The war at home has escalated. The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents the big shipping companies, attacked the country’s most militant labor union on September 27th, locking out 10,500 longshore workers along the west coast and successfully obtaining a federally ordered 80 day cooling off period under the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act. It was a test of PMA’s newest union-busting strategy: seeking justification under the war on terrorism.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s contract expired in July, and the union had been in contract negotiations with the PMA since spring. But months before that, the PMA had been scheming to destroy the ILWU. In May, a new “bosses” organization was formed. Called the “West Coast Waterfront Coalition”, the organization was a coalition of slave labor retailers that included Mattel, Home Depot and the Gap, together with shipping lines Maersk and American President Lines. In this age of sweatshop labor, the dockworkers are the last group of workers in the shipping lines’ food chain who are paid fairly. The PMA would like nothing better than to reduce them to sweatshop labor as well.
The coalition used the “war on terrorism” to try and destroy the ILWU. This spring, the group held covert meetings with the Bush Administration’s task force that was set up to monitor ILWU contract negotiations. Early in those talks, Homeland Security adviser Tom Ridge called James Spinosa, president of the ILWU, and told Spinosa that any strike would be considered a threat to national security and that the Bush Administration would act to stop it.
The PMA, apparently too impatient to wait for a strike so they could have the government step in to facilitate their union-busting, came up with a most devious plan: The PMA could lock the workers out, and by doing so force the government to do their dirty work for them. The government’s rarely-used Taft-Hartley Act allows for government intervention in union/management negotiations, by enforcing an 80-day “cooling-off” period during which the union workers are forced back to work. The PMA knew that if they stopped goods from coming in they could ensure that the Bush Administration would favor the PMA by invoking the Taft-Hartley Act. That way, when the bosses lock out the workers and freeze commerce, they can also reap the benefits of
the negative image of ungrateful dockworkers on strike.
The fairly paid dockworkers know that the sweatshops stop at the West Coast ports. The PMA knows that too, and they would like nothing better than to ensure that from beginning to end all their slaves are paid the minimum.
The 80-day “cooling-off” period is more like a simmering period. Tensions are still running high between the union and the PMA, and nothing has changed in negotiations. And if the workers do strike, the president has another tool at his disposal—he can replace striking dockworkers with the Navy and the National Guard.
But there may be a problem for the union busting bosses — other dockworker unions around the globe are already confirming their solidarity with the ILWU, and won’t unload ships if they are not loaded by the ILWU in America. The ILWU has a history of international solidarity; they took a stand against apartheid and refused to unload Nazi ships before World War II while Henry Ford was still selling them arms. The ILWU has stood behind every dock strike from Liverpool to Japan and those workers will return that solidarity.
If the PMA and the government are allowed to keep the union from organizing contracts coast wide or to replace the union workers with the military, we may see the most vicious international labor battle in history. As Slingshot goes to press, the 80-day cooling off period is still in effect and negotiations are continuing. There can be no war abroad without a war at home, and this has never been clearer with this attack against the ILWU. Support the ILWU, because this battle will affect workers the world over. The ILWU has taken stands for social justice and will continue to do so; they will not be cowed.