Economy & Trade, Headlines, Labour, North America | Analysis

LABOUR: Unions Fear ‘War on Terror’ Will Overcome Right to Strike

Analysis - David Bacon

SAN FRANCISCO, Aug 9 2002 (IPS) - A labour war looming on West coast U.S. docks could become the defining union conflict of the Bush era. But the traditional bargaining issues – wages, benefits and working conditions – have been pre-empted by a much more basic one: do dockers have the right to strike at all?

Union leaders fear signs that President George W. Bush will attempt to benefit from his ongoing ‘war on terror’ to label any future strike by the workers a “threat to national security”.

The implications of changing the definition of such a threat – till now the withdrawal of life-threatening or vital services such as fire fighting – are enormous: any strike that would block the operation of an industry or profitable enterprise could be made illegal.

Negotiating the West coast longshore contract every three years is usually a fractious affair, but no coast-wide strike has happened since 1971. That marked the end of one era of great technological change, when the introduction of container cranes revolutionised shipping, and reduced the number of longshore jobs from over 100,000 to its present 10,500.

Today, dockworkers look with trepidation at the beginning of another era. Decades from now, the waterfront will be largely automated. Workers in front of computer screens, often hundreds of miles away from the docks, will control the movement of cargo on and off ships.

Ports like Singapore and Rotterdam already have this new technology, and the world’s shipping companies want to introduce the same system on the Pacific coast.

That would be a difficult challenge to resolve in any round of negotiations, since the changes would eliminate many jobs, and create other new ones. But another issue has overshadowed technology in this year’s bargaining, and has every other union in the country watching closely – the Bush administration seems poised to challenge the unions’ right to strike, in a time of heightened national security.

Homeland Secretary Tom Ridge, and Labour Secretary Elaine Chao have both intervened personally to tell the union’s bargaining committee that the administration is prepared to prevent any strike, says Clarence Thomas, secretary-treasurer of Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

Elissa Pruett, media spokesperson for the Department of Labour would state only that “the department continues to monitor the negotiations”. But according to Thomas, administration officials have made it clear that in the event of a strike, Bush would at least invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, under which striking longshoremen would be ordered to return to work for 80 days.

Other steps have been discussed as well. Bush could call on Congress to designate the union under the Railway Labour Act, instead of the National Labour Relations Act. Under the NLRA, the union now has a clear right to strike. Under the RLA, the government can order an end to any threatened strike, and impose a contract if the union does not agree.

Bush has already threatened to use this act to force settlements at Northwest Airlines on terms favouring the employer, according to the unions involved.

Department of Labour sources told the Los Angeles Times that the union’s coast-wide bargaining structure could also be declared an illegal monopoly.

All West coast ports have worked under a single contract since the end of the 1934 general maritime strike, in which the ILWU was born. The single agreement has not only equalised conditions, but given union members a great deal of bargaining leverage, since a strike closes all ports at the same time.

The threatened administration action would mean that if the union struck one port, shippers could simply load and unload their cargo in another, making a strike pointless.

Finally, the administration might replace striking longshoremen with Navy personnel to work the huge cargo cranes that load and offload the giant shipping containers.

Thomas says the union was told this would only happen in wartime, but since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington last Sep. 11, Bush has declared that a state of war exists and will go on indefinitely.

Long before negotiations began, shipping companies and the large corporations dependent on trans-Pacific vessels, like The Gap, Mattel and Home Depot, formed a coalition that approached Bush for help.

The government set up a task force to meet the businesses, headed by White House advisor Carlos Bonilla. Meanwhile, a steady media drumbeat announced that a waterfront strike would send the economy into a tailspin.

Wages and benefits are not the issue in these negotiations. The hourly rate for longshore workers ranges from 27.68 dollars to 33.48 dollars – about the same as a plumber or electrician. According to the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents the shipping companies and negotiates with the ILWU, the employers paid benefits worth more than 32 thousand dollars per worker in 2002, about 16 dollars per hour.

Most California longshore workers are African-American and Latino, and longshore jobs have become an economic backbone in many communities of colour. And while these are good wages in terms of the U.S. industrial average, the shipping companies are in general making large profits.

But what they would like is to keep certain workers out of the union – the vessel planners who tell the cranes where to place every shipping container, the clerical workers who help track container movement, and the drivers who haul containers in and out of the ports.

Workers in these categories in many ports have already joined the ILWU, or tried to, attracted by its high wage rates. The union wants to include them in all ports, to make up for the potential loss of jobs among the clerks who currently track cargo manually. PMA negotiators have said no. The union looks at this as an issue of its own survival.

“As work changes, some jobs disappear, while others increase,” explains ILWU spokesperson Steve Stallone. “Right now, our jobs are the ones disappearing. When the companies say they don’t want our members doing these new jobs, it’s like saying they want the union to disappear too.”

In the late 1960s, the PMA reached an historic agreement on the same issue with the ILWU’s most charismatic leader, Harry Bridges. The union accepted the introduction of new technology, which cost jobs, while the shipping companies agreed that union members would do the new jobs that technology created.

The PMA now seems ready to abandon that agreement, which held for three decades, and a labour war on the docks is on the horizon.

In 1982, the rest of the labour movement complained when the controllers were replaced. But when William Winpisinger, then-head of the International Association of Machinists, called on unions to support them, the rest of labour did little more than mount picket lines.

They paid a heavy price over the next 20 years when their own striking members were replaced.

This time the AFL-CIO has set up its own task force to help the ILWU, hoping to prevent a defeat on the docks and its consequences.

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