Rough Seas for Port Workers’ Rights

By Jack Heyman

The government’s “war on terror” will reach this country’s largest port complex in Los Angeles/Long Beach on Tuesday [April 14, 2009]. The Trans-portation Security Administration (TSA) at that time will enforce an aspect of the Maritime Transportation Security Act known as the Transport Workers Identification Credential, or TWIC. This requires port workers to carry a biometric identification, obtained after an intrusive background check.

Port workers already have necessary identification from both the government and maritime industry. Now Big Brother can track port workers’ movements. Armed Coast Guardsmen and Homeland Security agents are patrolling port areas demanding TWIC cards, even near shoreline public parks.

Civil liberties and labor rights of port workers are being thrown overboard. More egregious unconstitutional measures like the use of torture, “enemy combatant” status and extraordinary rendition to Guantanamo and secret prisons have been deemed in violation of the Constitution and Geneva Convention. Most of the public won’t even have a glimpse of this transformation of the waterfront, which could be the precursor to turning our ports into military bases in the mode of Latin American military dictatorships.

It just doesn’t make sense to target port workers for terrorist screening. No worker is going to destroy the source of his or her livelihood. If a port worker should have a criminal record, that only shows he may have served time in prison, not that he’s a terrorist threat. Denying him work is double jeopardy. A West Coast statement from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union reads, “Several hundred ILWU-represented longshoremen and marine clerks are being denied work.”

TWIC is already being enforced in the U.S. ports of the South Atlantic, Gulf and Northwest Pacific coasts, where some workers unable to work without a card are losing their homes. Many longshoremen adversely affected are African-American and Latin American. Arbitrary, discriminatory and capricious implementation may begin to cause delays in shipping to an already battered economy. The TWIC card provision is being enforced differently port-by-port and even terminal-by-terminal. In each case the maritime Facility Security Officer is a management designee who determines who can and cannot enter the marine terminal.

In the ports of Seattle and Oakland, representatives of the ILWU who don’t have TWIC cards yet have been banned from the docks in violation of labor law, even though a provision for the escorting of individuals is available. In some ports, truckers are allowed access with an escort but longshoremen are not.

Railroad workers who don’t ride the train into the port intermodal yard don’t need a TWIC card. Those who work in the port do. And in Portland, at a grain dock, a longshoreman reporting to work on the night shift was told his TWIC card could be revoked because he didn’t comply with a security guard’s demand to hand over his TWIC card immediately. He was deemed a potential security threat. Nearly half of the 450 longshoremen in the Portland hiring hall have signed a petition opposing TWIC.

In the river port of Sacramento, two Black longshoremen returning to work after lunch were attacked by police two years ago. Private terminal security guards, inaccurately citing maritime security provisions, called police when the longshoremen questioned their authority to make them open the trunk of their car. The driver was maced and handcuffed before the two were arrested. The union has characterized the assault as racial profiling and has rallied in defense of the two.

Seamen on foreign flag vessels that constitute 95 percent of ocean-borne shipping don’t need TWIC cards, but seamen on American-registered vessels do.

These Keystone Kops’ scenarios show the absurdity of this program and why it should be scuttled.

Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor, has been hired by TSA to set up and administer the TWIC program. In a classic case of Washington’s revolving doors, the company’s director, James M. Loy, is a former Coast Guard commandant and top administrator in the TSA, who also served as deputy director of the Department of Homeland Security. In 2002, claiming port security could be jeopardized, his former boss in the DHS, Tom Ridge, along with then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, threatened the West Coast longshore union with a military occupation of the ports if there were any job actions by the union during industry contract negotiations.

The Transportation Security Act originally was a crime bill unsuccessfully pushed by House Republicans. After 9/11, Democrats picked it up and ran with it to show they weren’t soft on fighting “terrorism,” just as they did fighting the “communist threat” during the McCarthy period.

Claiming taxpayers’ money was being misspent in the Iraq war, Democrats emerged as the party “wisely” redirecting the “war on terror” to the homefront and building the surge for the “good war” in Afghanistan.

Most Americans know the longshore industry through Elia Kazan’s film On the Waterfront, his celluloid justification for his testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where the longshoreman protagonist played by Marlon Brando is the government stoolpigeon. But what happens when the government is the “heavy” intimidating waterfront workers with gendarmes and no work unless you bow to Big Brother? Americans will see when the tsunami hits the biggest U.S. port complex this week.

Editors Note: The TWIC was enforced and the struggle against it is ongoing.

Jack Heyman is a longshoreman who works on the docks in the Port of Oakland. He was awarded a Coast Guard commendation in 1980 for saving the life of a fellow maritime worker in an explosion and fire aboard a vessel in New York harbor., April 11, 2009