The battle for the docks
October 11, 2002 | Pages 6 and 7
GEORGE W. BUSH'S decision to invoke the union-busting Taft-Hartley Act for the first time in 24 years shows the enormous stakes in the struggle of West Coast dockworkers.
If labor can defend this stronghold at a key choke point in the world economy, it will show that workers have the power to resist the gang of transnational corporations that have been attacking them everywhere.
A victory for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) would be an inspiration to union workers facing employer demands for concessions--and show the vast majority of U.S. workers who aren't in unions that it's possible to organize and fight back.
Bush and Corporate America understand this all too well. And they have a special hatred for the ILWU, a union with a long history of supporting progressive causes. In recent years, the ILWU has closed the ports for a day in solidarity with death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal and the 1999 demonstrations against the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. Bush and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) want to take that kind power away from the ILWU.
But at an October 4 rally on the Oakland, Calif., docks, the mood was defiant. "We know that George W. Bush wants to step in on behalf of his allies in big business," Art Pulaski, the executive secretary-treasurer of the California Federation of Labor, told the crowd. "George Bush, if you declare war against workers in America, that's one war you won't win."
Here, LEE SUSTAR and SNEHAL SHINGAVI look at the issues in this crucial struggle.
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EMPLOYERS IN the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) claim that ILWU members are pampered, overpaid workers whose greed and opposition to new technology have given them no choice but to lock out 10,500 workers.
The truth is that the PMA is a front organization for huge transnational shipping corporations that have systematically busted dockworkers' unions around the world to speed up the international assembly lines and supply chains that are crucial to corporate globalization.
With the rapid increase in world trade over the last 20 years, the shipping industry has become dominated by giants like P&O and Maersk/Sea-Land. Just four companies control about a quarter of container handling worldwide as they aim to "secure control over the entire logistics chain and provide a door-to-door service to customers," according to industry expert Peter Turnbull of Cardiff University in Britain.
That's why United Parcel Service (UPS) is taking aim at this profitable business. In August, it launched UPS Trade Ocean Direct to carry sea freight from China and its huge hub at the former Clark Air Force base near Manila in the Philippines. The company's nonunion subsidiary, UPS Logistics, handles warehousing and just-in-time delivery for corporate clients--outsourcing Teamsters' union jobs.
This follows the pattern in the freight industry, which has seen the number of Teamster jobs plunge from 500,000 in the 1970s to just 85,000 today. Now big nonunion retailers like Target, Wal-Mart and Gap have joined together in the West Coast Waterfront Coalition (WCWC) to back the PMA's demand for "modernization" of U.S. ports. They want to take control of work that's crucial for logistics planning.
So when the ILWU months ago offered to surrender at least 650 clerks' jobs in exchange for continued union jurisdiction, the employers refused to take "yes" for an answer. Journalist Tim Shorrock, who formerly covered labor issues for the Journal of Commerce, the shipping industry's trade publication, explained why. "Big companies around the world would like to break this union," he told Socialist Worker, "because it is one of the most powerful sections of the most globalized part of labor."
The employers' assault on the ILWU is the latest in a series of attacks on dockworkers' unions worldwide. In Argentina, for example, employers used privatization in the 1990s to cut the workforce on the Buenos Aires docks in half--while tripling the port's traffic to reach the highest level in South America. Dockworkers' unions resisted privatization with strikes and struggles in a number of countries, including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Chile, Greece, India, Pakistan, Portugal, Brazil and Zaire.
The unions rallied around 500 Liverpool dockworkers fired in 1995 for refusing to cross a picket line against privatization. When a ship known as the Neptune Jade was loaded with scab labor in Liverpool, dockworkers in ports around the world--including members of ILWU Local 10 in the San Francisco Bay Area--refused to unload it.
The PMA tried to sue ILWU members and supporters for damages--and failed. But the shipping owners' offensive continued. In Rotterdam, the biggest port in Europe, employers drove the "labor pool" that hired dockworkers into bankruptcy, broke a 1997 strike of a traditionally militant union, replaced hundreds of workers with robotic cranes, and forced those who remained into casual status.
The following year in Australia, the federal government backed a leading stevedoring company when it slashed the workforce, sending police to viciously attack a dockworkers' picket line. The union's resistance forced the employers and the government to give them severance pay, but their jobs disappeared.
The police attack on a picket line in Charleston, S.C., in January 2000--which led to house arrest for five union members for nearly two years--was yet another example of the global attack on dock labor.
But this time, the International Dockworkers Council (IDC)--formed out of the Liverpool struggle--refused to handle ships loaded with nonunion labor in Charleston and pledged to take solidarity action worldwide if the workers went to trial.
Under pressure from organized labor in the U.S. and internationally, prosecutors backed down, and the dockworkers--known as the Charleston Five--won their freedom.
The ILWU, which provided important financial support for the Charleston struggle, last year joined with the IDC to build solidarity for its showdown. Bjorn A. Borg, the leader of the Swedish dockworkers' union and an activist in the IDC, sees the ILWU's struggle as crucial for unions everywhere.
"The corporations would probably like to go back to the old days when they ran the docks and picked whoever they wanted to work the docks for them," he told Socialist Worker. "Everyone has been looking at the ILWU as one of the strongholds of labor around the world. That's why we're engaging in solidarity work."
Taft-Hartley: The slave labor act
BY INVOKING the Taft-Hartley Act, Bush is using what even the most conservative union leaders call "the slave labor law."
Taft-Hartley allows the president to authorize an emergency three-person panel to declare a strike or lockout a "national emergency"--and obtain a federal court order forcing a return to work for 80 days.
The last time that the law was invoked in a work stoppage was 1978, when 160,000 striking coal miners defied President Jimmy Carter to continue a walkout that lasted 110 days. "Taft can mine it, Hartley can haul it, and Carter can shove it," was the miners' slogan.
Taft-Hartley was last used against the ILWU by Richard Nixon in a 1971 docks strike. The union walked off the job again as soon as the 80-day injunction expired.
But Taft-Hartley is much more than a strikebreaking weapon. Because it originally required union officials to sign affidavits that they weren't members of the Communist Party, the law was used by the government and employers--and anti-Communist union leaders--to drive militants out of the unions.
Taft-Hartley, which covers private-sector workers, also bans "secondary boycotts"--the solidarity strikes used in the 1930s to build powerful unions. It allowed states to pass anti-union "right-to-work" laws that left workers historically weak in the South. The law also allowed employers to conduct anti-union campaigns on company time, while forcing unions to respond off the clock.
The law further prohibits supervisors from joining unions--which allows employers to classify millions of white-collar workers as "managers" to keep them from organizing. And because Taft-Hartley weakened the National Labor Relations Board, employers get away with illegally firing 10,000 workers a year for joining unions--and delaying union elections for years.
Taft-Hartley is a major reason why union membership has declined from 35 percent of U.S. workers in the 1950s to just 13 percent today.
We need to oppose its use in the dockworkers' struggle--and build a movement that can fight for its repeal.
Their fight is our fight
DURING THE 1997 UPS strike, Corporate America was stunned by the massive outpouring of support for low-paid, part-time workers. That's why the PMA is trying to sell the story of the $100,000-a-year dockworker to undercut public support for the ILWU.
Yet the PMA's own figures show that 6,463 longshore workers earn $82,895 per year after working 2,006 hours per year--based on a schedule of a 40-hour workweek, 52 weeks a year. Those hours are well above national the average of 1,978 a year.
And when PMA officials claim that 1,583 clerks are paid $118,844 a year, they forget to mention that the figure is based on massive overtime--some 2,662 hours a year.
In reality, ILWU members' wages are miniscule compared to the $300 billion worth of goods--equivalent to one-third of U.S. annual economic output--that passes through union members' hands each year.
And the biggest paycheck in the ILWU is peanuts compared to former General Electric CEO Jack Welch's retirement perks--or the hundreds of millions made on insider stock deals by CEO crooks and their Wall Street accomplices.
What's more, dockworkers constantly risk crippling injury or death on the job at rates comparable to that of coal miners--nine ILWU members have been killed on the job just since July 1999. In the days before the ILWU was organized, workers either endured long hours of grueling work for low pay--or didn't work at all--according to the whims of the bosses.
The ILWU transformed workers' lives in the great 1934 West Coast strike--when San Francisco was shut down in a general strike after two strikers were shot by police. We need to learn the lessons of that fighting history to take on the struggles of today.
It's time for all of organized labor--and all working people--to stand up in support of the ILWU in its showdown with this worldwide gang of union-busters.