ILWU Dockworkers Need an Emergency Conference of Labor!


West Coast dockworkers, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), find themselves facing the combined enmity of their bosses and the political and military power of the world’s dominant state and the ruling class that stands behind it.

The shipping bosses act like they have the high ground, demanding a long list of concessions, says James Spinosa, ILWU president: “Every proposal they [the bosses] have brought to the table was full of takeaways. They didn’t leave anything out, from maintenance of [medical] benefits, to the dispatch hall, to the arbitration system and the workplace.”

The dockworkers’ leaders have attempted to avoid the full brunt of the bosses’ attack by conceding the jobs of several hundred workers, asking in return that the union’s jurisdiction over shipping container yards away from the waterfront and certain computerized work be recognized by the shipping and terminal bosses. But the bosses spurned the ILWU’s offer.

When the union negotiators asked for and received from an 82-member union body the authority to take a strike vote at some unspecified time, the corporate press responded by publicizing a callous battle plan, drawn up by the Bush administration, in consultation with the bosses. Should the union strike, or its members even be accused of slowing the pace of work, the press reported, the federal government would intervene up to and including the military takeover of the docks.

“Soon after negotiations between dockworkers and shipping lines began in mid-May,” the Aug. 5 Los Angeles Times revealed, “the White House convened a working group to monitor them, with representatives from the departments of Commerce, Labor and Transportation and the Office of Homeland Security.

“[A]n internal memo from an employers association shows that the White House group met with representatives of shipping lines and major retailers during its formation, on June 4. At the time, officials solicited ideas for ‘concrete steps the administration might take to back up strong statements’ it might make to the union. Employers were given a direct phone line to senior economics advisor Carlos Bonilla.”

While the joint government and dock bosses’ strategy has a short-term goal of breaking a dockworkers’ strike in order to facilitate the acceptance of a concessionary contract, the LA Times reported there’s also a long-term goal of breaking-up “the coast-wide bargaining unit into bargaining by individual ports. That would allow shippers to stagger contract expiration dates, eliminating the threat of a coast-wide action, and thus would allow cargo to be diverted to neighboring ports in the event of a strike.”

The Bush administration has not just talked with the bosses, but also to the union’s leadership. The LA Times reported that the feds have “made almost daily phone calls” to the ILWU, laying out four “options,” a weasel word for the threats: First, the declaration of a national emergency and the invoking of the Taft-Hartley Act to delay a strike for 80 days.

Second, running the ports with Navy personnel. Third, breaking up the ILWU coast-wide bargaining unit. Fourth, bringing the union under the Railway Labor Act, which “gives courts and the administration far more power to prevent strikes and impose contract settlements than does the National Labor Relations Act, which governs most private sector labor negotiations.”

The Los Angeles Times report concluded, “National labor leaders, including the AFL-CIO, are watching the ILWU talks closely as a bellwether for future negotiations in which the White House also might intervene.”

Dockworkers and their leaders must be hoping that the national labor leaders, including the AFL-CIO, are doing more than just watching the contract talks that may have reached an impasse and the union officials are doing more than noting the politicians’ threats that imperil the dockworkers and their union.

That “strategy” was followed by the national labor leaders, including the AFL-CIO, when the air controllers wouldn’t roll over in 1980; and, as is widely acknowledged, that “strategy” failed all U.S. workers. It’s often said that the air controllers’ dismal fate was sealed when the AFL-CIO, headed by Lane Kirkland, ignored the air controllers’ plight, as though all U.S. workers didn’t have a stake in the outcome of the air controllers’ battle. Even more often it’s said that the breaking of the air controllers union sent a signal to corporate America that it was open season on unions and workers’ standard of living.

If it’s admitted that all workers have a stake in the outcome of the dockworkers’ unequal confrontation with the shipping bosses, many of whom are foreign-owned companies, and the Bush administration that admittedly is preparing to play the Carter-Reagan anti-labor card, than all workers should have a say in how the battle is conducted.

Of course, that’s not feasible, except through a vote by workers. But it is feasible for the national labor leaders, including the AFL-CIO, to call an emergency conference of unions and workers to discuss the government’s attack on the dockworkers and to democratically decide on a course of action to protect the vital interests of all U.S. workers that are at stake.

Whatever the local and national labor leaders, including the AFL-CIO, do, they mustn’t be allowed to repeat the failed “strategy” of 1980, when they stood by as air controllers’ leaders were hauled away to jail in chains.


At press time, the dockworkers have secured a tentative agreement from the bosses on union demands covering health care benefits for active workers and retirees.

Weeks ago, the union agreed to give up several hundred jobs, but they are seeking jurisdiction over new work to provide the union with a net gain of jobs.

For now, the odds of a coastwide strike have lessened, but the threat of government intervention, including the use of military personnel to move cargo, still looms over the negotiations.

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