The Battle of the Docks

Against the Current, No. 101, November/December 2002

Malik Miah and Dianne Feeley

PRESIDENT BUSH’S OCTOBER 8 unprecedented decision to invoke the anti-labor Taft-Hartley law forced 10,500 locked-out longshore workers, represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), back to work for an eighty-day “cooling off period” on twenty-nine West Coast ports. It allows the employers to get through their peak shipping season — without any compulsion to negotiate a contract — and into the slowest part of the year.

Since 1947 presidents — beginning with Harry Truman, who had initially vetoed it — have invoked Taft-Hartley thirty-one times, including eleven times against dockworkers, but never before in the case of a lockout.

If the employers’ group, with the aid of the Bush government and a federal judge, can successfully impose its new work rules and contract on the ILWU, it would mark a major reversal of union power on the docks. Further, it would set the stage for deeper attacks on all workers represented by trade unions — and send a message to the unorganized, the vast majority of working people, that a union movement unable to defend its own members will not be strong enough to organize and defend them.

PMA Outlined Battle in 2001

Joseph Miniace, the PMA’s chairman, in a speech to the Seattle/Tacoma Transportation Clubs on April 12, 2001 laid out the employers’ strategy to end a forty-year arrangement between the employers and the ILWU. “The PMA,” he said, “is looking to implement [new] technology and work process changes with the ILWU and we have not approached this situation lightly.”

“I believe,” he said, “that we have offered a very generous package in a spirit which I like to characterize as that of the M & M Agreement of 1960. Computerization is to the industry today what containerization was to the industry in 1960.”

In 1960 the ILWU under its longtime leader Harry Bridges had over 100,000 members. Under the containerization contract, the ILWU gave up tens of thousands of jobs to protect its union hiring hall and job security for registered dockworkers.

The pact also said all new jobs created by technology would be under the scope of the ILWU contract. This was a partnership where the boss got job reductions and countainerization and the union maintained high wages and benefits, as well as continued control over assigning work crews — and received guarantees against future outsourcing.

What changed? A few ports — notably Rotterdam and Singapore — have implemented optical technology that is surpassing the productivity of the West Coast ports.

The PMA is now aggressively demanding a new pact — one where the employers will be able to implement a centralized logistics system without guaranteeing union jurisdiction over the jobs that will be created. The employers’ goal is to housebreak the ILWU and make it function more like most AFL-CIO unions that have little control over the production process.

If this happens, non-union jobs will grow and drastically replace union jobs through outsourcing. Many industries have seen this occur. While long-term employees are protected under no-layoff clauses, with their retirement their specific job is eliminated. The ILWU recognizes that upgrading the clerks’ function with greater computerization, while eliminating some jobs, will create new ones. Their response is that union workers can learn and do any job.

Workplace Power

The strength of the ILWU as a unified workforce organized up and down the West Coast is why the PMA had to turn to President Bush to help bring about this shift of power on the docks.

Bush obliged by tying the ongoing economic downturn to the government’s war on terrorism. The rationale was that the lockout was causing economic dislocation and harming the war drive since some ninety-five percent of all imports arrive over water. The pro-war and anti-labor propaganda became one — conveniently overlooking the fact that the employers had done the locking out, not the work force.

The Pentagon with its “just-in-time” delivery system uses commercial ships to move most of its supplies worldwide. The ILWU, mindful of this fact, outlined to the U.S. military how, in the case of a strike or lockout, it would continue to load and unload all military cargo.

When the lockout occurred, the ILWU honored its commitment. But in the President’s court filing to get the temporary restraining order, Secretary of War Rumsfeld said the military couldn’t rely on ILWU promises.

During the lockout the ILWU independently arranged with Cruise Lines to work the passenger vessels as well as to continue service — via Tacoma, Washington — to Alaska. The ILWU also urged PMA to end the lockout for service to Hawaii, which PMA did.

Additionally the ILWU asked PMA to end the lockout for the purpose of working perishables, but it declined. If they did that, how could Peter Friedman, executive director of the Agriculture Ocean Transportation Coalition, warn the Bush administration that overseas customers would turn to other countries for supplies if the Taft-Hartley Act were not invoked?

How Far Will Bush Go?

The true nature of the Bush dock intervention is much clearer in the context of earlier interventions against airline mechanics at Northwest Airlines (2001) and United Airlines (2002) under the 1926 Rail Way Labor Act.

That law, which Bush would like to extend to other workers in transportation, mandates that a government board must meet first before a strike can be called. Some rightist pundits hope Bush will use governmental powers against workers in other industries like auto.

Bush is already pressing Congress to deny union rules under civil service for the new Homeland Security Department.

“If all employers know the administration will rush in with Taft-Hartley to give them what they want,” said AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka. “They’ll plot and scheme together, they’ll figure out what to do and then the [collective bargaining] process will be gutted.”

ILWU International President James Spinosa predicted, “These 80 days will not be a cooling off period. Taft Hartley gives them 80 days of free shots at the union and we expect the employers will be dragging us to court daily . . . .” While all terminals will need a full complement of workers, Spinosa pointed out that PMA has not registered and trained the numbers required.

It was no surprise that by October 23 the PMA formally charged the ILWU with flouting the court order, claiming productivity was down by as much as thirty-four percent in some ports. As ATC goes to press Deputy Assistant Attorney General Shannen Coffin has asked the ILWU to respond. She stressed that the government will seek legal redress if the ILWU is shown to be in violation of the court order that reopened the ports October 9.

ATC 101, November-December 2002