As contract talks are underway between the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, a Bush Administration task force has said that if the longshore workers strike, troops of the National Guard will be sent to occupy the ports, and members of the Navy will be used to load and unload ships. But this threat has only made the workers of the ILWU more determined to fight. In the name of the “War on Terror” Bush is attempting to destroy the most fundamental gain of the Labor Movement – the right to strike.
The contract negotiations between the PMA, the association of dock and shipping owners, and the ILWU, which represents nearly 100% of workers at every port on the West Coast, takes place every three years. The ILWU has bargained as a single unit on the Pacific coast since its creation in the 1934 General Maritime Strike, although there hasn’t been a strike of any sort since 1971. At the time of the 1971 strike the primary issue was the effects of technological changes that came along with the introduction of containerization. Containerization, which not only allowed freight ships to carry more cargo that could be unloaded at a faster pace, eliminated nearly 90,000 longshore jobs, making it much more profitable to import goods from overseas. Countless industrial jobs were also lost over three decades due to the introduction of containerization. Then, as always under capitalism, new technology that could lighten the labor of the workers, allowing more time for recreation, education, etc., is used instead to throw scores into unemployment.
After 1971, the newer, more skilled jobs were totally unionized. Now even more technology is being used on the docks, mainly in the sphere of computerization. But once again, instead of using the new technology to make work easier for the longshoremen, the PMA is trying to use it to eliminate even more jobs from the waterfront as well as attempting to make the remaining jobs non-union. The PMA is, in short, attempting to destroy the ILWU. The PMA’s demands for the new contract are intentionally designed to be rejected by the ILWU. But something else has completely eclipsed what otherwise would be a ‘run-of-the-mill’ contract dispute – threatened military intervention by the state. Several months ago the PMA, along with major corporations who rely on cheap imports from Asia including Home Depot, the Gap and Mattell, formed a coalition that petitioned President Bush for assistance. The Bush Administration readily came to their aid and formed a task force that includes Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, Homeland Security director Ridge, and Secretary of Labor Chao. After meeting with the PMA and several corporations this task force contacted ILWU president James Spinosa and informed him that unless the union was prepared to accept the PMA’s demands, the government was prepared to occupy the West Coast ports with troops of the National Guard. In addition, the ports’ machinery and warehouses would then become operated by sailors of the US Navy. It has also become public that if the Bush Administration should decide not to use the military to break the strike, then either the Taft-Hartley Act may be invoked, forcing the workers to return to work for 80 days, or that the ILWU may be put under the Railway Labor Act. The RLA, which was established by Truman in the 1950s, covers only employees of America’s railways, and allows direct state intervention in possible strikes and also allows the state to impose contracts upon the workers.
The state’s reason for intervening? The ILWU was notified that any strike on the West Coast would be an act of sabotage during wartime, i.e. the so-called and open-ended “War on Terror.” Apparently workers are terrorists! This will be an awakening jolt to the American working class who now have had the true face of Bush’s war shown to them.
The ILWU immediately publicized the Administration’s threat. Instead of cowering before the threat, the ILWU as well as the AFL-CIO has marched out in force to meet the challenge. The AFL-CIO has set up its own task force to deal with the conflict and enlist the support of unions nationwide. Solidarity resolutions have already (as of 8-17) come from almost every central labor council in California, and several in Oregon and Washington state. Support has also been promised from the Teamsters union. August 12th saw AFL-CIO rallies numbering in the thousands all along the Pacific coast, with the largest being in Long Beach (3,500,) Seattle (2,000) and Los Angeles (1,500.) Although the AFL-CIO has as yet to officially counterpose the threat of military intervention with the threat of a general strike, at the very least a general longshore strike is almost guaranteed, and even a general strike cannot be ruled out.
The frustrations from attacks on democratic rights, the recession, the corporate and government scandals, and now the possible expansion of the “War on Terror” to the labor movement has reached a boiling point on the West Coast waterfront. The ILWU and AFL-CIO are prepared to fight. “President Bush, if you close down the ports, we will close down San Pedro and we will close down Long Beach ! If you take on the ILWU, you take on all of the American labor movement! If you want to challenge us, let’s get it on!” stated LA County Federation of Labor member Miguel Contreras, chairman of the Long Beach, CA rally. At the Oakland, CA, rally Chuck Mack, speaking on behalf of the Teamsters, said “There is going to be economic justice for the members of the ILWU, or there is going to be one hell of a strike that’ll involve the entire labor movement.” Trotsky once commented that when the American workers enter into a struggle they would not be content unless a few heads were cracked. The West Coast workers are certainly in that kind of mood! The trade unions have at stake their most basic right, the strike, and National Guard or not, they are refusing to back down.
Surprisingly enough, the Democratic Party has also voiced its support to the ILWU. The mayors and city councils of Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland and Tacoma have pledged ‘support’ to the union. Senate Majority Leader Daschle (D-SD,) congress members Ron Wyden (D-OR,) David Wu (D-OR,) Barbara Boxer (D-CA,) Grace Napolitino (D-CA) and Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) have also pledged even more ‘support.’ Daschle has pledged the support of Democrats nationwide, promising “We will be with you until the last day to see that you get what you deserve.” But what does the party of NAFTA, the Vietnam War and Welfare Reform really think the working class deserves? Where was the Democratic Party during the PATCO strike of 1980? Have the Democrats undergone some miraculous transformation? Hardly. These very Democrats rallied 100% behind GW Bush’s War on Terror in the first place. But in a mid-term election year it is good to use radical phraseology to continue duping the working class!
San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown throws some light on the real situation: “the collective bargaining process is the appropriate method by which labor disputes are to be resolved. It is in place. It should stay in place.” He continued to say that the federal government “certainly should not do so (intervene) by using the National Guard or any group of federal troops to replace legitimate workers.” Mayor Brown conveniently failed to mention that it is routine during the “appropriate method” of collective bargaining to have strikers locked-out, subjected to video recording and wire tapping by police, and are often simply fired or replaced by scabs. He also objected to the intervention of federal troops – what about by private security goons, state troops and the police?
Mayor Brown, as well as the rest of the Democratic Party, are not supporting the ILWU and the AFL-CIO but are instead supporting the collective bargaining process. They see the current arrangement as being the best method with which to pursue the interests of the capitalist class, their real constituency. They are objecting to President Bush’s actions only because they are slightly more far-sighted than he is, which isn’t too much. They, unlike Bush & Co., can see that such a major attack on the working class can only provoke the labor movement into action, something that they are very afraid of. The Democratic Party is a million times closer in their common interests to the Republicans than to the workers of the AFL-CIO that they are purporting to support. Any strike of the ILWU, or even more importantly any general strike, will be doomed from the outset if the Democratic Party has any role in it. The US Labor Movement may have to learn a harsh lesson on the real nature of the Democratic Party
The giant that is the US working class has largely been in hibernation for decades. When the post-war boom ended in the mid 70s and living standards and wages began to drop, the only action the AFL-CIO took was no action at all. When then-President Reagan broke up the air traffic controllers unionized in PATCO in 1980, the trade unions limited themselves to complaining to the state. But now, in 2002, due to mounting pressure form below, the AFL-CIO is finally prepared to fight back. When pressure inside of a container builds up over a long period, the inevitable explosion will only increase in its magnitude. The struggle of the ILWU and the AFL-CIO on the West Coast waterfront may be its opening burst. Once the process begins, it will expend its energy – “War on Terror” or not. If what is going on in the southern half of the Western hemisphere is any indication, there are big movements of the working class in the United States on the horizon.
What is at stake for all working people in the United States is their most fundamental right – the Right to Strike. The American working class not only has a strong democratic tradition, but a rich heritage of labor struggles as well. Countless workers over several generations have not only fought for their right to have their unions, but have died for these rights as well. Now in the aftermath of 9/11 the US working class is once again under attack, and the bosses and their unelected representative, Bush, have no other objective than the destruction of the Labor Movement. The West Coast workers have already shown that they will not allow Bush and the PMA to have their way. The rest of the country has to stand up and support them.