This site is a static archive. Visit the current IWW website at ▸
Skip to main content

From Lock-out to Lock-in

Bush gives dock bosses a helping hand - By John Bekken and Brian Oliver Sheppard, Industrial Worker, November 2002

As we go to press, West Coast longshoremen are working under a Taft-Hartley injunction set to expire Dec. 26. The injunction was granted Oct. 8, replacing a 10-day lock-out of dock workers with what many workers are calling a "lock-in," forcing longshoremen to work through the busiest shipping season on the bosses' terms. "The situation is now very grave," said International Longshore and Warehouse Union member Robert Irminger. "If the long-shore workers insist on working safely under the provisions of the union's safety code, they risk being fined or even fired.

"The PMA has brought the government in," Irminger added, "which was their intention all along. This is the same government that said they would militarize the docks if the ILWU were to strike for a better contract. We can expect the government and the courts to do the employers' bidding."

ILWU officials share this concern. "We expect the employers will be dragging us to court daily, trying to bankrupt the union and throw our leaders in jail," ILWU President James Spinosa said.

An army of superintendents is running the docks trying to lay the groundwork for such actions, ILWU Communications Director Steve Stallone told the Industrial Worker. "What they're after is to try to bust the union in one fashion or another."

Under the terms of the 80-day injunction, the ILWU can be faced with contempt charges, leaders jailed, and members fined if they engage in any industrial action. U.S. District Judge William Alsup's order requires the union to ensure that "work in the maritime industry [resumes] at a normal and reasonable rate of speed."

"The employers got what they wanted . the ports will be reopened," Richard Mead, president of the longshoremen's local in the San Francisco area, told the New York Times. "We now have a new dock boss. His name is George W. Bush." The Pacific Maritime Association, an employer organization that represents 79 dock operators, had locked out 10,500 dock workers claiming a slow-down was in force. The ILWU denied there was a slow-down, but said workers were working carefully since the docks were overcrowded. Added congestion has made working on the docks like working "in the middle of a freeway," according to ILWU spokesman Tom Price. Five workers have been killed in the last six months due to unsafe conditions.

The injunction covers 29 ports in California, Oregon and Washington. ILWU dock workers in Alaska, British Columbia and Hawaii work under separate contracts, as do dock workers on the Eastern and Gulf Coasts and the Great Lakes represented by the ILA. Separate contracts meant that cruise passenger ships and ships carrying military cargo were only briefly affected by the lock-out.

Loading War Cargo

A ship carrying military cargo was the first vessel to go to sea during the lock-out. After three days of effort, the ILWU persuaded the PMA to allow longshore workers to go back to work to get the ship under way. The union said from the outset that it was committed to shipping all military cargo, and urged the PMA to ease the lock-out to allow ILWU workers to work military cargo and ships carrying essential supplies for Alaska and Hawaii and perishable goods.

The ILWU also arranged with cruise lines to work passenger vessels.

"Negotiating" at Gun-point

The PMA has been intent on securing government intervention against dock workers since the ILWU contract expired July 1. "They have never engaged in serious negotiations," Stallone said. "They had the Bush administration waiting in the wings, waiting for an opportunity to intervene."

While the ILWU offered to give up hundreds of clerical jobs as long as the union retained jurisdiction over the work they performed, the bosses insisted on the right to subcontract union work and move new hires into a second-rate health plan. Inside and outside of the negotiating sessions, PMA worked hard to inflame the situation. PMA representatives showed up to negotiations with armed bodyguards, called in riot police armed with pepper spray in Port Hueneme near Los Angeles, and twice locked workers out of their jobs.

In January, PMA President Joe Miniace previewed the bosses' plans to lock out the union to reporters, bragging that the Association had taken out a $200 million line of credit to help it carry out the strategy. Negotiations quickly bogged down over the PMA's desire to replace union workers with non-union workers operating new technology such as scanners, sensors and remote cameras to automate the process of tracking cargo. The union wants any jobs impacted by the new technology to remain under its jurisdiction, with union members controlling the flow of all information through the terminals.

The bosses have been outsourcing this sort of work for two decades, Stallone told the IW. "We are trying to get some of those jobs back."

Every contract negotiated in the past 40 years has dealt with the impact of technology on jobs, which have been slashed from 100,000 to less than 11,000 since the 1950s. Tonnage moving through the ports has more than doubled in the last 20 years.

"Their plan is to keep whittling away, bit by bit, until there are enough nonunion jobs that they can run the ports without us," Stallone said.

Bosses Get Quick Service

The ILWU announced on Oct. 8 that it would accept a Dept. of Labor compromise offer to return to work for 30 days under the terms of the expired contract. Instead, a Bush press conference was moved up to coincide with this ILWU announcement, effectively drowning it out. It was during this "hastily arranged" press conference, as the AP called it, that Bush announced his decision to compel workers to return to work for an 80-day "cooling off" period, handing PMA bosses the victory they desired.

The Bush order came only a day after he appointed a legally required "fact finding" commission to report on the situation at the docks. Not surprisingly, support for the federal intervention into the labor dispute was bipartisan. One of the most vocal advocates of Bush intervention was California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. As in a chorus, retail trade associations began asking Bush to intervene against the union hours after the lock-out began. "With the retail industry and consumer spending largely propping up a weak economy, the inability to get goods off the ships will quickly result in idling of distribution centers, closure of stores and layoff of workers," Tracy Mullin, the president of the National Retail Federation, said in a letter to Bush. The West Coast Waterfront Coalition, which represents companies such as Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target, The Gap, Toyota and Panasonic, similarly urged Bush to intervene.

The Bush administration held a briefing for business lobbyists seven hours before going to court for a Taft-Hartley injunction, but provided no such briefing for unions.

"No president has ever been on this side of management this overtly," AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka told the Associated Press.

Even Bush supporters in the labor movement were angry. "We're extremely disappointed," said Bret Caldwell, a spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. "The whole strategy of locking out the workers and urging the president to invoke Taft-Hartley was clearly an employer strategy to get around negotiating a contract with these workers. It's a bad precedent. It gives management the upper hand."

The Slave Labor Act

The Taft-Hartley Act, under which Bush acted, was widely denounced as a slave labor act when it was passed in 1947. It allows a federal judge to assess fines, issue contempt of court citations or take other actions during an 80-day cooling-off period. While the act could theoretically be directed against employers as well . and the injunction does include language ordering the PMA to engage in good faith bargaining . in practice it has only been directed against unions.

The government has repeatedly sought Taft-Hartley injunctions against the ILWU, most recently in the last waterfront strike in 1971 when the act was invoked twice. The "cooling-off period" has always failed to resolve the dispute. However, the injunction enables the employers to shift the fight until the post-Christmas period when cargo traffic is at its lightest.

This is the first time the Taft-Hartley Act has been used in a lockout.

Even union officials who obey these injunctions are not safe from contempt of court proceedings. John L. Lewis, the long-time head of the United Mine Workers, was found guilty of contempt in the 1940s despite ordering workers to return to their jobs. The government claimed his order, which was not obeyed, was not sincere.

More recently, mine workers defied Jimmy Carter's back-to-work order in 1978, saying . in the words of Charlie King's song . "Mr. Taft can dig it, Mr. Hartley can haul it, 'cuz we're going to leave it in the ground." The mine owners were forced to negotiate a settlement with the union in that strike.

Back to Court?

At press time the PMA was complaining that the union was not supplying enough workers to clear the backlog of cargo. However, in several ports requests for workers far exceeded the number of union members, forcing dispatchers to turn to the hundreds of "casuals" who work the waterfront, receiving lower wages and no benefits.

Stallone noted the irony of the bosses complaining of a shortage of workers when they have rejected repeated union requests to register and train more longshore workers. "We want to move these people up," he said. "They don't want to hire them because that makes the union stronger, but it comes back and bites them in the butt."

If more dock workers were added to the rolls, they would join the ranks of "B" members who pay ILWU dues and receive union wages and benefits, but are denied the right to vote in union elections and are not guaranteed work in slack times.

Needed: Workers Solidarity

Six environmental activists were arrested Oct. 10, after they chained themselves to the entryway of the Pacific Maritime Association offices in San Francisco. Activists unfurled a 120 square foot banner reading, "Bush Makes PMA Rich; Workers Get The Taft," above the doorway of the PMA building. Protesters said they wanted to give the Association "a taste of its own medicine" by staging a lockout of PMA employees. Police cleared the doorway within an hour.

In the period leading up to the injunction, demonstrations took place in ports across Europe, and unions across the globe have pledged joint solidarity action. As we go to press, that solidarity has taken the form of issuing statements and joining protest actions, but many dockworkers are pressing for more militant action.

The IWW General Executive Board has issued a statement (published last issue) calling on rank-and-file workers to take the lead in refusing to work ships bound for or sailing from the U.S., and called for "a working class boycott of American goods until the ILWU is fairly back at work."

Such solidarity actions by dock workers around the world would be the quickest way to force the PMA to pull back from its attacks on the ILWU and reach a settlement.