In the old days," according to an unofficial International
Longshore and Warehouse Union's Web site, maintained by the Seattle-area
Local 19, "labor was often recruited at the last minute by
shoreside criers calling: 'Men along the shore!'-giving rise to
the term 'longshoremen.' The work was brutal, conditions unsafe,
employment irregular, and the pay too low to support a family."
Some things have not changed. Union leaders and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) have reached a deal on pension
and widow benefits, outsourcing, technology and health care. But the history of the lockout cannot be forgotten. What began as
an attempt to preserve worker safety became a story of arrogant power plays and unmitigated challenges-from the Pacific Maritime Association and the U.S. government-against worker rights. And once it was over, nothing was done to ensure that history (or implementation of the Taft-Hartly Act) wouldn't be repeated.
Between March and September of 2002, five dockworkers were killed on the West Coast "in gruesome ways: impaled, legs ripped off, decapitation because they were forced to work faster and disregard basic safety guidelines," said a member of ILWU Local 19. (The workers interviewed for this article agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity.) Alarmed that the Pacific Maritime Association wants to eliminate major portions of the safety code, the ILWU criticized the PMA's reluctance to provide workers with basic safety equipment, including fall protection harnesses, safety vests and respiratory masks. "They want us to pay for our gear," observed one longshoreman. "The more people that get killed in accidents, the more money PMA saves in pensions."
While trying to follow the existing safety measures, workers were accused of a "slowdown" by the PMA, a trade association that represents transnational shipping interests. "Speeding up our work increases their profits but puts our lives in danger," said one ILWU local. "We pissed them off for simply following safety guidelines that they themselves authored!"
The PMA subsequently locked out the ILWU workers on Sept. 27. As a result, shipping commerce on the West Coast of the United States came to a grinding halt, costing billions of dollars in lost revenue as thousands of cargo ships remained stranded for 12 days on the Pacific Coast.
In addition to ignoring safety standards, PMA also attempted to slash jobs, cut medical benefits and undermine the union's hiring procedures by overriding the ILWU's "hiring hall and fair dispatch system" to employ nonunion labor. Long-shore workers had established the "hiring hall" in 1934, after one of the most important and bitter labor strikes of the 20th century, during which West Coast ports were paralyzed from May 9 to July 31, 1934. The struggle pitted the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA)- which several Pacific Coast locals left in 1937 to form the ILWU-against the goon squads and militias of the Industrial Association, financed by banking and shipping interests. "Bloody Thursday" resulted in the deaths of four striking longshoreman after 10,000 troops were dispatched to crush the strike in San Francisco. When employers refused to bargain, longshoremen struck to demand a coast-wide contract, with wage and hour improvements and an end to unfair labor practices such as "the speed-up." Another key demand was hiring all longshoremen through halls maintained and operated by unions, not bosses, and that "the dispatcher shall be selected by the International Longshoremen's Association." This victory was described by Gerry Bulcke, a veteran of the 1934 strike: "We had a new sense of our worth, of our power as workers."
It's a sense of power that the PMA has a vested interest in undermining, along with hard-won union victories. "PMA repre-sents the interests of global shipping magnates, not local workers. You could call them the WTO of transportation," said an ILWU worker. World Trade Organization officials, in fact, hold high positions in the PMA. Joseph Miniace, the CEO of PMA, is also the special liaison for transportation policy for Michael Moore, head of the WTO. Miniace is also special counsel for transportation policy to the WTO trade court: an institution designed to dismantle labor and environmental protections that restrict international trade.
The PMA's actions, according to the ILWU, are not legal in the United States or Europe. The ILWU has taken the PMA and various shipping lines to court in over 20 separate legal actions. "But the law is irrelevant when capital can override local protections," said a longshoreman.
| "I've been a longshoreman
for 37 years and this was my first lockout. I think what they
did backfired on them. Local 19 hung together and after it was
over we prevailed. I was proud of our union."
Although it was the PMA that disrupted shipping by locking out the longshoremen, the Bush administration invoked Taft-Hartley and threatened to use the military to operate the ports-thus strengthening the employers' hand in bargaining, and giving the PMA little incentive to bargain in good faith.
Taft-Hartley allows the government unlimited discretion to suppress labor organizing, and criminalizes any union activity that impedes "national security." It also forbids unions from speaking out on ongoing negotiations under the national security clause. Unions can be sued out of existence, and union leadership can be jailed for organizing a strike or speaking out against dangerous working conditions.
The act was a Congressional response to a 1944 coal miner strike that followed a series of coal mine cave-ins in West Virginia and Alabama. Hundreds of workers, mostly poor and black, had been killed. When World War II was in full swing, coal energy was considered essential to the war effort. No coal meant no energy, and no production meant no money. The 108-day strike was seen as a national security threat.
Nonetheless, President Harry Truman called the Taft-Hartley amendments to the 1935 National Labor Relations Act a "slave labor act." He vetoed Taft-Hartley in 1947, but the Republican Congress overturned the veto. The act was last invoked in 1978, when President Jimmy Carter unsuccessfully tried to end a national coal strike.
"Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge told the union [that] any strike action would be a national security issue," writes ILWU correspondent Tom Price. "All the PMA had to do was present its concessions and hold out until President Bush did its dirty work for it."
In a press release, the ILWU observed: "This is the first time in history that an employer lockout was used as an excuse to implement the anti-union Taft-Hartley law. The message to employers is that you can create a crisis by locking out your workers and then get the government to intervene with Taft-Hartley ... [which] violates all the rights of workers to collective bargaining."
"This is the most egregious attack on workers' rights in 50 years," said Ron Judd, AFL-CIO Western Regional Director. "If they can do it to the ILWU, they can do it to any union."
This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue
of Global Update Seattle, a print production of the Independent