Bush Threatens West Coast Dockers’ Right to Strike

The confrontation on the West Coast docks could become the defining union conflict of the Bush administration. The traditional issues of union bargaining have been preempted by a much more basic one: Do dockers have the right to strike at all?

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 the 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.

But another issue has overshadowed the technology threat in this year’s bargaining, which has every 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 controllers union, PATCO, in 1982.

GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION

According to Clarence Thomas, secretary-treasurer of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao both intervened personally to tell the union’s bargaining committee that the administration is prepared to prevent any strike. According to Thomas, administration officials have 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.

ILWU spokeperson Steve Stallone explained that Tom Ridge phoned Jim Spinosa, president of the ILWU, to tell him that a strike would be bad for the national interest.

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 which covers longshore workers now. Under the NLRA, the union has a clear right to strike. Under the RLA, the government can order an end to any strike, and impose a contract if the union doesn’t agree.

Bush has already threatened to use the RLA to force settlements at Northwest Airlines on terms favoring the employer, according to unions involved.

NO COASTWIDE STRIKE

Another option, Department of Labor sources told the LA Times, would be to declare the union’s coastwide bargaining structure 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 also given union members a great deal of bargaining leverage, since a strike closes all ports at the same time.

Ending the union’s solidarity structure 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 could replace striking longshore workers with Navy personnel. When Reagan used the military to replace striking air traffic controllers in 1982, CEOs nationwide saw his action as an invitation to permanently replace their own striking workers-a tactic that, while legal, had been largely untested until then.

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

All the Bush proposals have the same intent-to make a waterfront strike impossible. But their long-term effect would extend far beyond the docks. The use of a vaguely defined “national security” as a pretext for taking away the right to strike, replacing strikers-or even simply heavy-handed intervention in negotiations-could affect many unions in many industries.

CORPORATE PRESSURE ON BUSH

Long before negotiations began, shipping companies and the large corporations dependent on trans-Pacific vessels, like The Gap, Mattel, and Home Depot, formed the “West Coast Waterfront Coalition,” which 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.

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Meanwhile, a steady media drumbeat announced that a waterfront strike would send the economy into a tailspin.

Although the Bush Administration indirectly invokes the war on terrorism to justify its intervention in negotiations, the administration has yet to clarify how a strike would actually endanger national security. National security is not being defined in terms of threats to vital life-dependent services, such as firefighting. It is rather the economic questions raised by such non-security-related firms as The Gap that seem to be motivating Bush’s concern.

The ILWU’s Stallone said in a radio interview for Workers Independent News Service: “Instead of helping to solve this situation, Bush’s intervention is making the situation impossible. They’re trying to say it’s necessary, because if we were to go on strike, it would endanger the economy. Well, right now the economy is being endangered by Bush’s pals at Enron and WorldCom. That’s what’s making the stock market crash, not the ILWU.

“Following Bush’s logic he should be sending troops to Wall Street.”

Furthermore, the union has not yet threatened to strike. The membership has not voted on a strike, and it would take three weeks to pass a strike vote. The union has also informed the administration that if it were to strike, members would continue to unload military cargo. A Navy official admitted in a written exchange with the ILWU that military cargo could be separated from commercial cargo.

The union believes that the employers’ association, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), will not bargain in good faith as long as the Bush administration is threatening to intervene.

WHAT EACH SIDE WANTS

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. Most California longshore workers are African-American and Latino, and longshore jobs have become an economic backbone in many communities of color. The shipping companies are not claiming poverty, and in general are making large profits.

What they would like, however, is to keep certain workers out of the union: vessel planners who tell the cranes where to put every shipping container; clerical workers who use computers to help track container movement-a category management plans to expand drastically; and 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 wages. 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. Negotiators for the PMA have said no. The union looks at this as an issue of survival.

“As work changes, some jobs disappear, while others increase,” explains Stallone. “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 a historic agreement on technological change with then-ILWU President 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.

Perhaps having learned from the aftermath of the PATCO defeat, the AFL-CIO has set up a task force to help the ILWU.