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The Barbed Wire Straitjacket
I n 1981, when President Ronald Reagan replaced thousands of air traffic controllers and threw their leaders in jail, the permanent replacement of strikers became a normal aspect of U.S. labor relations. Strikes became far riskier for workers than they’d been at any time since the turn of the century.
Labor relations are now undergoing an similar, equally profound change. West coast dockers have compared the new terrain they faced in bargaining their recent contract to negotiations in a barbed wire straitjacket. Although their union and the world’s largest shipping companies reached agreement on a new pact in late November, the circumstances overshadowing the talks were a clear warning to the rest of labor throughout the country.
A new attitude towards unions under the Bush administration is changing that terrain. Threats and legal intervention by the Federal government essentially made job action by longshore workers, intended to pressure their employers to arrive at an equitable settlement, as risky as the air traffic controllers strike a generation ago.
“Given what we went through over the last six months, including the lockout of workers in every port, and then the invocation of the Taft-Hartley Act, we’re glad we were able to reach an agreement at all,” explained Steve Stallone, communications director for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). “So the fact that we were able to make progress on all three issues important to us was a big achievement.”
In December, representatives of the local unions that work the docks from San Diego to Canada met for four days, and after intense discussion, recommended by a 92.4 percent margin that ILWU members ratify the package in January (results were still not known at the time this article is written).
Other voices in the union, however, were critical. “A labor contract is much more than benefits,” said San Francisco longshoreman Jack Heyman. “The truth is that labor can not negotiate a good contract with a Taft-Hartley gun pointed at its head.... We, longshore workers, should reject this contract and send our negotiating committee back, this time to negotiate with some muscle by lining up concrete support in the U.S. and internationally.”
Longshore workers went into negotiations last June with three goals, according to Stallone.
- They wanted to preserve their healthcare benefits in the face of demands by the Pacific Maritime Association that they pay part of skyrocketing costs
- They wanted increases in their pensions
- They wanted to ensure that employer proposals to implement new technology wouldn’t result in the loss of jobs
The new agreement preserves longshore workers’ health benefits with no copayment by workers, at an estimated present cost to employers of $220 million annually. By the end of the six-year agreement, that cost is estimated to rise to $500 million. The pension settlement will increase benefits by 60 percent over the same period.
But both provisions came at a cost. The PMA will implement a new system for tracking container movement using scanners and other computer-aided devices, replacing the system under which longshore clerks manually entered information into the shippers’ database. That will eventually eliminate about 400 jobs, out of a total clerk workforce on the west coast of 1,200. No clerk will actually lose his or her job, since the contract guarantees 40 hours of work a week for the career of every current member. But in the future, the number of jobs covered will be reduced. In return, the union was able to win jurisdiction over jobs planning the movement of containers on trains and in yards on the waterfront. Those jobs were previously outsourced.
The objective of the employers was to keep workers using the new technology out of the union entirely. Workers in these categories also included vessel planners, who tell the cranes where to put containers on the ships, and clerical workers in company offices. A few hundred of them have already joined the ILWU in many ports, attracted by its high wage rates. To make up for the potential job loss among the clerks, the union sought to include them in all ports by extending its jurisdiction. Now it will have to organize them.
“There are problems with the settlement, as you might expect from any contract negotiated under the gun of Taft-Hartley,” Stallone noted. “The wage differential between the highest- and lowest-paid increased, which we’ve always fought against.” In addition, there is now a new differential between the wages of drivers in the huge container cranes and those operating cranes used to load and unload bulk cargo.
The six-year agreement is also unusual. Unions normally seek to limit contracts to two or three years, since inflation can spiral out of control, taking large chunks out of paychecks. Other changes involving automation and technology can be difficult to resolve under agreements that don’t foresee them. The ILWU agreed to the long term in order to space the large pension increase out over a number of years. The expiration of the agreement in 2008 also means that the union might avoid renegotiating it under Bush, even if he’s reelected in 2004.
The bargaining strategy of the Pacific Maritime Association rested on removing the union’s ability to exert pressure during negotiations to protect wages and conditions on the docks. With the Bush administration in office, now was the time, employers believed, to take their best shot.
Before negotiations began in June, the shippers and some of their biggest customers, including the Gap, Target, Mattel, and Home Depot, organized the West Coast Waterfront Coalition. Together, they held secret meetings with a Bush administration task force headed by White House advisor Carlos Bonilla. Once negotiations began, Homeland Secretary Tom Ridge, and representatives of the Department of Labor, phoned ILWU President Jim Spinosa, warning him that the Administration would view any strike or interruption of work on the docks as a threat to national security. They threatened to invoke the Taft- Hartley Act, to use the military to replace striking workers, to place the waterfront under the Railway Labor Act (making a strike virtually illegal), and removing the union’s ability to negotiate a single labor agreement covering all ports on the coast.
The ILWU avoided being provoked into a strike, but finally, at the peak shipping season, employers locked out their own workers. As a pretext, the PMA accused the union of organizing an alleged work slowdown. According to the Journal of Commerce , however, 30 percent more cargo was crossing the docks than last year—the greatest volume in history. The speedup on the docks was so intense that the accident rate shot up, costing the lives of five longshore workers in 2002. When the union told its members to work at a safe speed, the PMA called it a slowdown.
Once the dockers were locked out, employers then demanded Bush invoke Taft- Hartley. The Administration’s legal brief before Judge Alsup voiced a startling new philosophy, elaborated by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield. He held that all commercial cargo could be considered important to the military, not just specifically goods intended for military use abroad. Any stoppage on the docks, therefore, was a threat to national security.
Instead of defining a threat to national security in terms of vital life-dependent services, this use of national security defines it as economic. Any strike halting the continued operation of an industry or a large profitable enterprise could be defined as such a threat and made illegal.
PMA based its strategy on this philosophy. Long before negotiations even started, it sponsored a steady media drumbeat announcing that a waterfront strike would send the economy into a tailspin. One study made in April predicted losses of $1-2 billion a day. The study was made by a Lancaster, Pennsylvania management consultant firm, Martin Associates, and paid for by the PMA. During the lockout, those figures were often quoted in the press as a measurement of actual losses, not predicted ones.
After U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup invoked Taft- Hartley, using those numbers as a justification, Patrick Anderson of the Anderson Economic Group made another study. He was only able to document actual losses of $1.67 billion, or $140 million a day. The higher figure, he said, was “closer to the economic impact of sinking the ships than delaying them.” By then, however, the original figures had already justified Federal action.
At the beginning of October, the men and women of the docks went back to work, after having been locked out for 12 days. They returned, not voluntarily, as they had offered to do from the beginning, but under the Federal injunction won by the shipping corporations. Bargaining continued for another month, therefore, under the Taft- Hartley Act’s 80-day “cooling off” period.
On the surface, it seems incomprehensible why the association would need a Federal order to open the gates of the closed terminals. After all, they’d shut them themselves and could have opened them at any time. But the resumption of work was never really the issue. Instead, the PMA wanted two things. It wanted a guarantee that dockers would be forced to continue unloading ships through the peak shipping season, when goods traveling from the sweatshops of the eastern Pacific rim are en route to stores for the Christmas rush. It wanted to make the union so vulnerable that it would be unable to put any pressure on employers during negotiations.
After work resumed, the PMA continued to accuse the union of slowing the pace as a means of threatening to invoke further Federal intervention. “The ILWU is playing games with the U.S. economy, and inflicting economic pain and hardship on scores of companies and their employees,” said Joe Miniace, PMA director. Longshore wages were never the primary issue. The hourly rate on the docks, prior to the new contract, ranged from $27.68 to $33.48—about the same as a plumber or electrician. These are good wages in terms of the U.S. industrial average, but the shipping companies never claimed poverty, and are making large profits.
At the root of the dispute was the PMA’s decision to try to end an arrangement that successfully allowed the introduction of advanced technology onto the docks for the last 40 years. In 1960, the union agreed that employers could introduce the first container cranes, the giant machines that now move cargo containers on and off the huge ships built specially to carry them. Even though this change cost the jobs of tens of thousands of west coast dockers, the union agreed that so long as its members did the new jobs technology produced, it would not try to stop it.
Over the coming two decades, the companies want to automate shipping far beyond the use of automated scanners and tracking devices. In their vision of the future, cranes and dockside machines will eventually be operated by remote control, perhaps by people miles away from the wharves. That day, however, is further in the future than the expiration of the present contract. The definitive battle to determine whether the philosophical framework of the 1960 agreement still holds—technology for jobs—was not fought to a conclusion this time around.
What did surface, however, was the new interventionist attitude of the Bush administration, justified in the name of national security. While a contract is in place, the new Republican-dominated Congress could still implement the threats made by Bush when negotiations started. One possible move might place the union under the Railway Labor Act, eliminating its right to strike. Even under Clinton, with Democrats in control of the Senate, Congress placed Federal Express under the RLA, effectively ending efforts by its workers to organize. A Republican Congress might also break up the ILWU’s coastwide contract into separate agreements in every port, making strikes pointless, since employers would be able to ship goods to working ports while workers struck in others.
Agreeing to a six-year contract was designed to forestall that possibility. “We think it will help avoid legislation coming after us,” said Stallone. “By showing labor stability on waterfront, we’re hoping that problem won’t resurface after Congress convenes in January.”
But the Bush administration, which also used back-to-work orders against employees at Northwest and United Airlines last year, has established a precedent. Interruptions of economic activity, this new doctrine says, are a threat to national security. As a result, other workers may see the Federal government intervene forcefully on their employer’s side.
David Bacon is a freelance writer and photographer.
Z Magazine Archive
AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
Contact: email@example.com; https://nato5support.wordpress.com.
MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
Contact: WisCon, ? SF3, PO Box 1624, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.wiscon.info/.
ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
Contact: SWCHRS, 3200 Marshall Avenue, Suite 290, Norman, OK 73072; 405-325-3694; email@example.com; www.ncore.ou.edu.
MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
RADIO - The 38th Annual Community Radio Conference is schedule for May 29-June 1, in San Francisco, CA, with discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1101 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20004; 202-756-2268; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.nfcb.org/.
BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; email@example.com; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduated Center, ? Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; email@example.com http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.globaljusticecenter.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; email@example.com; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.socialismconference.org.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; email@example.com; http://www.peacestockvfp.org.
CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.childrensdefense.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
Contact: email@example.com; http://yeacamp.org/.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://east.usworker.coop/.
WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
Contact: 747 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-864-1278; RadicalWomenUS@gmail.com; http://lynnestewart.org/; http://www.radicalwomen.org/.
HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
Contact: 121 West 27th Street, #301, New York, NY 10001; 212-627-0444; email@example.com; http://www.madre.org.
SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
Contact: http://www.falconridgefolk.com/; firstname.lastname@example.org.
WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
Contact: 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012; 212-228-0450; email@example.com; http://www.warresisters.org.
POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
Contact: Center for Popular Economics, PO Box 785 Amherst, MA 01004; 413-545-0743; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.populareconomics.org.
VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://occupynationalgathering.net/.
COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; email@example.com; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.