US Government Declares War on West Coast Dockworkers

US Government Declares War on West Coast Dockworkers

        On Tuesday, Oct. 8th, Federal District Judge William Aslup issued a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO)  ending an 11 day employer lockout of 10,500 ILWU longshore workers in 29 West Coast Ports. According to the TRO, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) must lift its lockout immediately, with longshore workers returning to work as quickly as possible. A permanent 80 day “cooling off” injunction  will, in all likelihood, be issued at hearing scheduled for next week.

        The judge included, as part of the injunction  there would be “no slowdowns” by the ILWU workers. He said he fully concurred with President Bush’s request for the injunction, that the “health and safety of the nation” was imperiled by the current contract dispute and that work on the docks must resume, as Bush insisted in his press statement, at “a normal pace.”

        He did not include that the “normal pace”of the past several years has led to workers being injured and even killed by the pace the employers desire. (Since March of this year six workers have been killed on the job.) From the viewpoint of the PMA, casualties and death are collateral damage in the drive to increase productivity and profits.

        Besides wages, etc., one of the key issues, in the negotiations, is the insistence by the PMA to introduce the use of new technology at the expense of the ILWU and its membership. Although the ILWU has agreed to the new technology, at the elimination of at least 600 union jobs, the union has  asked to retain the right to organize the new jobs as they are created. On paper, it appears to be a “jurisdictional dispute,”but the fact is that unless the ILWU retains and gains control over these jobs, the new nonunion jobs created through the new technology will be used to “outsource” the work of unionized workers to non union workers.

        The stated goals of the PMA are the replacement of the union hiring hall and to speed up production.

        The union hiring hall was a key demand that was won as the result the ILWU lead “illegal” general strike in San Francisco in 1934. The dignity that was won by that strike is what the PMA wants to take away to develop a docile workforce. In essence, the very existence of the union and unalienable rights rights of its membership to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is what is fundamentally at stake.

        How did “things get to this point?”Let’s check the recent history of the “negotiations.”

Background to the Injunction

        Prior to the July 1, 2002 expiration date of the contract between the ILWU and the PMA, the PMA organized to take decisive action to “modernized”the ports. They had rallied the support of the government to support their “just cause”to improve profitability and efficiency the West Coast ports.             As the deadline approached, the Bush administration, in an effort to intimidate the ILWU leadership, threatened the the ILWU with government action and even the threat of troops if there was a work stoppage. It is clearly evident, that, prior to the expiration of the contract, the PMA mobilized support from both the legislative and executive branches of the government, explaining their position as being beneficial to the capitalist class as a whole. Is it any wonder that the judicial branch has fallen into place?

Contract Demands of the PMA

    In April, 2001, Joseph Miniace, the president of the PMA made a speech to Seattle/Tacoma Transportation Clubs, explaining the goals of the PMA for the new contract negotiations in 2002. In his opening statement, Miniace explained that the rest of the world had double the productivity as the west coast ports and the need to speed up imports and exports. In the course of his speech, the PMA outlined a course of action to improve productivity: “The PMA is looking to implement technology and work process changes with the ILWU and we have not approached this situation lightly. We have spent a considerable amount of time and money to study viable alternatives.

  1. Instituting an appointment system with truckers and terminals.  
  2. Integrating the systems with full use of EDI (Electronic Data Interface).  
  3. Developing a steady labor team – something just done at the Port of Houston  
  4. Automating the dispatch process.  
  5. Create more flexibility in off-peak start times for the workforce.

    “We know we aren’t the only ones looking at ways to maximize existing terminals. Dick Steinke, the newly elected President of the AAPA, recently presented some ideas for solving congestion and addressing growth projections. He suggested utilizing companies such as eModal to improve communication, and he agreed with the concept of an Appointment System. He also suggested a port-wide ID system for truckers which would facilitate paperless transactions, speed up gate operations and increase port security.” (In exchange the PMA is offering to “sweeten the deal:”)

“We are sensitive to the Union and what the kind of changes the PMA is proposing means to them. Therefore I have offered large number of job security measures for them in exchange for agreeing to our technology proposal. We have offered the following:

  1. The guarantee of all currently registered workers the opportunity to work.
  2. Provided for training to ILWU clerks, foremen and longshore workers to successfully utilize the  technology as it is introduced to the industry.
  3. A mutually (between the employers and the ILWU) developed 401K program in addition to what currently exists to share in the economic benefit that is derived from the full implementation of technology.
  4. Reviewed and adjusted skill rates as necessary for jobs which require increased skills due to the introduction of new technology.
  5. An agreement to develop additional retirement benefits should it be necessary to offer early retirement to registered workers.

        A commitment to the preservation of ILWU jurisdiction within the current scope of the Agreement where such jurisdiction does not prevent the implementation of new technology and work process.”  For the past 18 months the PMA has had a declared position to wipe out the gains of the past 80 years in exchange for keeping the dues flowing in. On June 6, 2002, the PMA  had U. S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta speak to their Board of Directors dinner/rally. (Mineta, President Clinton’s commerce secretary,was the token Democrat Cabinet appointment by President Bush.)

        In his remarks at the dinner, Mineta made it clear that the government would support the PMA’s goals in its negotiations with the ILWU. In the course of his remarks he couldn’t help but express his comradeship with  “Joe” Miniace,  the PMA president.

        The opening of Mineta’s prepared remarks stated: “The MTS Report to the Congress and the MTS National Advisory Council’s (MTSNAC) White Paper are clear on the necessity of seeking affordable and innovative solutions to ensuring that our nation’s ports remain vibrant and competitive in the 21st century.

        “In a recent speech, your President, Joe Miniace, stated that the two major challenges for our nation’s marine transportation system are: A shortage of port capacity and infrastructure; and A lack of public understanding about how important ports and intermodal operations are to the economy and their quality of life. “Joe also pointed to the need to ‘maximize; our existing space and infrastructure by incorporating new technologies and work processes.’ I wholeheartedly agree.

        “Meeting these and other challenges won’t happen if we work alone — it must be a collaborative effort of all maritime stakeholders — labor, management, system users, and federal, state and local government officials and agencies — satisfy the growing demands of the global economy.

        “I am optimistic that we can work together to increase port capacity and efficiency. And, to accomplish our goals, some resources will be needed. But, how much and what are the priorities? It’s too early to say right now, but it is not too soon to begin laying the foundation for the coming fiscal year.”

Response of ILWU and AFL-CIO

        In the context of these events, the ILWU and the rest of the AFL-CIO leadership have waged a campaign for peaceful collective bargaining, at the same time, trying to embarrass the Bush Administration and looking to the Democrats to protect them.

        The ILWU officialdom, at no time, prior to and during the negotiations, has prepared the membership for the current battle, even though the PMA has been publicizing their positions on their website.  They had not even taken a strike vote, if the contract expired, and never took the position of “no contract – no work.”

        In their press statements, the ILWU officials make it appear like this a “jurisdictional dispute” for unionized jobs.

        At the rally in opposition to the Taft-Hartley injunction, the “militant”speeches called for voting in November to solve the problem. Under these circumstances. the contract deadline had no meaning. The ILWU just kept extending the deadline from day to day. The employers had no objection, for they knew that if job action was taken, their government would move in to defend them. They had no reason not to negotiate and to remain at “impasse” for they knew they had the bipartisan support of the government and its capitalist rulers.

        Eventually, after several months, the ILWU leadership decided to enforce the safety protection guaranteed under the contract. In response to “working safe,” the PMA complained about the loss in productivity and locked out the dockworkers.

        Democratic United States Senator Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco, whose husband, Dick Blum, is head of BLUM Capital Partners, L.P., with extensive investments with Asian trade, demanded that President Bush invoke the Taft-Hartley Act to end the lookout and impose the injunction. (I wonder if the ILWU officialdom still considers Feinstein to be a “friend of labor.”)

        In reality, the employers set the timing, so that a Taft-Hartley 80 day “cooling off” period would be imposed to keep the docks open during the peak period. Actually, this is busiest time in the history of West Coast shipping. (Annually, over $300 billion worth of goods are imported or exported each year through the west coast docks. An important component of this trade is Agri-Business, which is centralized in California. If the docks were closed, at this peak harvest time, Agri-Business would have enormous losses totaling many billions of dollars.)

        Basically, the PMA went on strike to get the Taft-Hartley injunction and put the ILWU to work without a contract. Dockworkers are now in a “no contract – work situation.”

        The ILWU leadership has declared that they will continue to require that the work be done in a safe manner. If dockworkers refuse to work under unsafe conditions—they must be defended by any means necessary. The health and lives of workers should supersede the health of the employer’s profits. In response to the injunction, said ILWU International President James Spinosa stated: “We fully expect PMA to use all the anti-union provisions of the Taft-Hartley injunction. These 80 days will not be a ‘cooling off period,'” . “PMA will start alleging ‘slowdowns’ by Thursday and will continue that. Taft-Hartley gives them 80 days of free shots at the union and we expect the employers will be dragging us to court daily, trying to bankrupt the union and throw our leaders in jail.”

The Current Situation

        With the deepening decline in the U.S. and world economy, the United States capitalist class has been forced to begin a class battle to housebreak the dockworkers and the industrial unions – something they had not dared tried to do since 1948. They have “rung the bell” of class warfare and all workers need to be educated that the bell tolls for all of us.

        Worldwide, from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Korea, the docks are being privatized and/or their labor casualized. The worldwide union-busting project against longshore unions has now come to capitalism’s heartland. This cannot be viewed as only an assault on individual unions but a direct challenge to workers’ power and the small measures of economic democracy that flows from that power. The capitalist class will not be satisfied until the docks of the world, perhaps the most critical point of distribution in a globalized economy, are fully under their exclusive control.

        The imposition of the Taft-Hartley injunction has made the battle not just economic, but political. It is now necessary to oppose and expose the government for what it is – an employers government established to defend employers and maintain their class rule. In this country, the working class has no party of its own to politically defend itself.  The ruling class owns the political arena, and it is the beginning of wisdom to explain this reality and for the entire labor movement to withdraw all support to capitalist politicians and initiate the building of a party of  the working class.

        At the current moment, it is a one sided class war. But one must never underestimate the power of dockworkers when they act collectively. They have demonstrated their power to shut down $300 billion dollars worth of trade. Now is the time for the ILWU and the entire labor movement to begin to act as the leadership of the class instead of labor statesmen for the ruling class. And take a lesson from the employers and respond to this attack in a collective manner.

        The entire working class has to be made aware of  what is at stake. That the employing class and its government have declared war and are moving to implement the world standard of  labor upon the entire working class. (The “Globalization of Wages.”)

        The entire labor movement must be mobilized in order to defeat this frontal attack. To begin with, Labor and Trade Councils throughout the country should use the full power of the AFL-CIO to hold mass meetings throughout the nation to explain the stakes that are involved and to begin to organize the political and economic power of the entire class – the majority of this country – against this assault. To give real meaning to the slogan: “an injury to one is an injury to all.”