Another PATCO in the Making?

Bush Using “National Security” Against West Coast Dockers
All Out Mobilization Needed to Defend Union Rights

The following are “quick phone conversations conducted today, August 6, in preparation for radio features for Free Speech Radio News and the Workers Independent News Service (also radio) affiliated with the University of Wisconsin at Madison.” The interviewer, MB, is Martha Baskin, who speaks first with Steve Stallone of the dockworkers and then with a professor from the state of Washington.

The ILWU, International Longshore and Warehouse Union, represents 10,500 West Coast dockworkers currently in negotiations with the multinational shipping corporations and terminal owners united in the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA).

Steve Stallone, press spokesperson for the ILWU and editor of the union’s newspaper, The Dispatcher (San Francisco): There is a secret White House Task Force that was set up to oversee and monitor the longshore negotiations. It consists of officials from the Department of Labor (DOL), the Department of Defense (DOD), the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, and Homeland Security. They contacted the ILWU in mid-June, and they basically laid a number of threats on the union.

They wanted us to settle the contract negotiations quickly, and if we didn’t, they said they could: (1) invoke a Taft-Hartley injunction, which is an 80-day “cooling-off” period, which just means nobody can go on strike or take any actions; you have to continue to work under the old contract and after 80 days you’re just back at the same thing—just a delaying situation, not a big deal. It was [initiated by] Taft in 1948, Senators Taft and Hartley—basically a way in the beginning of the Cold War days to weaken the power of labor unions and it has numerous things in it that weaken the power of labor.

(2) They threatened to back up the Taft-Hartley injunction with new legislation that would basically take away the ILWU’s rights to collective bargaining and our right to strike.

(3) They threatened new legislation that would break up our coastwide contract. We have one contract that covers the entire coast. They claim we have a “monopoly.” So now the union is supposedly in “violation” of antitrust laws.

And (4), most ominously, they threatened to send National Guard troops to militarily take over all the ports on the West Coast.

So that’s what we’re facing here—let’s just go through these threats. Taft-Hartley is no big deal. We’ve been Taft-Hartleyed before. That just postpones things. It doesn’t destroy the union.

But special legislation to take away our right to bargain collectively and our right to strike—these are rights that were granted to American workers with the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. The NLRA is a landmark civil rights act for workers. It says workers have the right to form unions, the legal right to bargain collectively, and the legal right to strike.

MB: And yet no threat of a strike has been made on your part.

Stallone: Yeah, how about that. But they basically want to take away what is pretty much the only power a union has. Understand that we’re talking about 10,000 blue-collar workers versus an employer association of 79 multinational, multibillion-dollar companies.

MB: Such as?

Stallone: Such as Sealand, Mersk, Stevedoring Services of America. You can look them up on the PMA’s web site. And Bush is intervening on their behalf.

People should also understand that almost none of those are American companies. There’s a handful—you can count them on the fingers of one hand. Out of those 79 companies, only five are American. But for them Bush is going to take away the civil rights of American workers.

MB: So from your point of view, what’s behind this?

Stallone:  This is a situation that Bush is using. The new Bush policy appears to be that union rights equal a “national security” threat. You just take a look at what’s holding up the Homeland Security Bill that’s in Congress. Bush wants to be able to take away the union rights and the rights of collective bargaining of the government workers who are being moved into the homeland security department, rights they have in their current positions. Bush has already taken away the union rights of hundreds of workers in the Justice Department last January because of national security, or so he said. The Bush administration has a bill currently pending in Congress that says airline industry workers and their unions won’t have the right to collectively bargain. So we’re next. They’re going to try and take away our rights and basically pick off unions one by one.

I want to emphasize what we’re looking at here—with an attorney from the DOL contacting our people and laying these threats out. If you’d like to talk to him, I’ll give you his name. His name is Andrew Sift, of the Department of Labor in D.C. He has contacted the union and he has laid these threats on us. The first contacts were in mid-June even before the contract expired. They decided they had to step in,

MB: And since then he’s been contacting you more regularly?

Stallone: Yes, on a daily basis. Well, he says he wants the contract settled. But here’s the situation. The PMA is not negotiating. Why should they negotiate? They know the government is threatening us. There’s absolutely no incentive for them to negotiate a deal if they know they have the government standing there saying, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of these guys for you; you don’t have to do anything.” That’s why every proposal the PMA has put on the table has been a proposal designed to be rejected. They don’t want a deal. They never wanted a deal and they still aren’t bargaining seriously. That’s why we’re getting nowhere. Instead of helping to solve this situation Bush’s intervention is making the situation impossible.

They’re trying to say it’s necessary because if we were to go on strike, it would endanger the economy. Well, right now the economy is being endangered by Bush’s pals at Enron, WorldCom, and all their scandals and bankruptcies. That’s what’s making the stock market crash, not the ILWU. Following Bush’s logic he should be sending troops to Wall Street.

So the union is going public with this, and the only thing we can do is let the rest of the world know the madness that is Bush administration policy—and to create a movement in this country to put the pressure on Bush to get out – get out of our negotiations, let the legal collective bargaining process proceed.

MB: Do you think that this has been the PMA’s understanding from the get-go, a quid pro quo from the White House?

Stallone:  Yes, for more than a couple of years Joe Miniace (CEO of the Pacific Maritime Association) has been spending most of his time in Washington, D.C., working on this.

MB: With the ultimate goal of breaking the union?

Stallone: Absolutely, absolutely. And Miniace knows that this is his best opportunity in the post-911 era, with the paranoia and the national security hysteria and the Bush administration willing to back him. This is the best chance he’s ever had to bust the union.

MB: And so what are the odds?

Stallone:  Well, it’s not like we’re going down without a fight. And we have allies. Right now the executive committee of the AFL-CIO is meeting in Chicago. The

AFL-CIO has vowed to make this contract negotiation the top priority of the American labor movement. They are putting all their resources at our disposal to make a national movement out of this. We will not just be going public like this and putting the word out to the rest of the world. We will be doing this in a way to try and get support from all our congressional representatives and Senators with the goal of them signing a pledge in support of the ILWU’s legal rights, to try and make it impossible for Bush to follow through on his threats to pass legislation. To make it politically unfeasible for him to act to put troops on the docks.

MB: Was that really an option?

Stallone: It was one of the things Andrew Sift said to us (the attorney from the Department of Labor). He said these are the things that the task force [is considering], this secret White House Task Force that we didn’t even know about until they contacted us, though we got hold of an internal memo of one of the employer groups about their meeting with the secret task force. They’re holding meetings with them and we didn’t even know this task force existed.

So where was I going with this? (I’ve been doing this since 6:30 this morning.)

MB: Your strategy of reaching out to the public will be revealed in the rally next week?

Stallone: Yeah, we will have rallies in the major port cities on the West Coast in which we will be making the point to get Bush out of our negotiations, so that business can proceed. Just to show you where we’re going, the rally in Portland will feature a guest speaker, Senate Majority Leader Tom Dashchle. The AFL-CIO has some clout; they have some resources. And like I said, the American labor movement is drawing a line in the sand on this situation. Because if they can take out the ILWU when our contract comes up, they can take out every union as their contracts come up.

[Note by MB: We talk about who (else) to talk to in the ILWU. Details of rally on August 12, etc.]

[Apparently that is the end of the interview with Steve Stallone. Martha Baskin next interviews a professor from the University of Washington.]

David Olson, political science professor, University of Washington: What do we know? What I know is what I’m being told by other parties—some of it anonymous, some not—the creation of the special task force within the commerce, labor, and homeland security departments, and transportation, the monitoring of talks, the threat of bringing in the national guard—this is truly unprecedented. You’ve got to go back to 1948, and I’m not sure that ‘48 even measures up to this one.

What’s disturbing about it is this administration, which has surrounded itself with secrecy in so many different areas is also surrounding itself with secrecy on this one, and if they have a plan, they are doing this behind closed doors, and the facts of the matter are that over the last 30 years—every three-year cycle—the ILWU and the PMA go into collective bargaining. The facts are that they rarely reach an agreement before the contract expires. The facts are there has been no slowdown as reported by the PMA or by the shippers or by the steamship lines in the months that have elapsed.

So what’s the rationale here? The rationale appears to be that if the ILWU goes on a strike, which they have not threatened to do at this point, or if they engage in a slowdown, that it will compromise the nation’s economy or maybe even the international economy. But what’s wrong with this argument is that since the contract expired the ILWU has continued to work, as they have in past years. It’s part of the collective bargaining process. It goes on until September or October—and now we find out that the White House has surreptitiously put together a task force that has developed a set of policies that are intended to attack the ILWU.

The coastwide contract was won in the 1934 strike. That and the hiring hall are sacred to the ILWU. If this administration comes after the coastwide contract, this administration will do more to upset and harm the nation’s economy, because these are fighting words. And this is a group of workers who are not going to accept a breach of the coastwide contract. It is one of the two fundamental principles of that organization. So I’m aghast.

The two principles that came out of the 1934 strike were, first, that the workers would be hired out of a hiring hall and that hall would be jointly operated by the union and the employer. That’s sacred. It replaced the old shape-up system where workers would come down to the docks and the boss would choose, and he would not pick people who were in favor of unions or caused trouble.

The second sacred principle to the ILWU is the coastwide contract. If longshore workers were organized in one of the ports of the West Coast and not in another, the shipper would simply leapfrog from one to the other and effectively bust the strike. This happened in 1912, this happened in 1906, in 1896, in 1892, and one of the brilliant moves of Harry Bridges was to insist on a coastwide contract that the ILWU, the longshore division, would negotiate, a master contract that would cover everything from San Diego to Bellingham.

If this national administration goes after the coastwide contract, these are fighting words. We’re going to go back to 1934 all over again, and in 1934 there were deaths in S.F and Seattle. In Los Angeles there were long protracted struggles. Nothing could act more quickly to disturb the nation’s economy than an attack on the coastwide contract.

But it’s not just the coastwide contract. They’re threatening to bring in military personnel to operate the cargo-handling facilities on the docks. This is absurd. The ILWU is one of the most highly trained, technically advanced work forces in the country. Operating a container crane or operating the vehicles that move the cargo around the dock is an extremely skilled occupation that takes years of experience, working up from B-men to A-men, becoming a regular in the longshore union.

It’s also very dangerous. Longshoring used to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, up there with mining and farming. The skill level of the longshore workers is such that, even though it’s still dangerous, you don’t see the kind of deaths and injuries that previously were there. So are they going to bring rookies out of the military and put them on the dock, unloading 6,000-ton container ships? This is absolutely absurd. It’s insanity.

I can only surmise that this administration views the longshore union as too powerful, as too militant, as too rank-and-file-controlled, as too racially integrated, as too threatening to some kind of object in the economic system, and they’ve chosen to throw the sword down. When you do this on the docks the sword is going to bounce back up again, and we’re talking about a major conflagration on the waterfront.

MB: And you think that even now in the year 2002 that would be manifest?

Olson: If this administration does what I’ve just been talking about, I am 100% confident that we would have warfare on the docks.

MB: What do you think the administration is about here? (The ILWU has its own thoughts on the matter.) Are they actually trying to break one of the country’s remaining powerful unions?

Olson: Well, this administration does not like strong trade unions. And this is a strong trade union. They do not like militant trade unions. And this is a militant trade union. They do not like internationally-oriented trade unions. They love globalized capital. But they hate globalized labor. This is an internationally-oriented union.

The Bush administration doesn’t particularly seem in favor of racially desegregating the work force. This is a union that did that in 1934.

So I can only surmise that this administration has viewed the expiration of the contract as a rationale for breaking the coastwide contract, for replacing the existing workers, and if that’s their calculus, they have made a terrible, terrible mistake that is going to redound—everybody loses, the workers lose, the employers lose, the national government will lose, international commerce will lose, shippers will lose, the freight forwarders will lose. There are no winners in this. Except for some ideologically driven policy wonks in some third-level position in the bureaucracy in D.C.

Here’s my guess about this task force.  I don’t know if you saw the AP story today that Strope put out. (Reads from the story.) “‘The Bush administration has convened a special task force together with officials from commerce, labor, transportation, and homeland and has been exploring federal intervention, monitoring talks, and meeting with both sides,’ the official said, insisting on anonymity. (That’s an official of this special task force.) The administration is exploring several options to intervene to keep cargo moving, although the most likely is for President Bush to declare a national and economic emergency forcing a strike delay for 80 days.”

So that’s my take on where things are at here. It’s not a pretty picture. It’s not a pretty picture, no. Apparently the AFL-CIO is getting fairly involved here. What you want to watch is the Teamsters. Jimmy Hoffa was invited back in April—I think you and I actually talked about this in May.

MB: Yes, we did, and I was just going to bring that up.

Olson: And I thought this was going to be the security they were going to have to buffer themselves from the White House, but apparently not.

MB: Well, I guess you perhaps have to remember Hoffa’s roots in that regard.

Olson: Well, I’m not sure. When the contract expired Hoffa appeared in solidarity with Spinosa from the ILWU, and I’m just not sure quite what’s going on there. I think it’s too easy to say he’s folded up his tent and walked.

MB: Yeah, but then you also have to look at the history. Way, way back. The history of the Teamsters and the longshore union, and that’s certainly not a good one.

Olson: That’s true, but in the 1934 strike Dave Beck called the Teamsters off the docks, and there was a great rivalry between Beck and Bridges in the 1934 strike, and it’s unclear what would have happened if Beck had not pulled the Teamsters off the docks. I was speculating with some other labor folks, who were saying that one thing about Hoffa is if he wanted the longshore contract for the Teamsters, he certainly would get it with this administration. But Hoffa has been party to the negotiations since back in April.

I think labor more generally is going to be threatened by this. But the ILWU is the most militant union in the country. The most democratic in the country, the most rank-and-file-controlled in the country. If the Bush administration is asking for a fight on this one, they’re going to get it. And they’re going to lose it.