Commentary by Mumia Abu-Jamal: War on the Waterfront


In times of war, even one so nebulous as the “War On Terrorism”, there are wars within wars. Wars not merely fought abroad, but little, internal wars of interests battling for dominance.

With the elevation of George W. Bush to the nation’s highest office by the Supreme Court, business interests know they have “their guy” in the White House, and they are now trying to change the rules of the game, using government muscle, and federal power, to threaten labor into compliance with their bosses’ interests.

This can be seen clearest in the struggle between the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA, the waterfront employers) and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU, the unionized workers).

The PMA allowed the labor contract to expire on July 1, 2002, and has issued harsh demands to the unions that would seriously undermine long-standing, and hard-fought labor rights. The PMA wants to introduce new technology into the shipping industry, which the ILWU has agreed to; but the PMA wants to use these technologies to circumvent the time-honored union hiring hall, a move that cuts into pivotal union power.

The union hiring hall didn’t always exist; it came into being as a result of long, hard, deadly struggles, organized not by union leaders, but by everyday rank-and-file ILWU members, who pushed the Great Maritime Strike of 1934 into labor history.

Historian Howard Zinn writes: “…[L]ongshoremen on the West Coast, in a rank-and-file insurrection … held a convention, demanded the abolition of the shape-up (a kind of early-morning slave market where work gangs were chosen for the day), and went out on strike. Two thousand miles of coastline were quickly tied up.

“The teamsters cooperated, refusing to truck cargo to the piers, and maritime workers joined the strike. When the police moved in to open the piers, the strikers resisted en masse, and two were killed by police gunfire. A mass funeral procession for the strikers brought together tens of thousands of supporters. And then a general strike was called in San Francisco, with 130,000 workers out, the city immobilized.” (See “A Peoples History of the United States,” pp. 386-7.)

While union organizers recall it was six strikers killed by cops, the point remains that the hiring hall wasn’t a gift bestowed by the bosses, but a right won by blood and death. The PMA wants to computerize it away, to distant points like Utah, Arizona, and even overseas!

Another tool of the wealthy owners has been the corporate press, which has falsely portrayed the longshoremen as if they were pro baseball players, making over $100,000 a year, when, in fact, their average wage is closer to half that. While the ILWU quite rightly takes pride in the fact that it has fought for decent wages for its members (over 70 percent of whom are African American or Latino in the San Francisco/Oakland ports), the PMA’s tactic is designed to stir up labor envy in the midst of a falling, and faltering economy.

Into this simmering labor conflict now comes “Unconstitutional Tom” Ridge, the stone-faced Homeland Security Czar, and guess on whose side? Czar Ridge placed a less-than-veiled threatening call to Jim Spinosa, ILWU president. The message? A breakdown in talks (not to mention a strike!) threatens “national security.”

Why isn’t it ever that when a worker, or even thousands of workers, faces job loss, that is a “national security” threat? Why isn’t job security “national security”? How is it in the “interests” of a nation to abolish a hard-fought right that labor won through terrible battle?

Despite the whines of the wealthy and the bloats of the corporate press, the ILWU has every right to hold firm in the face of this state-managerial assault on their glorious traditions.

The radical writer Randolph Bourne once observed, “War is the health of the state.” By this, he meant that governments accrue tremendous powers during war, and rarely, if ever, return power to the people.

The ILWU should fight, and fight hard, in its noble tradition, against this new-age “shape-up” scheme pushed at them by management, and threatened by the Bush regime. The ILWU, with the aid and assistance of sister unions, can once again teach an historic lesson, that “Labor security is national security.”

© Copyright MAJ 2002

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