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Bush cites ‘national security’
in assault on dockworkers
Uses Taft-Hartley antilabor law
to back longshore bosses
Dockworkers picket Port Hueneme, near Los Angeles. Unionists returned to work without a contract after White House invoked Taft-Hartley Act to aid employers.
BY BERNIE SENTER
OAKLAND, California--President George Bush invoked the antilabor Taft-Hartley Act October 8 in a show of force on the side of the longshore bosses and against 10,500 West Coast dockworkers who are fighting for a contract.
The federal government seized on an employer lockout, which had shut down the West Coast ports for 10 days, to obtain the court order. The workers, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, took down their picket lines and returned to work without a contract.
Bush justified using the strike-breaking measure saying, "The work stoppage also threatens our national defense.... Because the operation of western ports is vital to our economy and to our military, I have determined that the current situation imperils our national health and safety."
Under Taft-Hartley, the government can impose an 80-day "cooling-off period" that legally bars the union from job actions or strikes and mandates that all negotiations take place through a government mediator. The injunction runs through the busiest shipping season.
At issue in the labor dispute is the employers’ drive to slash jobs and undermine the safety of members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents the bosses at the shipping lines and terminals, is demanding to accelerate the use of computers, scanners, remote cameras, and other technology that will eliminate hundreds of union clerk jobs. Meanwhile, the bosses have outsourced clerical jobs to companies in Utah and Arizona. The union is fighting to maintain coverage over some of the outsourced clerical jobs and to set minimum staff levels for clerks.
The PMA, backed by the federal government, also wants to end the single industry-wide labor contract bargained by the union, a move that would significantly weaken the union’s ability to defend its interests. The association wants to replace the union-controlled hiring hall with one operated by the bosses.
Employer speedup and cuts in safety have resulted in the deaths of seven workers on the ports so far this year, five of them ILWU members, according to the Los Angeles Times. Of the 14 waterfront deaths in California in the last decade, six were in 2002.
Employers lock out unionists
The ILWU has tried to negotiate a contract since it expired July 1. The PMA shut the West Coast’s 29 ports on September 29, accusing workers of engaging in a slowdown. While the union agreed to a government proposed 30-day contract extension, the PMA rejected it. "They wanted to Taft-Hartley the union all along," said union spokesman Steve Stallone. "All along, they wanted the government to come in and solve the problem for them."
The president of the PMA hailed Bush’s decision. "I believe he acted in the best interests of the country, the economy, and our national security," he said.
The judge’s back-to-work order stipulates that union members must resume work "at a normal pace." The PMA has vowed to seek court sanctions against the union if it deems that workers are carrying out a "slowdown."
In face of threats by the employers and the government injunction, the ILWU plans "to continue to work safe," union president James Spinosa reported. "And if that’s a slowdown then that’s a slowdown.
"We’re in a battle," said Pamela Romez during picket duty at the Port of Oakland October 2. Romez is a longshore worker like her father, who was killed on the docks in a crane accident.
Rich Alvis, a longshore worker for 36 years, was one of the last to leave the picket line. "Before we were in 15 different places," he said. "Now, since the lockout, we’re all together. The employer put us together as a union thinking the same way. The good that will come out of this is that everyone will be united."
Bosses’ demand for Taft-Hartley grows
A growing number of bourgeois politicians and groups representing big business called for the president to invoke Taft-Hartley. Liberal senator Dianne Feinstein from California called for Bush to impose the act, stating, "With our nation in the economic doldrums and at the brink of war, we cannot afford to have this dispute cause further damage to our economy." "Down with Feinstein" was a popular chant at a rally of 300 people in support of the dockworkers at the Port of Oakland October 5.
The Democratic governors of California, Oregon, and Washington released a statement calling for a rapid end to the labor dispute, blaming the fight for hurting farmers, factory owners, retailers, and truckers.
Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote, "Retailers are beginning to fear the unimaginable--the cancellation of Christmas." A news article a few days later stated, "If the dispute is not settled soon, growers face the ruin of their produce. Sellers of toys and clothing predicted bare shelves and plummeting holiday profits."
The American Trucking Associations said in an open letter to President Bush that the lockout is a security as well as economic threat as accumulating ships in the ports "enrich target opportunities for terrorists."
During the lockout, the union officialdom made arrangements to handle military cargo and shipments destined for Alaska and Hawaii, two states that rely on oceanbound imports. An October 2 union news release quotes Dick Marzano, vice president of local 23 in Tacoma, Washington, saying, "During this time of heightened national security, our longshore members are fully aware of the importance of the military cargo that crosses our docks. We will not jeopardize the health and well-being of the people of Alaska or this nation."
Dockworkers win solidarity
Before October 8 economic impact of the employer lockout was accelerating. The NUMMI auto assembly plant in Fremont, California, run jointly by General Motors and Toyota, ceased production October 2. The idle plant, which employs 5,500 workers, relies on "just-in-time" inventory from its suppliers, including imported engines and transmissions. United Auto Workers Local 2244 at the plant has offered its solidarity to the longshoremen, as have the Teamsters and other unions.
Eric Cox, a truck driver at the docks, said, "The employers are trying to drive a wedge between the truckers and the ILWU but also between the nonunion and union truckers. We take aluminum coils to the NUMMI plant. The workers at NUMMI I talked to said ‘we are behind the ILWU 100 percent. If we go on strike we want their support.’"
Japanese and Australian dockworkers issued statements in support of ILWU. "Kenji Yasuda, chairman of Zenkoku-kowan, the Japanese dockworkers union, said, "Shipowners that have attacked the ILWU are the same companies that Zenkoku-kowan deals with. We acknowledge that the ILWU’s struggles and the attacks upon them have an effect on ourselves and we will fight in solidarity with port workers and seafarers around the globe."
The Taft-Harley Act was last used in 1978 by then president James Carter during the 110-day strike by the United Mine Workers of America. Miners broke the court order and continued their strike until they won a contract. In 1971, the government also used the measure against the West Coast dockworkers, who had been on strike for three months. Since that time the tonnage handled by West Coast ports has quadrupled, with the introduction of containerization of cargo and the rise of global trade. The number of longshoremen on the West Coast has plunged to 10,500, down from 100,000 in the 1950s.
Back West Coast dockworkers