Labor Dept. Dares West Coast Dockers to Strike
by Charles Walker
This article was posted by the webmaster of the “Labor
Tuesday” website on Friday, July 26. The PMA referred to is the Pacific
Maritime Association, the alliance of multinational shipping corporations and
terminal owners now engaged in contract negotiations with the West Coast
dockworkers of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).
past several years PMA President Joseph Miniace has been pushing hard for an
increased role of the federal government in the maritime industry. The agenda:
restrict trade union power on the docks by banning the right to strike. Since
Sept. 11 their lobbying has borne strange fruit.”
—ILWU Business Agent Jack Heyman, op-ed page, San Francisco Chronicle, July 23
“Why should the PMA negotiate seriously when the Bush
administration says, ‘Don’t worry, we will take care of these guys at the
ILWU.’ That’s the situation we are facing,” said Steve Stallone, media
spokesperson for the West Coast longshore workers union, according to a report
carried Friday by the Montclarion, a twice-weekly neighborhood paper in
The paper reported, “After a recent exchange of
proposals failed to move dock workers and shippers closer to settling current
contact negotiations, federal officials have threatened to step in with measures
that could severely curtail the maritime union’s bargaining powers.
“Calls from the Department of Labor threatening the
International Longshore and Warehouse Union [ILWU] with legislation that could
impose binding arbitration—measures that would force the union to give up its
collective-bargaining powers and the right to strike—have alarmed unions
throughout the state, according to Steve Stallone.”
Stallone was further quoted as saying, “The Bush
administration is using the 9-11 scare as a way to try to take away union rights
and come after the ILWU, because we are one of the stronger unions in the
country. That’s why we had a demonstration today [Wed., July 23] to say it is
a top priority for the labor movement and for the sake of all workers in this
For weeks the talks have been complicated by attempted
government intervention on the side of the shipping and terminal bosses, first
by Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and then by Defense Secretary Donald
At the rally outside the PMA’s upper floor offices in
San Francisco’s financial district, ILWU President James Spinosa condemned the
meddling by the Feds, saying, “The government has to get out of these
negotiations.” Speakers from other union bodies, including Linda
Chavez-Thompson, Executive Vice President of the AFL-CIO, echoed Spinosa’s
However, militant speeches at such labor rallies are
expected by the ranks, and they’re seldom disappointed. Given the Feds’
backstopping of the PMA’s play at the bargaining table, it seems certain that
the shipping interests are not likely to be persuaded to back off by a noontime
rally of some thousand unionists, especially when, at the same time, work on the
docks was proceeding as usual.
Talks are expected to resume next week, but at what
pace remains to be seen. To date the longshore negotiators have made a critical
concession, agreeing to the abolition of several hundred dock jobs; but the
bosses have not responded to the union’s concessions, by offering their own
concessions on jobs, demanded by the union.
A union report to its members described the ILWU’s
concession as “a sweeping technological package that would save the employers
millions in cost savings and increased productivity. The union was asking for
jurisdiction over all remaining work and planning positions that have been
outsourced to other workforces...The gains that the employers have been offered
far outweigh the Union’s demands.”
The result should be embarrassing to the union.
Normally, union bargainers don’t move on such a key item, without determining
(if only in a hallway discussion) that the other side is prepared to offer the
union a quid pro quo.
Now that the union has offered the concession, the
genie is out of the bottle, and the union’s bargaining options are diminished.
Given the union’s history, it’s hard to predict that the ranks, nearly
11,000-strong and controlling a critical crossroads for the yearly transshipment
of some $300 billion worth of goods, would agree to the one-sided concession
without a strike to test their strength.
But a strike or an employer-led lockout seemingly means
that the government would then intervene, and the entire labor movement would be
put to a test, not unlike the test the labor movement failed when the government
smashed the famous air traffic controllers’ strike and broke their union,
PATCO, in 1981.
It’s hard to believe that the ILWU officers really
expect the AFL-CIO to back them up all the way. Yet that may well be what the
dockworkers will need to avoid a humiliating loss, the imposition of a
There is one other option, if the AFL-CIO doesn’t go
to bat for them, and that is to attempt to go over the heads of the AFL-CIO
leadership and appeal to all workers, unionized and not, to do whatever it takes
to fight off the bosses and the government authorities—much as workers did in
1934, when the union won its right to strike.
Of course that’s going to sound radical and risky to
some workers. But then there’s a lot at stake for all workers. In the words of
the ILWU’s Stallone, “Everybody knows if the ILWU gets hammered, every other
union contract is in jeopardy.”
Ultimately, it’s up to the ranks to decide to strike.
Of course, they could be so boxed in by tough bosses, phony politicians, and
unreliable allies that they have no realistic choice.