Labor Department Dares Western Dockers to Strike


“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, S.F. Chronicle, July 23)

OAKLAND, Calif.-“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 neighborhood paper.

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 [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 the attempted intervention on the side of the shipping and terminal bosses first by Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

At the rally outside of the PMA’s upper floor offices in San Francisco’s financial district, ILWU President James Spinosa condemned the Fed’s meddling, 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 Fed’s 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 work on the docks was proceeding as usual at the same time.

As we go to press talks are expected to resume, 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, as 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 sidebar 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 trans-shipment of some $300 billion 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 controllers strike and broke the controllers union.

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 dock workers 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; that is to attempt to go over the heads of the AFL-CIO and appeal to all workers, unionized and not, to do whatever it takes (much as workers did in 1934 when the union won its right to strike) to successfully fight off the bosses and the governmental authorities.

Of course, that’s going to sound radical and risky to some workers. But then there’s a lot at stake for 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.

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