BUSH VS. LABOR
By Dick Meister
President Bush's invoking of the Taft-Hartley Act to halt a lockout of
West Coast dockworkers clearly is part of an attempt by Bush and his
corporate allies to cripple the country's strongest and most progressive
union and to weaken U.S. unions generally.
I know that sounds like hyperbolic union propaganda, but the facts lead
nowhere else. Bush and friends obviously are out to get the San Francisco-
based International Longshore and Warehouse Union. And if they manage to
seriously hurt the formidable ILWU, they undoubtedly will try to do the same
to less powerful unions.
Certainly the Il-day lockout that led to Bush's action on Oct. 8 was
harming the economy. But though that might have been enough to justify
presidential intervention in other circumstances, in this case it meant
giving employers a great advantage in the stalemated contract negotiations
between the ILWU and employers' Pacific Maritime Association, or PMA.
The major retailers, manufacturers, agribusiness interests and others
who rely on West Coast ports for shipping and receiving goods and supplies
lobbied hard for Bush's intervention and the 80-day back-to-work order that
came with it. They were quite aware that the PMA had imposed the lockout in
order to create a crisis that would give Bush an excuse to intervene.
His intervention blocks the ILWU from striking to enforce its contract
demands during the busy holiday season that's the most lucrative time of the
year for the PMA's customers and the highly profitable shipping lines and
terminal operators who belong to the association.
Intervention also guarantees that employers won't have to negotiate
seriously with the ILWU on a new contract until at least the end of the
year. The momentum of what had been the union's militant drive for a
favorable new contract will be slowed, as will the efforts of its many
supporters in the labor movement and the political left here and abroad.
In the meantime, the pay and benefits of dockworkers will remain at the
old contract rates rather than at the higher levels they are sure to reach
in a new contract.
There's more, too: The Taft-Hartley Act subjects the ILWU to fines if
members continue to engage in what the PMA and the White House call
"slowdowns," but the ILWU calls strict adherence to safety rules in light
ofthe unusually high incidence of injuries and deaths among dockworkers.
Also keep in mind that the PMA's main purpose has not been to reach a
fairly bargained agreement on dockworkers' compensation. Rather, it has
been to try to strip the ILWU of the right to represent all longshore
workers and allocate work among them that has been its primary strength.
Currently, it's generally employers who determine how many workers they
want for particular jobs, but it's dispatchers at union hiring halls who
decide who the workers will be, using a system that's designed to spread
work evenly among ILWU members.
That share-and-share-alike approach among workers and reliance on the union
rather than employers for their work assignments is very rare.
But, however reluctantly, employers for many years accepted the unusual
situation. And why not? Although granting workers unprecedented rights --
and pay and benefits that have reached an average of $120,000 a year -- they
have reaped handsome profits from the workers' efforts.
The most profitable of employers' agreements with the ILWU, reached in 1960,
allowed them to introduce containerization and a broad range of other
labor-saving changes in cargo handling. In exchange, they granted extra
retirement pay and other benefits to those who lost their jobs because of
the changes, substantial pay and benefit raises to those remaining and gave
the ILWU jurisdiction over the new work created by the new technology.
Eventually, the workforce was cut nearly in half while the amount of cargo
handled grew tenfold.
But now employers are seeking to catch up with a new wave of technology that
has given many foreign ports a competitive edge. They've seized on that as
a pretense for trying to greatly weaken the ILWU and reduce the compensation
and union rights of a key part of their workforce.
The PMA wants the job of routing, tracking and inspecting cargo, now largely
done manually by on-site clerks, shifted to clerks working at video screens
far from the docks. They'd rely on a host of computer devices to increase
and speed up cargo movement and ease dockside congestion.
The ILWU does not oppose the new technology. But the union is opposing --
and fiercely -- the PMA's plan to contract out the new work to companies
using cheap non-union computer operators rather than ILWU members.
"It's straight-up union-busting," says ILWU spokesman Steve Stallone. "We're
fighting for our very survival here.
Richard Trumpka, the AFL-CIO's secretary treasurer, says it sends this
message to all employers: "Don't negotiate, because the federal government
will come in and help you."
It's no wonder, as Trumka says, that labor is "absolutely furious" about
President Bush's action. Not since the notoriously anti-union days of
Ronald Reagan has there been such a blatant presidential attack on the basic
American right of unionization.
Copyright 2002 Dick Meister, a freelance columnist in San Francisco who
has covered labor issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and