Write us!

September 2002 • Vol 2, No. 8 •

Dock Workers Need an Emergency Conference of Labor!


By Charles Walker


“The mere threat of intervention is an unconscionable effort to bolster the Pacific Maritime Association’s contract demands and threatens the legitimate collective bargaining rights of longshore workers. On a larger scale, the threatened use of federal troops to determine the outcome of a collective bargaining dispute undermines the basic civil rights of the labor movement and all American workers.” (AFL-CIO, August 8, 2002)


West Coast dockworkers, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), find themselves facing the combined enmity of their bosses and the political and military power of the world’s dominant state and the ruling class that stands behind it. The dockworkers seemingly are being maneuvered into a showdown fight and their enemies have chosen the time and the terrain for battle. “The shipping bosses act like they have the high ground, demanding a long list of concessions.” says James Spinosa, ILWU President. “Every proposal they [the bosses] have brought to the table was full of takeaways … They didn’t leave anything out, from maintenance of [medical] benefits, to the dispatch hall, to the arbitration system and the workplace.”

The dockworkers leaders have attempted to avoid the full brunt of the bosses’ attack by conceding the jobs of several hundred workers, asking in return that the union’s jurisdiction over shipping container yards away from the waterfront and certain computerized work be recognized by the shipping and terminal bosses. But the bosses spurned the ILWU’s offer, demanding that the union cave-in up and down the line.

When the union negotiators asked for and received from an 82-member union body the authority to take a strike vote at some unspecified time, the corporate press responded by publicizing a callous battle plan, drawn up by the Bush Administration, in consultation with the bosses: Should the union strike, or its members even be accused of slowing the pace of work, the press reported, the federal government would intervene up to and including the military takeover of the docks.

Bosses’ direct line to White House

Of the reports on the government’s threat to intervene by major press services and big city papers, the most inclusive press report was supplied by the Los Angeles Times of August 5:


Soon after negotiations between dockworkers and shipping lines began in mid-May,” the Los Angeles Times revealed, “the White House convened a working group to monitor them, with representatives from the departments of Commerce, Labor and Transportation and the Office of Homeland Security…. [A]n internal memo from an employers association shows that the White House group met with representatives of shipping lines and major retailers during its formation, on June 4. At the time, officials solicited ideas for ‘concrete steps the administration might take to back up strong statements’ it might make to the union. Employers were given a direct phone line to senior economics advisor Carlos Bonilla.


While the joint government and dock bosses’ strategy has a short-term goal of breaking a dockworkers’ strike in order to facilitate the acceptance of a concessionary contract, the LA Times reported there’s also a long-term goal of breaking-up “the coast-wide bargaining unit into bargaining by individual ports. That would allow shippers to stagger contract expiration dates, eliminating the threat of a coast wide action, and thus would allow cargo to be diverted to neighboring ports in the event of a strike.”

The Bush Administration has not just talked with the bosses, but also to the union’s leadership. The LA Times reported that the feds have “made almost daily phone calls” to the ILWU, laying out four “options,” a weasel word for the threats: First, the declaration of a national emergency and the invoking of the Taft-Hartley Act to delay a strike for 80 days. The LA Times notes that the last time the Act was invoked was in 1978 when Democrat President Jimmy Carter used the act to attack coal miners’ right to strike. Second, running the ports with naval personnel. Third, break up the ILWU coast-wide bargaining unit. Fourth, bring the union under the Railway Labor Act, which “gives courts and the administration far more power to prevent strikes and impose contract settlements than does the National Labor relations Act, which governs most private sector labor negotiations.”

As presidents, both the Republican George W. Bush and the Democrat Bill Clinton invoked the Railway Act against airline workers.

Miners defeated Taft-Hartley

The LA Times article doesn’t mention that President Carter’s Taft-Hartley attack on the United Mine Workers 1977-78 strike of 110 days failed to end the strike. The judge who issued the Taft-Hartley injunction complained that the miners were “not paying attention to what I do…” And the judge was right. On the day the injunction took effect, fewer than 100 miners showed up for work, according to the mine owners. Carter prohibited the miners’ officials from ‘continuing, encouraging, ordering, aiding, engaging, or taking part in’ the strike. Carter banned any action “interfering with or affecting the orderly continuance of work in the bituminous coal industry.”

Carter warned that violators would be fined or jail, and state troopers, the National Guard, the FBI and the military would take on anyone interfering with coal production or transportation. Carter sent federal marshals to hand-deliver copies of his injunction to every local union president and threatened that strikers’ food stamps would be cut-off.

Carter’s threats didn’t work, anymore than President Truman’s threats against the coal miners, decades earlier. Like under Truman in 1950, no coal was mined, no miner or union official was jailed, and no miner or official was even fined. Clearly, the dockworkers should study the miners’ tactics, as they continue to press the shipping bosses to back off. But they should also study the fate of the PACTCO air controllers, whose defiance in 1981 of the government was met by President Reagan with an attack blueprinted by his predecessor, President Carter.

An emergency conference of unions and workers!

It’s often said that the air controllers’ dismal fate was sealed when the AFL-CIO, headed by Lane Kirkland, ignored the air controllers’ plight, as though all U.S. workers didn’t have a stake in the outcome of the air-controllers’ battle. Even more often it’s said that the breaking of the air controllers union sent a signal to corporate America that it was open season on unions and workers’ standard of living. Certainly, corporate America could plainly see that union solidarity was not the huge problem it faced starting in the 1930’s. And for decades since the smashing of the air controllers’ resistance, corporate America, largely unrestrained by a mobilization of union solidarity, has enforced a reign of retreat and defeat upon America’s workers.

The LA Times report concludes, “National labor leaders, including the AFL-CIO, are watching the ILWU talks closely as a bellwether for future negotiations in which the White House also might intervene.” Dockworkers and their leaders must be hoping that the national labor leaders, including the AFL-CIO, are doing more than just watching the contract talks that may have reached an impasse, and that the union officials are doing more than noting the politicians’ threats that imperil the dockworkers and their union. That “strategy” was followed by the national labor leaders, including the AFL-CIO, when the air controllers wouldn’t roll over and, as is widely acknowledged, that “strategy” failed all U.S. workers.

If it’s admitted that that all workers have a stake in the outcome of the dockworkers unequal confrontation with the shipping bosses, many of whom are foreign-owned companies, and the Bush Administration that admittedly is preparing to play the bipartisan Carter-Reagan anti-labor card, then all workers should have a say in how the battle is conducted. Of course, that’s not feasible, except through a vote by workers. But it is feasible for the national labor leaders, including the AFL-CIO, to call a national emergency conference of unions and workers to discuss the government’s attack on the dockworkers and democratically decide on a course of action to protect the vital interests of all U.S. workers that are at stake.

Such an action by U. S. labor would be unprecedented, but not unknown. Black labor leaders forced President Roosevelt to open up jobs to black workers during WWII, by preparing for a march on Washington. Clearly, mass sentiment is effective in Washington when it’s backed by the likelihood of mass action. An emergency conference of labor that prepares the ground for a mass defense of the dockworkers might well be as effective as the projected wartime march by black workers. “Let’s be frank about what we are facing,” says President Spinosa. “This is a fight for the very existence of the ILWU.”

Whatever, the local and national ILWU leaders do—including the AFL-CIO—they mustn’t be allowed to repeat the failed “strategy” in the summer of 1981, when they stood by as air-controllers’ leaders were hauled away to jail in chains. H





Write us