Since When are Unions Un-American?

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
Marcus Gomez holds a sign during an Oakland, California rally for longshore workers.
As contract talks between West Coast longshore workers and the shipping industry remain deadlocked, the Bush administration indicated in August that it will try to prevent a strike by any means necessary. Playing national security and the neverending war on terrorism as trump cards, Bush is seeking to brand the International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) and its members as un-American for not accepting an inferior work contract.

At issue for the union are the shipping companies' plans to install new technology that will eliminate jobs. The union wants to secure jobs for existing members and ensure that newly created jobs are covered by the ILWU contract. Unlike most workers in the United States, the 10,500 longshore workers on the West Coast have significant leverage in their industry, thanks to a strong union and a master contract covering 29 ports along the West Coast. These workers handle an estimated $260 billion in cargo each year.

But Bush has already shown during contract negotiations for mechanics at Northwest Airlines and United that he is willing to use his power as president to block a strike and force workers to accept an often inferior contract. Last year, Bush also threatened to block a strike by flight attendants at American Airlines.

The president is authorized under the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 -- better known as the Taft-Hartley Act -- to prevent a strike or lockout for 80 days when such a stoppage would "imperil the national health or safety." But a strike by port workers would primarily affect nonessential consumer goods from overseas -- and thus the profits of the retail and shipping companies who import such goods.

Labor Department officials have discussed asking Congress to include longshore workers among those covered under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), which allows the president to stop a strike when a dispute threatens "substantially to interrupt interstate commerce to a degree such as to deprive any section of the country of essential transportation service." The act currently affects only rail and air carriers. Similar to Taft-Hartley, the RLA technically creates an emergency board that has 30 days to issue a report. The parties have a 30-day cooling-off period to consider the board's recommendations before resuming any stoppage. The RLA also allows the president to ask Congress to impose a contract if both parties fail to reach an agreement.

These aren't the only threats the Bush administration has made against the ILWU. In addition to discussing replacing striking workers with Navy personnel, a situation that could only be justified during full-scale mobilization for war, the administration has indicated that it might seek to break up the union into 29 separate bargaining units. That action would seriously weaken the union by allowing shippers to divert cargo to ports without strikers.

In 1960, the ILWU and Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) reached an historic agreement on the introduction of new technology: new jobs created by mechanization would automatically be incorporated into the union. But unlike that agreement, which relieved dockworkers from grueling physical labor, the PMA is now trying to increase efficiency and lower costs without sharing any of the benefits with union members.

So far, the Bush administration has not made a convincing argument for interfering in the contract negotiations. But by showing a willingness to intervene, the Bush administration has given the shipping companies the upper hand. Why would the owners -- whose patriotism is somehow not in question -- concede to any of the union's demands when it knows Bush is eager to play strikebreaker?

Like Ronald Reagan's infamous 1981 decision to fire and replace striking air traffic controllers, Bush's intervention in the longshore workers' negotiations seems intended to neutralize one of organized labor's few remaining strongholds.

Despite Bush's rhetoric, delayed shipments to the Gap, Home Depot and other retailers hardly pose a threat to national security. "The driving force behind the federal interference in our contract negotiations are the giant retailers who import huge quantities of overseas products," said Peter Peyton of the ILWU. "They have joined together … in an effort to squeeze out every last drop of profit at the expense of good American jobs."

Ron Bigler works for the New York City-based Labor Research Association.

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