has not been to reach a fairly bargained agreement on dockworkers' compensation. Rather, it has been to try to strip the ILWU of the right to represent all longshore workers and allocate work among them that has been its primary strength.

Currently, it's generally employers who determine how many workers they want for particular jobs, but it's dispatchers at union hiring halls who decide who the workers will be, using a system that's designed to spread work evenly among ILWU members.

That share-and-share-alike approach among workers and reliance on the union rather than employers for their work assignments is very rare.

But, however reluctantly, employers for many years accepted the unusual situation. And why not? Although granting workers unprecedented rights -- and pay and benefits that have reached an average of $120,000 a year -- they have reaped handsome profits from the workers' efforts.

The most profitable of employers' agreements with the ILWU, reached in 1960, allowed them to introduce containerization and a broad range of other labor-saving changes in cargo handling. In exchange, they granted extra retirement pay and other benefits to those who lost their jobs because of the changes, substantial pay and benefit raises to those remaining and gave the ILWU jurisdiction over the new work created by the new technology. Eventually, the workforce was cut nearly in half while the amount of cargo handled grew tenfold.

But now employers are seeking to catch up with a new wave of technology that has given many foreign ports a competitive edge. They've seized on that as a pretense for trying to greatly weaken the ILWU and reduce the compensation and union rights of a key part of their workforce.

The PMA wants the job of routing, tracking and inspecting cargo, now largely done manually by on-site clerks, shifted to clerks working at video screens far from the docks. They'd rely on a host of computer devices to increase and speed up cargo movement and ease dockside congestion.

The ILWU does not oppose the new technology. But the union is opposing -- and fiercely -- the PMA's plan to contract out the new work to companies using cheap non-union computer operators rather than ILWU members.

"It's straight-up union-busting," says ILWU spokesman Steve Stallone. "We're fighting for our very survival here.

Richard Trumpka, the AFL-CIO's secretary treasurer, says it sends this message to all employers: "Don't negotiate, because the federal government will come in and help you."

It's no wonder, as Trumka says, that labor is "absolutely furious" about President Bush's action. Not since the notoriously anti-union days of Ronald Reagan has there been such a blatant presidential attack on the basic American right of unionization.

Copyright 2002 Dick Meister, a freelance columnist in San Francisco who has covered labor issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator.

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