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Defending Workers' Rights

By Jack Heyman - Journal of Commerce, October 1998

A battle is looming on California's waterfront that may be a prelude to broader struggles over workers' rights in the global economy.

And with the West Coast longshore contract expiring in nine months, two conflicts, separate but related, threaten to spread to the East Coast and even internationally.

The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents global shipowners, stevedoring companies and terminal operators, appears intent on provoking a showdown with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents West Coast dockworkers.

One year ago in Oakland, labor activists set up a picket line that was honored by longshoremen in solidarity with fired dockers in Liverpool, England. After the ship, the Neptune Jade, departed -- its nonunion cargo still aboard -- dockworkers in Canada and Japan boycotted it, making it a "Flying Dutchman."

PMA responded by suing the picketers and longshore unions whose members honored the picket line. Capital rules in today's global economy, suppressing workers' solidarity actions.

Last month in Los Angeles, ILWU was sued in federal court by PMA, which is seeking a permanent injunction against "frivolous" work stoppages.

This precedent-setting legal maneuver would replace the collectively bargained grievance procedures and threaten ILWU with fines.

It blatantly scapegoats workers for the precipitous drop in export trade to crisis-ridden Asia (and thus PMA member companies' profits), while arming employers with a big hammer prior to contract negotiations.

If global shipowners prevail, a federal "special master" will decide the legality of work stoppages.

Helping build momentum for government intervention is the leading maritime industry newspaper, The Journal of Commerce, which many waterfront workers deem the voice of the shipowners. JofC reportage on the lawsuit cites PMA's claim of 155 work stoppages in three years and "dockworkers walking off their jobs at the slightest provocation."

And an unusual op-ed piece by a JofC editor ("Will West Coast shut down?," Aug. 24, Page 4A) raises the specter of shackling longshore workers with "iron heel" legislation to make sure the trains run on time, or rather the ships.

Before this industry-orchestrated clamor reaches a fever pitch to enlist government force on the side of employers in labor disputes, let's take a look from the pier level at some reasons for work stoppages.

Longshoremen don't sacrifice hard-earned wages "frivolously." In a dangerous industry -- 14 longshore workers were killed and 10 seriously injured last year in the United States -- it's not surprising that health and safety work stoppages frequently occur. Lives are on the line. This fact goes unmentioned in management responses.

Also, work stoppages by longshoremen were credited by South African President Nelson Mandela for re-igniting the anti-apartheid movement in this country and helping end the brutally racist regime in that nation.

In 1990, speaking triumphantly to a rally at the Oakland Coliseum, Mr. Mandela "saluted (San Francisco longshoremen) for refusing to unload the ship" in 1984; the cargo was from South Africa. PMA opposed that "frivolous" action. Today, their legal ploy would ban it.

ILWU's slogan, "An injury to one is an injury to all" still reverberates on the waterfront, as demonstrated in recent actions supporting workers under attack in Mexico, Australia, South Korea, and, most strikingly, Liverpool.

That's why global shipowners have turned the Neptune Jade picketing into a witchhunt, seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages and demanding that defendants name demonstrators and turn over union records, faxes, e-mail, computer hard drives, floppy disks, telephone bills and diaries.

PMA even sought, unsuccessfully, to compel Laney College to "name names" of students in its Labor Studies Club, whose banner was seen at one demonstration. Yet Oakland Mayor-elect Jerry Brown, who has stated at public rallies that he picketed, hasn't been sued.

The judge dismissed PMA's suit against the defendants (except for picket captain Robert Irminger) under California's anti-SLAPP law, which protects free speech against litigious corporate intimidation.

PMA appealed the decision and is pursuing the case against Mr. Irminger. In protest against PMA's relentless legal onslaught, angry longshoremen shut down Bay Area ports the morning of July 22.

Revulsion against PMA's witchhunt has mustered wide support for the Neptune Jade Defense Committee and ILWU, with endorsements from writer Alice Walker, MIT Prof. Noam Chomsky, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, and former congressman Ron Dellums, among scores of other prominent individuals.

Longshore workers support international trade, but workers' rights and union standards must be defended against capital's globalization. Monopolistic maritime conglomerates have formed global alliances to concertedly push union-busting deregulation and privatization.

Dockworkers' protests have been suppressed by police or military force in Veracruz, Amsterdam, Santos, and Vancouver.

Dockworkers must absorb one critical lesson: For union survival in a global economy, it is imperative labor put into practice the aphorism "Workers of the world, unite!"