Published on
the San Francisco Chronicle

On the Waterfront: Labor Solidarity vs. Federal Intervention

The future of West Coast ports and their workers is on the line. As a labor battle intensifies, the possibility of federal intervention looms, which could spell more restrictions on democratic freedoms in a "post-terrorist" era.

How did we arrive at this brink? A little background:

Ports along the West Coast account for nearly $300 billion in annual trade, or 7 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. The 11,000-strong union of dockworkers who move that cargo, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, is in contract negotiations in San Francisco with the Pacific Maritime Union, a group of global shipowners and terminal operators. Negotiations have been in a logjam since May, over what employers claim is the introduction of information technology.

Last week, in an effort to break that impasse, ILWU President Jim Spinosa in an unprecedented offer gave employers the ability to introduce technology that would eliminate many marine clerk positions, but asked that all remaining jobs be ILWU. Despite this concession, which will result in a significant loss of union jobs, PMA dismissed the offer as insufficient.

PMA has been hard-lining negotiations, using the ruse of computer technology in order to eliminate union jobs and the hiring hall, the source of the union's power. Moreover, employers are demanding givebacks in medical benefits in a "high hazard" industry. The ILWU is proud of the fact that its longshore contract sets a decent standard in benefits, working conditions and wages for organized labor on the West Coast and beyond.

In PMA's aggressive, anti-union propaganda, the company falsely claims that longshore workers' wages average over $100,000 (in truth, it's closer to half of that). According to the leading maritime industry trade publication, the Journal of Commerce (July 1-7, 2002), "longshore labor costs account for such a small percentage of costs that a doubling of ILWU wages would barely produce a blip in overall expenses." So why does PMA's intransigence persist in negotiations?

For the past several years PMA President Joseph Miniace has been pushing hard for an increased role of the federal government in the maritime industry. The agenda: restrict trade union power on the docks by banning the right to strike. Since Sept. 11, their lobbying has borne a strange fruit. Under the rubric of "national security" the impending Maritime Security Act and the passage of the USA Patriot Act will deny basic civil liberties, imposing background checks to screen port workers, the bulk of whom are either minority or immigrant workers.

Most ominous was the "Iron Heel" call from Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge to the ILWU president "suggesting" that national security interests would be better served if there were no strike. Continued negotiations without the right to strike means accepting the employers' terms. Clearly, Bush's laissez- faire policy means a free hand for big business while shackling labor.

Bush's rating in opinion polls is plummeting in tandem with the stock market, hammered by each new financial scandal, including his own business dealings. To bolster his ratings, Bush could invoke the Taft-Hartley Act to force longshoremen to keep working during the busiest shipping period.

The California AFL-CIO and the ILWU Longshore Contract Caucus are meeting this week simultaneously in San Francisco. If Bush invokes the slave-labor Taft-Hartley, it could become a rallying cry for the labor movement to challenge the repression of democratic and trade-union rights.

In a defining moment of the U.S. labor movement 20 years ago, leaders of the striking air traffic controllers' union, PATCO, under orders from President Reagan, were hauled off to jail in handcuffs. Isolation led to government union-busting. The ILWU, learning from that ignominious defeat for labor, has systematically forged strategic labor links. At the AFL-CIO convention in December, an historic transportation union pact was proclaimed between the Teamsters, East Coast longshore union, the ILA, and the ILWU.

Any waterfront conflict could quickly spread internationally. The ILWU helped launch the International Dockworkers Council (which grew out of the struggle of militant dockers in Liverpool, England, a few years ago), while maintaining its affiliation with the larger 5,000,000-member International Transport Workers Federation.

In the wake of capitalist globalization and privatization, dockworkers have faced intensified union-busting drives by the military and police in Mexico, Australia and Brazil. All eyes are set here on a powerful dockworkers' union, whose destiny may be determined as much in Washington as in San Francisco. RALLY FOR PORT WORKERS

-- Where: 550 California, headquarters of Pacific Maritime Association.

-- When: Wednesday, noon

-- Speakers: San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown; California state Sen. John Burton; Art Pulaski, secretary/treasurer of California Labor Federation; Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO; Jim Spinosa, international president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union

-- Contact: Port Workers Solidarity Committee: (415) 821-6545

Jack Heyman

Jack Heyman has worked 45 years in the maritime industry as a seaman and as an Oakland longshoreman.

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