Union Says Bush Has Dropped Threats, But Dockworkers’ Fight Heats Up

by Charles Walker

This article and the ones that follow are from the website Labor Tuesday for October 1, 2002. They have been edited for Labor Standard.

As this is written, over 10,000 West Coast dockworkers are locked out of their jobs for the second time since Friday night, Sept. 27. Once again, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), a consortium of shipping and terminal companies charged that members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) orchestrated a coastwide work slowdown at 29 seaports. The union adamantly denied there was a work slowdown. The union said that the bosses’ chief negotiator was showing “the same disrespect for the union he has since the beginning of these talks. He is unilaterally taking the action of closing all ports and bears full responsibility for its effects on the American economy.”

For months, the labor movement has nervously contemplated the possibility of a government takeover of the West Coast docks, and the military repression of the dockworkers union, which has been engaged in contentious negotiations since May with the shipping bosses.

However, according to the dockers union, the Bush administration has dropped such plans to intervene in the negotiations. On Sept. 26, the ILWU told its members, “This week, the Bush Department of Labor denied outright in writing that they have any intention of intervening in the ILWU/PMA labor negotiations. The Bush Administration states in the document that it has no plans to break up the union, send troops, or place longshore workers under the Railway Labor Act. This pledge comes after months of threats and innuendo from the Bush Administration which have been exposed by the ILWU in the media.”

But that doesn’t mean that the government has dropped plans to impose an 80-day “cooling-off” period, as authorized by the infamous Taft-Hartley Act.

Though the union says that it didn’t ask the ranks to engage in a work slowdown, it did publicly state: “The ILWU Negotiating Committee passed a resolution today, Sept. 26, calling on members to redouble efforts to improve safety on the docks. The resolution, distributed to all locals, calls on longshore workers to follow all safety procedures, including speed limits, to refrain from working extended shifts, working through lunch hours, or doubling back. It also calls on ILWU members to ensure that all military sustainment (sic) cargo is handled without any difficulties or delay.”

Coincidentally or not, a major San Francisco ILWU local unanimously passed a motion to enforce safety regulations, just days before the Coastwide Negotiating Committee adopted its similar motion. Without a doubt, productivity, the source of the bosses’ profits, would be negatively impacted by the dockers strictly following safety regulations, and refusing overtime.

Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian, told the San Francisco Chronicle (Sept. 29), that the bosses’ [first] lockout was “just a trial balloon. Both sides are engaged in a high stakes game, with the ILWU trying to win public support and the PMA wanting the Bush administration to step in.”

After the first lockout—which lasted 36 hours—ended Sunday, the dockers returned to work, but with an added wrinkle. “The union told workers who normally report to the same shipping terminal each day to instead begin Sunday at the dispatch hall for random assignment. Experienced crane operators, for example, chose other jobs and left their less experienced co-workers to operate the cranes.” The bosses complained that, “It’s like a plumber showing up to roof your house” (S.F. Chronicle, Sept. 29).

On Sunday, the dockworkers were back on the job less than a full shift, and the bosses shut down the piers and terminals a second time. The bosses declared that the lockout would last until the union agreed to a new contract or agreed to extend the expired contract, which might crimp the workers’ measures to ensure their safety. City police removed workers—-who protested the new lockout—-from their job sites.

The press and the PMA estimate that the shutdown will cost the economy a billion dollars a day. True or not, some analysts said the impact of the first lockout would not be large. “Jack Kyser, an economist with the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, said a short lockout—while damaging—would not pull the plug on the economy,” reported Reuters (Sept. 27). “Independent truckers would miss income for the weekend of expected shipments, while railroads and steamship owners would pay the costs of idle trains and ships waiting for cargo.”

The union and the bosses are reported to have scheduled a negotiating meeting today, Sept. 30, the first face-to-face meeting in 48 hours. A PMA representative told the media that the PMA was optimistic. But the latest word from the union is that there was no progress on the key issue of jobs.

The Bush administration will come under renewed pressure from retail merchants to impose the Taft-Hartley Act should the talks collapse, or drag out much longer. Much earlier, an ILWU spokesperson said that forcing the dockworkers back to work for 80 days would not resolve the dispute. He recalled that the union had been forced to work under the Taft-Hartley Act in 1971, and struck for more than 130 days as soon as the so-called cooling-off period was over.

The core dispute is over jobs. The PMA wants to use the cover of new technology to deny the union the right to represent workers hired for computerized work. The union earlier agreed to give up 600 traditional jobs, and insists that the shippers reciprocate by recognizing its jurisdiction over the new work. Today the ILWU released a statement by its president James Spinosa.

The statement reads in part:

“They [the shipping bosses] are not prepared to deal with turning over the jobs that remain in the industry and any new jobs that are created that will take this industry forward to this Union; the jobs that are functionally equivalent to our work and they are under obligation to this Union to do. The Union has stepped up, the Union has told the Employers over and over again, ‘We will meet you in the middle, we will allow for free flow of information, we will allow for technology to move forward,’ so that we would strengthen our position in the global market, on the West Coast, in these ports, providing that you meet us halfway on the jobs that are necessary to be done, that are left to be done in this industry. The Employers cannot deliver that, they refuse to deliver that, their latest proposal has been, ‘We really didn’t mean that we want to turn over the jobs to your Union, what we really meant is that we want to buy your workforce out.’ Totally unacceptable to the ILWU; we will not move along those lines, not now, not ever in the future. What we are looking for in this set of bargaining are jobs, jobs that remain in the industry, jobs that are ours under the contract and the Employers have got to step up to the table, if they want to see those West Coast ports resume their activities like they have in the past.”

Conversation with Sweeney about National Health Care

by Jerry Gordon

Jerry Gordon was a staff representative of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union for twenty-three years. Articles by him on the U.S. Labor Party’s opposition to government control of unions and on the state of the unions as of Labor Day 2002 have been posted on both Labor Tuesday and Labor Standard web sites in previous weeks.

Together with about 75 other people, I had lunch this past Tuesday (September 24) with AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. The lunch followed a public meeting addressed by Sweeney at the University of Toledo, at which he denounced corporate corruption. There was no question-and-answer period following Sweeney’s talk or at the lunch, but there was an opportunity to talk with him informally. I decided to engage him on the health care issue because I wanted to know whether there had been any change in his position regarding single-payer universal health care.

Before recounting our conversation, it may be helpful for those not familiar with the development to summarize the way the AFL-CIO’s position has evolved on the health care issue over the past several decades, and what Sweeney’s role has been. My source for what follows is Marie Gottschalk’s excellent book: “The Shadow Welfare State: Labor, Business, and the Politics of Health Care in the United States” (Cornell University Press, 2000).

From National Health Care to Employer Mandate

In the post–World War II period, U.S. labor was a staunch advocate of a national health care program ensuring access to medical care for all. When the idea of a legislative scheme tying health care to employment was first floated, labor strenuously opposed it. Labor officials contended such a system would not do enough to reduce costs and expand access to quality health care, and that it would ratify a multi-tiered system of health care delivery. They also noted that the existing system of employment was ridden with inequities and that tying benefits to jobs gave employers a disincentive to hire full-time workers. Recessionary periods with mass layoffs only heightened their concerns about job-based benefits.

In 1978, over the heated objection of many unions and several presidents of internationals, labor officially reversed course and embraced the very system it had previously denounced. What accounted for this remarkable turnabout?

The main factor was the belief that labor was too weak to win genuine universal health care and that a switch to employer mandate would pick up support from the business community since commercial for-profit insurance companies would remain at the very center of the system. The idea was to make labor part of a broader and winning coalition. Over the next decade and a half, labor’s commitment to an employer mandated solution did not wane. As Gottschalk puts it, “Employer mandate helped reconfigure the coalition and the health-care issue, aligning labor more closely with employers and insurers.” This at a time when companies were increasingly turning to replacement workers to break strikes; holding down wages with threats to relocate production overseas or to low wage, low benefit right-to-work states; shifting more of the costs of health care to their employees; and vigorously opposing organized labor on issues like plant closing legislation and family leave. Yet many labor leaders continued to maintain that the big business forces doing all of the above should be considered the allies and partners of working people in the fight for health care for all!

Regarding Sweeney’s role, Gottschalk writes, “Sweeney, as head of the AFL-CIO health-care committee, pushed ... for a joint labor-management solution [to the health care problem] rather than a single-payer arrangement. Even though Sweeney could be critical of business at times, he believed that a satisfactory solution on health care would come about because of business participation—not in spite of business participation. Because the business community would never endorse a single-payer plan, this approach was doomed from the start, in his view.”

AFL-CIO Split Down the Middle

The AFL-CIO’s health care committee was split down the middle between single-payer advocates and employer mandate supporters. Things came to a head in early 1991. As described by Gottschalk, “At a critical and contentious meeting of the federation’s health care committee on January 31, 1991, Robert M. McGlotten of the AFL-CIO argued that the single-payer approach was not politically viable because legislators did not want to take on the insurers. He warned that if organized labor insisted on endorsing such a proposal, it would find itself politically marginalized as the debate over health-care reform unfolded. Several union presidents disagreed with McGlotten’s assessment. UAW president Owen Bieber countered that it was still too early to assess the political feasibility of a single-payer plan because organized labor had done so little to educate legislators, the public, and its members about the solution.”

The meeting deadlocked eight-to-eight over whether to endorse the single-payer option. Lane Kirkland and Sweeney remained clearly committed to the employer-mandate formula and looked for support from leaders of the Democratic Party. At the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council meeting in February 1991, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and Speaker of the House Tom Foley addressed the group and derided the single-payer plan. Foley pressed the Council not to support “any legislation that involved anything but tinkering with the job-based system.” The day before the Executive Council meeting, Kirkland told a gathering of the American Medical Association, federation’s longtime nemesis, “Gone are the old, hardened attitudes and purely political exercises.” He proudly announced that organized labor was “in common cause with many of our traditional adversaries in the business community—including the National Association of Manufacturers and some of the nation’s biggest corporations.”

The Clinton plan—far from being a program for universal health care as it was packaged—was, in reality, a scheme for managed costs (not “managed care”). Clinton said that his Health Security Act was built upon “what works today in the private sector to expand employer-based coverage.” His proposal centered on a requirement that employers pay a portion of the health insurance premiums for their workers. Despite the misgivings of a number of unions, most ended up supporting the Clinton approach, including some internationals which held single-payer positions.

Today the AFL-CIO, together with many of its international affiliates, is part of the National Coalition on Health Care. Other members of this coalition include representatives of big corporations. While the coalition’s program calls for “Health Insurance for All,” it endorses a system that “builds upon the American tradition of providing private health insurance through the workplace.”

Tuesday’s Exchange with Sweeney in Toledo

I was familiar with this background when I talked with Sweeney on Tuesday. I began by telling him about a campaign in Ohio to get the legislature to act without delay to pass publicly funded universal health care. This campaign has been endorsed by the Ohio AFL-CIO, UAW, dozens of local unions, the Ohio Council of Churches (representing three million people), three members of Congress, Cuyahoga County Commissioners (Cleveland), several city councils, the Ohio Nurses Association, nearly 70 physicians, a number of RNs, and community and health care advocacy groups. I handed Sweeney a Call to a conference being held next January promoting the campaign and told him we were for a publicly funded health care system to replace the employment-based one that has clearly failed.

Sweeney said he was for any kind of health care system, whether publicly financed or privately funded, which would guarantee access to quality heath care for all Americans. But, he said, you’re not going to get it until you change the composition of Congress and other legislative bodies, since the Republicans are holding up health care reform. He added that we cannot even get a prescription drug bill out of Congress.

I said we had an ultraconservative, Republican-dominated state legislature in Ohio but that we took the position that we could win health care reform regardless, provided we educated and mobilized a large enough number of people. I pointed out that there were a lot of angry people in Ohio, including steelworker retirees who were losing heath benefits, and that if hundreds of thousands of workers and their allies marched on the state capital in Columbus and announced they were staying there until the General Assembly passed a single-payer bill, I thought we could make some things happen. I also said that it would be great if the AFL-CIO were to lead a national campaign to win a single-payer system, that this would win the federation tremendous support and appreciation from the population as a whole.

Pointing to the Call to the January conference, Sweeney said, “Look, I think you are doing the right thing and I wish you every success. You know, the AFL-CIO tried to get single-payer legislation passed but we were unsuccessful. You won’t be able to get it right away either.”

I said I thought we had to demand it right away, that we understood we weren’t getting it immediately, but that we were building the movement for fundamental change. Then I asked him whether he now favored a single-payer plan. He said yes. I asked him if I quoted him as being a single-payer advocate, would that be accurate? He said yes. That was the end of the conversation.

Unfortunately, the AFL-CIO is not about to lead a campaign to win a single-payer health care system in the U.S. Their priority remains electing Democrats to office and they regard that as a precondition for achieving fundamental reform. So it remains for others, such as the Labor Party, Physicians for a National Health Program, and the single-payer coalitions around the country to lead the struggle for change.

But having said this, it seems to me that we are now fighting on more favorable terrain. There is much greater sympathy and support for the single-payer position in the labor movement than existed even months ago.

We see this in Ohio, where our movement has acquired real momentum. Sweeney’s comments, while not presaging any seismic changes regarding what the national AFL-CIO plans to do on the health care issue in the immediate period ahead, do attest to the growing receptivity to the single-payer solution, even among some who resisted it so strongly for decades. After all, everything else has failed. It’s time for labor to recapture its past and again embrace an idea whose time has come.

How Important an Issue?

Some on the left, while acknowledging that health care is an important issue, do not see it as a cutting edge one warranting priority attention and the expenditure of energy and resources.

At a time of impending imperialist war against Iraq, mobilizing opposition to prevent the bloodbath is clearly the overriding priority. The issue of war or peace is always of overriding concern to the working class.

So, too, is building solidarity with the West Coast dock workers in their fight against the Pacific Maritime Association and the government, and opposing Bush’s union busting campaign in establishing the Department of Homeland Security.

It is entirely unnecessary to pit the health care issue against any other in order to argue how critical it is and why the left should be fully involved in the fight to win a single-payer system. This is a major class battle—a confrontation between the working class and the insurance companies, HMOs, and their corporate backers. There are tens of millions of workers and retirees in this country who, when asked what issue is paramount to them, say health care. It is clearly a matter of burning concern to masses of people.

Both the Florida and Ohio AFL-CIO have now taken positions calling for a publicly funded universal health system. [The statewide AFL-CIO bodies in the states of Maine and Washington have also taken this position.—note by Labor Standard editors.] Major internationals like AFSCME, the UAW, and UNITE hold strongly to single-payer positions. More can be won over. There is a gigantic movement to be built out there in support of what is one the great social justice issues of the new century.

For decades, virtually all of labor’s struggles have been defensive. Here is an opportunity for labor to go on the offense, leading other sectors of the population in a struggle against the giant pharmaceuticals and the bloated health care industry. As increasing numbers of people get into motion on this issue, they will come to understand more clearly the need for independent working class political action, given the miserable failure of the Democrats and Republicans to legislate relief. This deepening disillusionment with the two corporate parties can help lay the basis for building the mass workers party which is so vitally needed.


New Mexico Carpenters and Joiners

 “To Honorable Senator Bingaman, Honorable Senator Domenici, and Honorable

Representatives Wilson and Udall: We, members of Local 1319 of the United

Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, present at our regular       monthly meeting, September 15, 2002, urge you, our elected representatives, to oppose the administration’s plans for military [invasion] of Iraq…”

—Adopted , Sept. 15, 2002, New Mexico.

Washington State Labor Council Convention

 “RESOLVED that the Washington State Labor Council urge the AFL-CIO and its affiliates to oppose the U.S. government’s open-ended ‘war on terrorism’ and participate in rallies, marches, and other activities to pressure President Bush and Congress to stop the war and redirect money from corporate handouts and the military budget to assist laid-off workers, restore and expand public services, and promote global justice by providing humanitarian and economic aid—administered by unions—to our brothers and sisters in other countries.”

—Adopted, August 19–22, 2002, Spokane, WA.

San Francisco Labor Council

“Resolved, that the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO, reaffirm and join the growing movement in opposition to any U.S. war against Iraq, and call on unions and the AFL-CIO at all levels and Congressional representatives to publicly oppose this war…”

—Adopted, August 26, 2002, San Francisco

California Teachers State Council

 “Therefore, be it resolved that the California Federation of Teachers goes on record as strenuously opposing the Bush administration’s march toward war with Iraq. And be it further resolved that the California Federation of Teachers urge its members and affiliates to get involved with organizations working toward stopping the Bush administration’s march toward war with Iraq.”

—Adopted, Sept. 21, 2002

East Bay Pride At Work

“RESOLVED that the East Bay Pride At Work Chapter will campaign against preemptive war strikes on Iraq or any other country without the support of international law and community, and without approval by Congress, and will support military actions only under the immediate and justified threat to the United States or its allies and be it further RESOLVED that East Bay Pride At Work Chapter will participate in rallies and marches and other activities as necessary to redirect money from the expanded military budget back to restore public services, health and welfare to U.S. citizens, assist laid-off workers, and seek to promote global justice by supporting and encouraging humanitarian and economic aid to our brothers and sisters in other countries and be it RESOLVED that East Bay Pride At Work will send this resolution to all other allied labor unions for concurrence and to our representatives in Congress, and to the President of the United States, and will not support candidates for public office that condone preemptive war on any country.”

—Ratified Sept. 8, 2002, by a Quorum of Officers
East Bay Pride At Work, Affiliated with the AFL-CIO, Eileen Berkun, President

United Electrical Workers of America (UE)

 “The Bush Administration is cynically using inflated claims of Iraq’s threat to vastly increase the military budget, to help his friends in the oil business control oil production in the Middle East, and to boost his own popularity and prop up the electoral fortunes of the pro-corporate Republican Party. None of these will help to prevent terrorism, but all of them will hurt workers in the U.S. and abroad. THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED THAT THIS 67TH UE CONVENTION: 1. Opposes a U.S. invasion of Iraq, but supports instead a genuinely multilateral diplomatic approach to the Iraq situation, sanctioned and directed by the United Nations; 2. Encourages UE at all levels to educate our members on the history and issues underlying the disputes in the Middle East.”

—Bruce J. Klipple, General Secretary-Treasurer [The resolution was adopted by the UE convention]


“AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and the 51 members of the Executive Council have refused to comment on the growing debate over whether the United States should go to war against Iraq, as though it was not a matter of concern for America’s working families.”

—Harry Kelber’s LaborTalk for September 18, 2002