Dock Workers Need an Emergency Conference of Labor!

by Charles Walker

This article, and the ones that follow, were posted on the web site Labor Tuesday for August 13. They have been edited for Labor Standard.

“The Bush Administration is threatening the ILWU with military action in support  of a lockout of the ILWU longshore workers in the event of an impasse in negotiations. The mere threat of intervention is an unconscionable effort to bolster the PMA’s contract demands and threatens the legitimate collective bargaining rights of  longshore workers. On a larger scale, the threatened use of federal troops to determine the outcome of a collective bargaining dispute undermines the basic  civil rights of the labor movement and all American workers.”

—AFL-CIO Executive Council statement, Chicago, August 7, 2002

West Coast dockworkers, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), find themselves facing the combined enmity of their bosses and the political and military power of the world’s dominant state and the ruling class that stands behind it. The dockworkers seemingly are being maneuvered into a showdown fight and their enemies have chosen the time and the terrain for battle.

The shipping bosses act like they have the high ground, demanding a long list of concessions, says James Spinosa, ILWU president. “Every proposal they [the bosses] have brought to the table was full of takeaways…They didn’t leave anything out, from maintenance of [medical] benefits, to the dispatch hall, to the arbitration system and the workplace.”

The dockworkers’ leaders have attempted to avoid the full brunt of the bosses’ attack by conceding the jobs of several hundred workers, asking in return that the union’s jurisdiction over shipping container yards away from the waterfront and certain computerized work be recognized by the shipping and terminal bosses. But the bosses spurned the ILWU’s offer, demanding that the union cave in, all up and down the line.

When the union negotiators asked for and received from an 82-member union body the authority to take a strike vote at some unspecified time, the corporate press responded by publicizing a callous battle plan, drawn up by the Bush administration, in consultation with the bosses. Should the union strike, or its members even be accused of slowing the pace of work, the press reported, the federal government would intervene, up to and including the military takeover of the docks.

Bosses’ Direct Line to White House

Of the reports on the government’s threat to intervene by major press services and big city papers, one of the most inclusive was supplied by the Los Angeles Times of August 5. “Soon after negotiations between dockworkers and shipping lines began in mid-May,” the LA Times revealed, “the White House convened a working group to monitor them, with representatives from the departments of Commerce, Labor and Transportation and the Office of Homeland Security…[A]n internal memo from an employers association shows that the White House group met with representatives of shipping lines and major retailers during its formation, on June 4. At the time, officials solicited ideas for ‘concrete steps the administration might take to back up strong statements’ it might make to the union. Employers were given a direct phone line to senior economics advisor Carlos Bonilla.”

While the joint government and dock bosses’ strategy has a short-term goal of breaking a dockworkers’ strike in order to facilitate the acceptance of a concessionary contract, the LA Times reported there’s also a long-term goal of breaking up “the coast-wide bargaining unit into bargaining by individual ports. That would allow shippers to stagger contract expiration dates, eliminating the threat of a coast wide action, and thus would allow cargo to be diverted to neighboring ports in the event of a strike.”

The Bush administration has not just talked with the bosses, but also to the union’s leadership. The LA Times reported that the feds have “made almost daily phone calls” to the ILWU, laying out four “options,” a weasel word for threats. First threat, the declaration of a national emergency and the invoking of the Taft-Hartley Act to delay a strike for 80 days. The LA Times notes that the last time the Taft-Hartley Act was invoked was in 1978, when Democrat President Jimmy Carter used the act to attack coal miners’ right to strike. Second threat, running the ports with naval personnel. Third, break up the ILWU coast-wide bargaining unit. Fourth, bring the union under the Railway Labor Act, which “gives courts and the administration far more power to prevent strikes and impose contract settlements than does the National Labor Relations Act, which governs most private sector labor negotiations.” As presidents, both the Republican George W. Bush and the Democrat Bill Clinton invoked the Railway Act against airline workers.

Miners Defeated Taft-Hartley

The LA Times article doesn’t mention that President Carter’s Taft-Hartley attack on the United Mine Workers 1977-78 strike of 110 days failed to end the strike. The judge who issued the Taft-Hartley injunction complained that the miners were “not paying attention to what I do…” And the judge was right. On the day the injunction took effect, fewer than 100 miners showed up for work, according to the mine owners. Carter prohibited the miners’ officials from “continuing, encouraging, ordering, aiding, engaging, or taking part in” the strike. Carter banned any action  “interfering with or affecting the orderly continuance of work in the bituminous coal industry.” Carter warned that violators would be fined or jailed, and state troopers, the National Guard, the FBI, and the military would take on anyone interfering with coal production or transportation. Carter sent federal marshals to hand-deliver copies of his injunction to every local union president and threatened that strikers’ food stamps would be cut off.

Carter’s threats didn’t work any more than President Truman’s threats against the coal miners, decades earlier. Like under Truman in 1950, no coal was mined, no miner or union official was jailed, and no miner or union official was even fined. Clearly, the dockworkers should study the miners’ tactics as they continue to press the shipping bosses to back off. But they should also study the fate of the air traffic controllers union, PATCO, whose 1981 defiance of the government was met by President Reagan with an attack blueprinted by his predecessor, President Carter.

An Emergency Conference of Unions and Workers

It’s often said that the air controllers’ dismal fate was sealed when the AFL-CIO, headed by Lane Kirkland, ignored the air controllers’ plight, as though all U.S. workers didn’t have a stake in the outcome of the air controllers’ battle. Even more often it’s said that the breaking of the air controllers’ union sent a signal to corporate America that it was open season on unions and workers’ standard of living.

Certainly, corporate America could plainly see that union solidarity was not the huge problem it had been for the bosses, starting in the 1930s. Now, for decades since the smashing of the air controllers’ resistance, corporate America, largely unrestrained by any mobilization of union solidarity, has enforced a reign of retreat and defeat upon America’s workers.

The LA Times report concludes, “National labor leaders, including the AFL-CIO, are watching the ILWU talks closely as a bellwether for future negotiations in which the White House also might intervene.” Dockworkers and their leaders must be hoping that “national labor leaders, including the AFL-CIO,” are doing more than just watching the contract talks, which may have reached an impasse. They must be hoping that “national labor leaders” are doing more than just noting the politicians’ threats that imperil the dockworkers and their union. That “strategy” (of watching and waiting and doing nothing) was followed by “national labor leaders, including the AFL-CIO,” when the air traffic controllers refused to roll over for Ronald Reagan. It is widely acknowledged that that “strategy” failed all U.S. workers.

It is generally acknowledged that all workers have a stake in the outcome of the dockworkers’ unequal confrontation with the shipping bosses, many of whom are foreign-owned companies, and the Bush administration, which admittedly is preparing to play the Carter-Reagan anti-labor card.

If all workers have a stake in the outcome, then all workers should have a say in how the battle is conducted. Of course, that’s not feasible, except through a vote by workers. But it is feasible for “national labor leaders, including the AFL-CIO,” to call an emergency conference of unions and workers to discuss the government’s attack on the dockworkers and democratically decide on a course of action to protect the vital interests of all U.S. workers that are at stake.

Such an action by U. S. labor would be unprecedented, but not unknown. Black labor leaders forced President Roosevelt to open up jobs to Black workers during World War II, just by preparing for a march on Washington. Clearly, mass sentiment is effective in Washington when it’s backed by the likelihood of mass action. An emergency conference of labor that prepared for a mass defense of the dockworkers might well be as effective as the projected wartime march by Black workers.

After all, ILWU President Spinosa himself has said: “Let’s be frank about what we are facing. This is a fight for the very existence of the ILWU.”

Certainly, every Labor Day march, rally, and picnic should place at its center the attack on the dockworkers and labor’s stake in the outcome of the dockworkers’ fight. The day before the resumption of contract talks on August 13, rallies called by the dockworkers will be held in several West Coast port cities. Central Labor Councils should mobilize to turn out the maximum rank and file.

Whatever the local and national labor leaders, including the AFL-CIO, do, they mustn’t be allowed to repeat the failed “strategy” of 1981, when they stood by as air controllers’ leaders were hauled away to jail in chains.

Ron Carey on Hoffa UPS Deal: Winning Gains Beyond Dollars and Cents

Statement by Ron Carey on the UPS contract

It was no secret that, going into negotiations, UPS was prepared to offer sizable wage increases to avoid a repeat of the 1997 strike. The critical question was what would our union achieve beyond economic issues to win protections for the future.

“Fighting for the Future” wasn’t just a slogan for us in 1997. It was our motivating principle. We looked down the road and said, “We can’t keep letting UPS lead Corporate America in turning good full-time jobs into part-time jobs.”

We said, “Part-Time America Won’t Work.” It sure doesn’t work for part-timers. And it doesn’t build power for full-timers when the majority of your co-workers are making about a third of full-time wages.

The union had the chance to build off the ‘97 victory at the bargaining table this year. Union contracts are not just about money. More important issues are at stake, like decent working conditions, rights, and job protections that provide security for Teamster members.

UPS has always thrown money on the table, in hopes of buying a ratification vote. In exchange, they’re after concessions and secret side-letter agreements (not to be included in the contract), which jeopardize good jobs, and hard-won conditions. We fought hard in 1997 against this kind of tactic, because we knew the value of contractual guarantees that protect members into the future.

Hoffa said he was going to make improvements in these areas. He said the big issues included pensions, unwanted overtime, closing the wage gap. But during negotiations we entered this information “black hole” and when we came out on the other end we found out we hadn’t won on any of those issues.

It looks to me like Hoffa took a shortcut. UPS had the checkbook out, trying to lure members into accepting the contract. Hoffa settled for 75 or 80 cents and the 10,000 jobs won by the union in 1997. But he handed over a six-year contract to the company. Six years is too long to wait to negotiate the improvements and protections that were left on the bargaining table, too long for the side-letter concessions and for no pension increase in the Central States.

It’s important to win gains that go beyond basic dollars and cents. It takes vision and determination. It requires constant communication with the members. And most importantly, it demands preparation and the ability to take on the tough fight.

(Editor’s Note: Ron Carey is the former General President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the leader of the victorious 1997 UPS strike. This is the first public statement to Teamsters by Ron Carey since his removal from office by federal agents, following that strike. Although a federal jury cleared Carey of all criminal charges lodged by federal prosecutors, the jury did not have jurisdiction to return Carey to the Teamsters union, despite his forty years of service. We do take satisfaction in Carey’s apparent overcoming of the legal obstacles that have silenced him. Carey’s statement is taken from the August issue of Convoy Dispatch, publication of Teamsters for a Democratic Union.)



“There were years, Omar Belazi says, when he willingly logged 65-hour weeks, stayed late to vacuum the store’s floor and clean the bathroom, or surrendered his Sundays to hit sales targets. But a decade later—after Belazi began asking his wife and father-in-law to clean his RadioShack store without pay to help him keep up—he grew tired of waiting for the payback. ‘It gets to be very stressful, very tiring...You just get up and go to RadioShack and go home and go to sleep,’ said Belazi, a former store manager for the electronics chain in Santa Barbara, Calif. ‘They gave me all these awards (for sales achievement) but it didn’t do me any good. They didn’t pay me.’”—Associated Press, July 31


“Employers have managed to erode a labor standard that it took bitter struggles over decades to establish: the eight-hour workday and 40-hour workweek, with time and a half pay for overtime. Because employers said they needed it in order to compete in a global economy, some unions have signed contracts for a 12-hour workday, mandatory overtime, with straight time for weekends.”—Harry Kelber’s Labor Talk, July 31.


“By cutting back the hours of workers without reducing the workload, employers pushed up the nation’s annual growth rate of productivity by 1.1 percent in the second quarter, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported yesterday. Though the gain was not particularly strong, it was higher than most forecasters had expected and appeared to demonstrate how skilled the private sector has become in responding rapidly to a fall-off in demand and a flattening-out of production. Rather than keep idle employees on the payroll, companies now lay them off and cut overtime so quickly that output per hour in the second quarter continued to rise despite almost no increase in production. ‘It is easy in the United States,’ said Robert J. Gordon, an economist at Northwestern University, ‘to get sharp and sudden declines in hours by laying off workers and eliminating overtime, and this contributes to healthy productivity growth in hard times.—New York Times, August 10


“The union movement’s top leaders launched plans for a national organizing summit to convene early next year. ‘The most significant challenge facing the labor movement is to reverse the decline in union density and begin growing American unions once again,’ members of the AFL-CIO Executive Council said in a statement they adopted while meeting in Chicago Aug. 6. ‘There is nothing that is more important or more urgent.’ The summit will aim to set priorities for union organizing in each sector of our economy and lay the groundwork for legal reform to ensure respect for workers’ rights. At the summit, leaders will develop plans for a political and legislative campaign to restore workers’ freedom to choose a union.”—AFL-CIO Work in Progress, August 12, 2002