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Dockworker activist analyzes West Coast proposal
ILWU contract is no "victory"

January 10, 2003 | Page 11

JACK HEYMAN is a business agent for International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10. As a delegate to the union's Coast Caucus, he's argued against passage of a concessionary contract negotiated under the gun--George W. Bush's imposition of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act, which barred the West Coast dockworkers' union from strikes or slowdown following a 10-day lockout.

Here, Socialist Worker prints an edited version of Heyman's response to an article by labor journalist David Bacon, "West Coast Dockworkers: Victory in the Face of the Bush Doctrine," published on the CorpWatch web site ( The original piece can be found on

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DAVID BACON'S piece on the recent ILWU contract negotiations begins and ends with the ominous role of government intervention against trade unions. At no point in the article is he critical of the trade union bureaucracy's role in acquiescing to government intimidation.

He opens the article with Reagan's devastating crushing of the PATCO air traffic controllers' union strike of 1981, not mentioning that the strikers were betrayed by the AFL-CIO bureaucracy not mobilizing to defend airport picket lines. He closes citing Bush's use of "national security" as a club not just against the ILWU but possibly against other unions as well.

The key question was never even raised: If a militant union like the ILWU with powerful pacts with the Teamsters and the East Coast International Longshoremen's Association and with international dockworker connections doesn't take a stand against joint government/employer coercion and turn the tide, then who can?

He misses a critical point throughout the Corpwatch article which is that the present ILWU leadership has departed from our union's principled legacy of opposing repressive laws passed under the guise of "national security" and opposing U.S. imperial wars against Third World countries.

The ILWU opposed Taft-Hartley since its beginning in 1947, opposed Democratic President Truman's election and use of Taft-Hartley, and successfully fought its anticommunist clause directed against union officers to the Supreme Court. We also fought government waterfront screening during the McCarthy period, which mainly affected "reds" and Blacks.

Now, for the first time, the ILWU has a leadership which has remained silent on the question of war against Iraq, seeks to "improve" oppressive legislation like the Port Maritime Security Act rather than oppose it, and paints this concessionary contract as a "victory." Bridges and the ILWU never before negotiated a contract under Taft-Hartley, not in 1948 and not in 1971.

In his rush to proclaim "victory" in this employer-imposed contract, as some in the ILWU leadership have admitted, Bacon makes the mistaken assertion that the agreement was "overwhelmingly ratified," when in fact, the coastwide vote has not yet taken place in all ports, much less been tallied.

Two of the big lies being told in this dispute are:

(1) The West Coast ports were shut down by an ILWU strike, not a Pacific Maritime Association (PMA, the employers) lockout.

(2) This tentative agreement is a "landmark victory" simply because the ILWU was able to get a good benefits package.

The truth is that labor cannot negotiate a good contract with a Taft-Hartley gun pointed at its head--or in a "barbed wire straitjacket," as Bacon puts it.

This was posed as a "technology" contract by the PMA. Yet, the employers already have the ability under Section 15 of the contract to introduce new technology. This contract is not about technology. It is about jurisdiction, protection of the ILWU's work--traditional and new, clerk and longshore.

The PMA and Bush are testing the waters to determine labor's resolve to defend itself. Bacon claims that the "definitive battle…(of) technology for jobs--was not fought to a conclusion this time." His earlier writings on this struggle were more accurate, in which he asserted that this was a "defining moment" in the labor movement.

Even before the coastwide contract ratification vote, employers are already displaying their hubris in the port of Oakland: provoking and trying to fire ILWU mechanics at the new Hanjin terminal twice; at the APL terminal, cutting longshore jobs and trying to "contract out" ILWU chassis mechanic work; having management handling mooring lines at terminal after terminal. These kinds of attacks are happening at other ports too.

As Bacon correctly points out, maritime employers, shippers of the West Coast Waterfront Coalition and the government set up a secret White House task force in a collaborative attempt to coerce the ILWU through repressive state measures to accept the PMA's contractual terms and conditions.

What Bacon leaves out is that because the new ILWU leadership has bought into Bush's "national security" ruse, they never even considered a strike or organized national and international actions on the docks in support of the ILWU. Their conventional wisdom fears that longshoremen would have been characterized as defiant, greedy and unpatriotic Americans sabotaging Bush's holy "war against terrorism."

Rather than swim against the political stream, which the ILWU has always done best, we were faced with a timetable orchestrated by the PMA. We were locked out and then hit with Taft-Hartley during the busy shipping season. Now it's the slack season and as the war with Iraq approaches, our union officials are working overtime trying to sell an imposed contract as a "victory."

It's time to draw the line. If we wait until the July 2008 contract expiration date, Bush, if elected, will still be in office, or maybe some "wannabe Republican Democrat" like Truman.

We longshore workers should reject this contract and send our negotiating committee back, this time to negotiate with some muscle by lining up concrete support in the U.S. and internationally.

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