The Shipping News

In the second week of a shutdown that has closed 29 ports on the West Coast and is costing the U.S. economy upwards of $1 billion a day, the Bush administration amplified its involvement in the dispute between the International Longshore & Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, by forming a "board of inquiry."

This is the administration's likely first step toward invoking the controversial Taft-Hartley Act, which would force union workers back to work for an 80-day cooling off period.

On Sept. 29, shipping company representatives locked out 10,500 union members, accusing them of staging an illegal work slowdown.

At issue in the dispute is the PMA's use of new port technology. ILWU spokesperson Steve Stallone says the conflict revolves around a disagreement about roles and who controls technology and information that affects the workers.

"We want to be able to review the data -- usually there are 50 pieces of information on each container and we've found that with 30 percent to 40 percent of the information something is wrong," Stallone says. "We want that to be our work. We want a closed system where only union clerks can get into it and manipulate data."

Shippers, however, want to allow non-union eyes on the data. "They want to use the technology to outsource the jobs," Stallone claims.

According to PMA president and CEO Joseph Miniace, the shippers "guarantee job protection for every registered worker who may be impacted by technology."

What's really at stake, say union watchers, is the survival of what many consider the most politically progressive union in the country.

"We support farmworkers and El Salvador, and even Nelson Mandela credited the union for kickstarting the American anti-apartheid movement," Stallone says. The union refused to allow military cargo to be shipped to the El Salvadoran dictatorship in the 1980s and its dock actions highlighted South African divestment.

The union has weathered repeated strikes, government intervention and employer/government violence since its post-Depression makeover. A 1934 strike led to "Bloody Thursday," in which two workers were shot and killed. Then, shippers employed "goon squads" -- commonly referred to now as "security" -- as well as the National Guard, to rough up strikers. Six men were shot or beaten to death during the strike and hundreds were arrested.

This led to a four-day general strike involving all local labor interests that basically shut down San Francisco. Eventually, the ILWU won its issues in arbitration.

"An injury to one is an injury to all," read a banner hoisted during the 1948 strike. The motto is emblematic of the ILWU's socialistic bent and its methods of organizing alongside other unions. Events leading to that strike caused Congress to pass the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act. Included in the Act was a provision, later overturned, that required labor leaders to declare they were not Communists. Accusations of Communist ties became a tool used in corporate and government attempts to destroy unions. ILWU leader Harry Bridges was hauled before the Supreme Court twice in attempts to deport him (he was originally from Australia) for being "a Commie."

Many strikes and lockouts and more violence later, union members can now lead a middle to upper-middle class lifestyle due to hard-fought changes wrought from industry. Still, the work is not full time and it is often bone-crushingly dangerous.

"You don't work a regular job. You go to the hiring hall and if a ship is in, you work," Stallone says. He said some members work full time, mostly at the Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif. docks. And one has to consider the risks workers face to earn their legendary high wages.

"Five people died in the last six months in California," Stallone says. "One was smashed by a machine so badly it took three days to identify the body. ...The docks are full of huge pieces of equipment so when you get hurt, you get hurt big." All the thundering movement of big containers from ships to trucks to warehouses is conducted in a brain-numbing haze of inescapable diesel exhaust.

Negotiations have ranged from the heavy-handed to the ridiculous. In June, a White House Task Force including the Labor Department and Homeland Security secretly threatened to take away ILWU's right to strike; and the Los Angeles Times got a Labor Department official to confirm the tenor of the meetings. Negotiations continued off and on from there.

On Oct. 1, union reps walked out of a meeting when PMA representatives showed up with armed bodyguards.

And then there was the fart machine. At one negotiating session, there was a repeatedly audible, although odorless, passing of gas that was finally traced to an electronic whoopee cushion under the table. "There are some good old boys on the safety committee," says Stallone. "They said, 'Everything they're putting on the table is a pile of shit so we added the soundtrack.'"

The PMA represents 71 shippers and terminal owners, most of which are not based in the U.S. They are highly capitalized industries with expensive ships.

The PMA, however, is in a delicate position.

Stallone paraphrased former union leader Bridges in explaining how the ILWU can exercise its power: "We sit on the artery and all we have to do is pinch."

Since Bridges' reign ended in 1977, that artery has become engorged with world trade. All the World Trade Organization's work to bring down barriers between countries for the flow of goods has resulted in a huge increase in container ship traffic. And, note the "International" in the ILWU. This lockout is on West Coast ports, but union docks all over the world can play a role. Until the shipping owners build their own docking and transportation infrastructure, or figure some way to claim it from local ports, the ILWU will have some leverage.

If Congress and President Bush want to bust the union as Ronald Reagan did with the air traffic controllers, they will have a much more difficult time with ILWU. Remember the "injury to one is an injury to all" line? That sort of organizing endears the union to other powerful unions.

The AFL-CIO, a federation of 66 unions, is making the survival of ILWU a priority by sending staff to bolster the ILWU's bargaining position, according to an August resolution. Its president John Sweeney condemned the lockout and asked the Bush administration to refrain from intervention. "The teamsters told Bush, 'Don't do it,'" added Stallone.

Taft-Hartley is widely viewed as anti-union, and some say Bush's use of it could risk a backlash from organized labor against Republicans in November's congressional elections.

And while many politicians are ready to use federal authority to control the docks due to the current economic implications, labor still has friends in Congress. In an attempt to dissuade Congress members from supporting federal intervention, California Democrat George Miller wrote that, "Taft-Hartley is rarely employed and is properly viewed as an aggressively anti-union weapon for undermining the collective bargaining rights of working people."

J.A. Savage is senior correspondent for the independent publication California Energy Markets.

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