Following a coast-wide day of action by thousands of longshore workers August 12, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) have continued to show their opposition to the shipping companies’ antiunion drive and threats by the White House to use strikebreaking legislation against their struggle.
The Los Angeles Times reported last week that Washington justifies its intervention under the guise of national security in wartime and quoted one official who said "any means necessary" be used to get supplies to "our troops."
Washington’s threats have failed to undermine the dockworkers’ resolve, however. One thousand marched here August 15 during the official opening of Maersk Sealand’s new terminal. Maersk is a Dutch-owned shipping company, the largest in the world. The action was called on two-days’ notice.
The AFL-CIO has assigned officials from the national trade union federation to help the ILWU win support on the West Coast.
The longshore workers are fighting for a new contract. The previous agreement, covering more than 10,500 dockworkers at 29 ports on the West Coast, expired July 1. The ports of Long Beach and of Los Angeles are the largest on the coast, employing about 6,000 ILWU members between them.
With the White House threatening to intervene in the negotiations and use the Taft-Hartley law, ILWU members interviewed here say the stakes have gone up for the union and for the entire labor movement. Due to publicity about the struggle over the past several weeks, many more working people know about the Pacific Maritime Association’s (PMA) assault on the union and the ILWU’s moves to defend itself. The PMA represents nearly 80 shipping companies and stevedore operators.
Workers at ports from San Diego to Seattle move about $300 billion worth of goods in a year, accounting for about 7 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. A dock strike could cost the employers as much as $1 billion a day.
Adjacent to large oil refineries and other industries, the port here is a shipping, trucking, and rail center where tens of thousands of workers are employed. The sheer size of the operation, including thousands of stacked containers, massive cranes, thousands of truck drivers weaving their way through the ports, and large intermodal rail yards, are a good indication of the employers’ stake in the outcome of the fight.
Public hearings on the dispute
The day after the rally at Maersk, the California state legislature sponsored a public meeting on the contract dispute on the waterfront at Banning’s Landing Community Center. The hearings were conducted by Democratic politicians who say they are opposed to federal intervention.
At least 500 dockworkers came out in force, quickly filling the 300 seats and jamming the aisleways and back of the room. Their disciplined presence put a noticeable stamp on the hearings. Many refused to take off their white union caps.
On labor’s side, several ILWU negotiators described the tense talks with the bosses. Peter Peyton, from the ILWU Coast Legislative Action Committee, explained that the PMA had been planning its assault for two years. He reviewed how the PMA has been active in Washington, D.C., lobbying the government to intervene. The union official said the PMA had hired a battery of public relations firms, lawyers, and academics.
Peyton said union officials went into the negotiations willing to offer concessions, particularly on the issue of technology. But they were "stunned" when the PMA rejected their offer. He said the officials were further "stunned" when the government said it would intervene in the negotiations. Peyton said Thomas Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security, has raised putting language in national security legislation aimed at curtailing dockworkers’ ability to strike.
Another official, David Arian, former ILWU president and a negotiator, said several government agencies have been until recently in almost daily contact with the union. He said the union was told "over and over again" that the government would intervene, that they were considering using Taft-Hartley legislation, militarizing the ports by using the Navy, putting an end to coast-wide bargaining, and imposing other antistrike legislation. Arian also said the union had gotten calls from the Department of Defense.
Support from other unions
The hearings also included statements of support from other unions. Gary Smith, who works for the Port Division of the Teamsters, said the Teamsters would honor all picket lines should there be a strike. He also noted that his union is trying to organize the 18,000 drivers at the ports who do not have union representation. These drivers, the majority of whom are of Mexican descent, have waged important struggles in the past for union representation. He also explained that government intervention weakens unions, citing the fact that the government has intervened in the Teamsters for years.
Miguel Contreras, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, said the government intends to "take away the right to strike." The PMA’s moves to involve the White House are part of a "planned attack" on the union. He said the ILWU had the support of the AFL-CIO.
For the most part, the bosses boycotted the hearings. Joseph Miniace, president of PMA, was a no-show. The West Coast Waterfront Coalition (WCWC) decided not to attend, saying that it did not consider itself "part of management." When this was announced, the crowd responded with laughs of disbelief and boos.
The WCWC, a coa–lition of such giant corporations as Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Target, was created to support the PMA.
The only spokesman for the bosses was Jack Suite, a leading PMA negotiator. He echoed the Department of La–bor’s position, which claims the government is "neutral" in the talks. At the hearings Suite deflected most questions that the threat of government intervention was "speculative." When he said that the PMA had not been in contact with the Waterfront Coalition, yells of "bullshit" rang out from the audience.
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