Public meeting in New York City, Saturday, November 2:
Communists and the World Struggle against Imperialism Today
West Coast dockworkers
defend safety and jobs
Unionists protest government use of
Taft-Hartley against labor fight
BY FRANK FORRESTAL
Longshore union members rally early October during 10-day lockout by shipping bosses. Workers explain that safety issues are central to their contract fight.
LOS ANGELES--Hundreds of dockworkers rallied at the Port of Los Angeles October 9 to protest the government’s intervention in their struggle for a contract. The previous day President George Bush had invoked the antilabor Taft-Hartley Act in a show of force on the side of the longshore bosses.
The 10,500 dockworkers returned to work without a contract at 29 ports along the West Coast. After months of contentious negotiations, followed by a 10-day company lockout against the workers, the White House used the argument of protecting "national security" as justification for its anti-labor move. Many of the unionists, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), expressed anger with the Bush administration’s action in support of the bosses.
Under Taft-Hartley, the president obtained an injunction imposing an 80-day "cooling-off" period that bars unions from taking strike action, and mandated that negotiations take place through a government-appointed mediator.
"This is a cooling-off period to wear you down," said Luisa Gratz, president of ILWU Local 26, at the rally, echoing the sentiments of many of the unionists.
"What do we want? A contract! When do we want it? Now!" chanted the dockworkers.
Since going back to work, the port bosses have accused the dockworkers with working too slowly, starting late, or not showing up for job assignments. With Taft-Hartley in place, the employers can force the ILWU before a federal judge on charges of union slowdowns.
ILWU president James Spinosa said the union expects that "the employers will be dragging us to court daily, trying to bankrupt the union and throw our leaders in jail." The bosses’ organization, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), charged that productivity was down about 25 percent the week after the ILWU members returned to work.
"The PMA spent the day poring over data from shipping companies and terminal operators at the ports in Washington, Oregon, and California, looking for any sign of slacking on the part of dockworkers," the Long Beach Press Telegram reported.
According to the Los Angeles Times, PMA president Joseph Miniace "has made it clear that the shipping lines have detailed productivity records they are ready to show to a judge if the work pace slows."
Safety issue key
With the docks congested after the company lockout, dockworkers are taking safety precautions. In the past year, seven dockworkers, including two non-ILWU workers, have been killed on the job on the West Coast, a big increase over previous years. The port bosses claim that calls for safety by the union are simply messages exhorting union members to resort to a work slowdown.
Referring to the rise in fatalities, a PMA spokesman asserted, "These are unfortunate situations--an anomaly--and they are being investigated by appropriate agencies."
"Safety is not a gimmick with us," said Ramon Ponce de Leon, president of ILWU Local 13. "We’ve had too many deaths on the docks."
According to one maritime industry group, the tonnage of cargo moving through the ports has increased four-fold since 1980. In 2001, more than 142 million tons of goods went through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the largest harbor complex in the country. With increased shipments, work hazards have grown.
Both the vessels and the tugboats are larger. The terminals are also larger, with longer wharves, bigger cranes, and more rigs than ever to handle the freight.
To deal with the critical situation on the docks, the union is demanding that the PMA hire and train more workers to move the cargo. The ILWU explained that "the PMA could help alleviate the congestion by promoting casual workers to full-time registered longshore workers." So far the employers have rejected this demand.
The union says the PMA is against this move "because casuals make a lower wage and don’t qualify for health benefits or pensions and because new workers would then become union members, bolstering the union."
In a related development, the ILWU, backed by AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, has urged the U.S. secretary of labor and the governors of California, Oregon, and Washington to place health and safety inspectors on West Coast docks. The Long Beach Press-Telegram reported October 14 that the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health has begun monitoring the California ports so that the work "is done safely and quickly."
More details about the Bush administration’s intervention in the lockout have been published. According to government lawyers who filed legal briefs in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, arguments were made "at great lengths to portray the country as effectively at war and argue that the ports shutdown stands in the way of the war effort."
"Citing an affidavit from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the lawyers said that September 2001 terrorist attacks ‘mark the onset of uncommon wartime strains and requirements placed on the nation’s military systems,’" the Los Angeles Times reported.
"West Coast ports already play a role in the campaign against terrorism, especially in the Asia-Pacific region," an article in the San Francisco Chronicle noted, echoing the government’s arguments. It singled out the military aid going to "Filipino troops and U.S. advisers fighting Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas in the Philippines."