October 18, 2002

Why the Waterfront War Will Spread

By David Bacon

SAN FRANCISCO —The men and women of the docks are back at work. But during the coming 80 days of labor guaranteed by the Taft-Hartley Act, the basic disagreement at the root of the longshore conflict will only grow sharper and more bitter. Moreover, if federal intervention succeeds in breaking the union’s back on the West Coast docks, employers will probably use the same strategy in industry after industry.

On the surface, it makes no sense that the shipping and stevedoring companies would need a federal order to open the gates of the closed terminals. The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), after all, had shut the ports, and could have opened them at any time during the 12 days it had locked out its own employees. PMA Director Joe Miniace had even declared that the lockout would end if the workers were willing to resume labor under their old contract, and indeed the workers had accepted a Department of Labor proposal that they go back to work for 30 days under the old labor agreement.

But resumption of work was never the issue.

Instead, the PMA wanted two things. First, a guarantee that workers would be forced to continue unloading ships for the next two months, the peak of the shipping season, when goods traveling from the sweatshops of the eastern Pacific rim are en route to stores for the Christmas rush. And second, a weakened union made so vulnerable it would be forced to accept a settlement on the association’s terms.

For the PMA, the Taft-Hartley injunction was a step in a well-ordered scenario that has unfolded since last spring. Its success in using the power of the federal government to tilt the collective bargaining process completely in employers’ favor should be a wakeup call to every union in the country.

Before negotiations began last June, the PMA and some of its biggest customers, including the Gap, Target, Mattel and Home Depot organized the West Coast Waterfront Coalition. Together, they met with a Bush administration task force headed by Carlos Bonilla, a White House economic advisor. Once negotiations with the dockworkers began, Homeland Secretary Tom Ridge and representatives of the Department of Labor phoned James Spinosa, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. They warned him that the administration would view any strike or interruption of work on the docks as a threat to national security. They threatened to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, to use the military to replace striking workers, to remove the union’s ability to negotiate a single labor agreement covering all ports on the coast and to propose legislation placing the waterfront under the Railway Labor Act (making a waterfront strike virtually illegal).

Although negotiations resolved only a few issues from June to September, the ILWU nimbly avoided being provoked into a strike. Finally, with the peak shipping season staring employers in the face, the PMA locked out their own workers.

As a pretext, the PMA accused the union of organizing an alleged work slowdown. But according to the Journal of Commerce, 30 percent more cargo was crossing the docks than last year — the greatest volume in history. In fact, the speedup on the docks caused the accident rate to shoot up — five longshoremen had died on the job since January. When the union told its members to work at a safe speed, the PMA called it a slowdown.

If the union continues to resist the demand for speed, the federally emboldened PMA will likely again cry “slowdown.” And this time, Bush administration help will likely come in the form of the threats made earlier by Ridge.

At the root of the dispute is the decision by the PMA to end an arrangement that has successfully allowed the introduction of advanced technology onto the docks for the last 40 years.

Today, the companies want to automate shipping, at first using automated scanners and tracking devices to replace waterfront clerks. Eventually, the cranes and dockside machines will be operated by remote control, perhaps by people miles away from the wharves. Again the union has said it won’t oppose these moves, so long as its members get to do the new jobs technology creates.

But this time, the PMA wants the union confined to the jobs that will disappear, and non-unionized workers employed in the new jobs.

It’s no wonder the PMA put together its elaborate battle plan last spring. And no wonder that simply opening the gates and letting workers go back to their jobs wasn’t good enough. What the association needed to win this dispute was the backing of the federal government. And they got it.

The Bush administration, which has already used back-to-work orders against employees at Northwest and United airlines last year, has established a new precedent. Interruptions of economic activity, it says, are a threat to national security. Unionized workers can expect to see the federal government intervene forcefully on their employer’s side in the future.

Bacon (dbacon@igc.org) writes widely on labor issues.

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