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Summer 2002 • Vol 2, No. 7 •

Feds Threaten Dockers Who Strike

By Charles Walker


“Officials with the shipping companies insist that their role is to run an efficient port, not to protect the jobs of the unborn.” (New York Times, June 21.)

On June 27, about 1200 trade unionists and community supporters rallied in the heart of Oakland, California’s seaport to back the West Coast longshore workers in their seemingly tough struggle to get a new contract. Although the spirited rally featured key labor officials such as Teamsters President James P. Hoffa and the International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) president, James Spinosa, only youthful workers might have been stirred by the speakers’ rhetoric, which while long on solidarity and defiance was devoid of plans to organize the widest possible union and community resistance to the shipping industry’s intransigence at the bargaining table.

Still, even veteran unionists had to be taken aback to hear some speakers say that the federal government—under the cover of the so-called war on terrorism—had sent a clear message that it opposes a dock strike, when the present contract expires July 1, which could see 11,000 stevedores and other related workers virtually halt the reportedly $260 billion of export and import commerce that’s shipped through the West Coast’s 29 major seaports. The rally, one of several held on both the West and the East Coasts, was told that Tom Ridge, director of the Homeland security agency, had phoned the international longshore union and in no uncertain terms told the union leadership not to call a strike.

The government’s scandalous intervention can only be designed to insure that the terminal owners and private shipping interests come out on top, which is far less likely if the union can use its full muscle at the point of production. There hasn’t been a Western coast-wide strike since 1971 and work has been steady; that means that the bosses can’t count on easily starving the longshore workers into a concessionary defeat. Moreover, the longshore union has long had a unique popularity, largely owing to its successful 1934 strike during the depths of the Great Depression, the government’s failed attempts to deport Harry Bridges, its principal founding leader, and its recognition as a bulwark for racial justice. It seems likely that the union could count on an out-pouring of popular enthusiastic support should the government go so far as to use military force against the dock workers.

The ILWU isn’t looking for a breakthrough contract; apparently a status quo settlement is what they are seeking. The bosses, on the other hand, have presented the union negotiators with a long wish list of demands, some of which would erode the union’s strength by reducing the unionized workforce.

The bosses say that the Pacific ports are running out of room, and without technology to increase waterfront capacity, business will be lost to Mexico and Canada. According to the June 19 New York Times, “‘For months before negotiations began on May 31,’ management officials said, ‘the crucial issue was technology.’ They said, ‘greater use of technology would save money, reduce the two-hour lines of trucks waiting to enter the ports and increase security in handling when the nation fears new terrorist attacks.’”

Longshoremen’s pay a tiny percentage of cargo they handle

The bosses’ agenda for a new contract was laid out in the Washington Post on Jan. 5 by their labor reporter, Frank Swoboda: “The shippers’ association wants the ILWU to agree to computerize and modernize its operations to allow a quicker turnaround of cargoes … PMA [Pacific Maritime Association, the main bosses’ group] officials say all job reductions would be made through attrition and that no one would face a wage cut.” Swoboda added that, “In Hong Kong, the use of computer technology means the docks can handle an average of 15,000 cargo containers per acre because they can move cargo so quickly. That compares with the West Coast’s average of 3,000 cargo containers.” Still, if anything, dockworkers might rightly think that the bosses are already short-changing them. “Longshoremen’s pay adds up to slightly more than one percent of the cargo value they handle—costs that are ‘negligible,’ a top PMA official,” revealed to Swoboda.

If the contract expires and the dockworkers report for work, the companies might call a lockout, themselves shutting down the docks. That’s because the union could decide to “work to rule,” by scrupulously observing any and all safety regulations and strictly enforcing “past practice,” hard-won unwritten on-the-job procedures and understandings between workers and their immediate supervisors. “Everyone now believes the unions will engage in slowdowns around the 6th of July,” according to the bosses’ West Coast Waterfront Assn. “There is a huge probability PMA is going to lock them out.” (Seattle Post, June 10).

An employer-led lockout, then, would allow the feds to impose the Slave Labor Act, that is the Taft-Hartley Act, ending the lockout; and allowing the Congress, after a “cooling-off period” of up to 80 days to dictate a settlement. But before Congress would act, the workers should expect that every possible pressure and trick would be used to demoralize them and take the fight out of the union.

But the union has some valuable allies that have benefited from the ILWU’s past support of dockers’ beefs here and overseas. On the day before the rally, the Australian Maritime Union (MUA) pledged its solidarity, stating the, “MUA and other maritime unions are determined we will not be stood over by multinationals slashing our job conditions.” Further they said, “Any solidarity action will be two pronged as both dockworker unions and seafaring unions have pledged their full and unequivocal support” at a June meeting of the International Transport Workers’ Federation.

Last year the ILWU led a successful international fight by maritime unions to defend five International Longshoremen’s Association (the East Coast longshore workers’ union) members of Charleston, South Carolina, who were facing serious prison time on trumped up rioting charges. The threatened refusal of dockers to work a ship in Spain owned by a targeted firm seemingly led to the five union members regaining their liberty. And just a few years ago, the union was a big part of the international fight to back up Liverpool maritime workers.

It’s been noted that although there’s only been three coastwide strikes since the historic San Francisco general strike that put the future ILWU on the map, its negotiations with the waterfront bosses, said the Seattle Post (June 10) “are often full of dire predictions, veiled threats and fiery rhetoric yet rarely lead to walkouts.” Even with a looming contract deadline days away, it’s impossible for longshore workers to know what’s in store for them. Will they squeeze a settlement out of the bosses; or will they be forced to work with a bayonet pointed at them? What they can be assured of is that history is being made that will impact U.S. workers, unionized or not, for some time to come. [See below]

Why Hoffa’s Words Should Be Taken With a Grain of Salt

Teamsters president James P. Hoffa made a tough, militant speech at the rally. He said that he had sat in that morning at the bargaining session between the ILWU and the PMA, and, he said, he told the companies that the ILWU could count on the support of the Teamsters. If longshoremen are picketing, Teamsters will be picketing. Still, Hoffa seems to be trying to walk a very narrow line, or some might say he’s trying to serve two masters, the Bush Administration and the maritime ranks. For right around the time that security director Tom Ridge was attempting to intimidate the ILWU officers, Hoffa told reporters outside the White House that Teamsters could be an important part of a “basic domestic intelligence service where we can see things that are suspicious and make sure they’re reported.” ….“I offered the fact that we have 500,000 truck drivers on the road at any one time, and these people can be the eyes and ears of the homeland security office.” Further, “Hoffa said the Teamsters would get together with various trucking associations to work out a strategy,” reported Reuters (June 21). Hoffa was just one of a number of union chiefs that met with Ridge that day. Nor was he the only one to offer to bring his members even closer to the state apparatus than they and their unions are. “Michael Sacco, president of the Seafarers International Union, made a similar offer for watching America’s seas and ports. ‘We want to put an intelligent [sic] network around this country and around the world to protect the citizens of the United States, and funnel whatever information we can to whatever agencies, after this department is put in place we have to funnel it to,’ he said.”

Long ago, the tendency of unions around the world to become closely tied to the political state was pointed out. However, it seems unlikely that the observers at that time could have foreseen Hoffa’s and Sacco’s specific proposal to Ridge. If it’s not clear what Sacco’s motivation is, the same is not true of Hoffa. He’s strenuously campaigning to get the government to lift its oversight of the Teamsters. The press reports that he’s a frequent White House visitor, talking to Bush and his staff. What about? The press thinks it might be Bush’s reelection effort. – C.W.





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