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).

“For the 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 Oakland, California.

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 country.”

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 Rumsfeld.

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 militant stance.

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 concessionary contract.

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.