Under Cover of Fear

The US war on terror and the build-up to an invasion of Iraq have drawn attention away from George Bush's domestic policies. Indeed, national security is increasingly being used as justification for action against organized labor.

Bush recently forced the re-opening of 29 ports closed in a docks dispute on the west coast of the US. He used a court order to initiate the "Taft-Hartley" process that compels workers involved in industrial disputes to return to normal working during an 80-day "cooling off" period. Bush justified his action on economic grounds, but also said that the ports crisis was a threat to national defense. He said: "These ports load the ships that carry supplies to our men and women in uniform. These ports also receive parts and materials used by our defense contractors to complete projects and maintain military equipment ... Because the operation of western ports is vital to our economy and to our military, I have determined that the current situation imperils our national health and safety."

These are powerful arguments at any time. But particularly when the US considers itself in a "war against terror," and may soon be involved in a more traditional war against Iraq. All this is a far cry from the days immediately following September 11 when there was the unusual sight of a right-wing Republican president standing with New York firefighters and praising as "US heroes" one of the most highly unionized workforces in the country.

After the terror attacks nothing was supposed to be the same again. US unions are fiercely patriotic. And over 600 card-carrying trade unionists died on September 11. Unions were an essential part of the organized rescue and clear-up. So it was no surprise that they responded to the administration's call to arms. John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO (the US's equivalent of the TUC) said: "We supported the president and his administration in the war on terrorism from the very first day."

Yet one year on, normal service has resumed and it is increasingly obvious that the Bush administration is using its "war against terror" to camouflage a good old-fashioned Republican war against organized labor.

On the west coast of the country, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which represents 10,500 dockers, spent months negotiating a new contract covering technological change, benefits and jobs with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), the representative of the multinational shipping companies and terminal owners.

The Los Angeles Times revealed that when the negotiations began in May, the White House set up a task force to monitor developments. It included representatives from the departments of Commerce, Labor and Transportation and, ominously, the Office of Homeland Security (OHS). OHS head Tom Ridge phoned ILWU president Jim Spinosa to "explain" that a strike would not be in the national interest.

Andrew Siff, a senior attorney at the Labor department, outlined the administration's options to the dockers: Bush could declare a national economic emergency, forcing an 80-day strike delay under the Taft-Hartley Act; he could send in Navy personnel to run the ports with the National Guard; the docks could be brought under the Railway Labor Act, which allows the president to stop strikes that threaten to "deprive any section of the country of essential transportation"; or he could break up the bargaining unit that unites longshoremen at all West Coast ports on the grounds that the union is a monopoly.

Previously, there had been no strike vote, nor even a threat to strike from the union. The ILWU had even announced that if there were a strike, military cargo would be exempted and unloaded by its members.

Responding to Siff, the AFL-CIO condemned the government: "The mere threat of intervention is an unconscionable effort to bolster the PMA's contract demands, and threatens the legitimate collective bargaining rights of longshore workers ... The threatened use of federal troops to determine the outcome of a collective bargaining dispute undermines the basic civil rights of the labor movement and all US workers."

The union accused the employers and the government of colluding to get long-term objectives pushed through under the banner of national security. ILWU business agent Jack Heyman said that for several years the employers had pushed hard for an increased federal government role in the maritime industry. The agenda, he said, was to "restrict trade union power on the docks by banning the right to strike ... Since September 11 their lobbying [has] borne strange fruit."

The ILWU's Bob McEllrath accused the port employers of "wrapping themselves in the flag" in their efforts to defeat the union.

On Labor Day AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka accused Bush of "using the power of the presidency and the cover of war and homeland security to pervert the collective bargaining process."

When Bush was inaugurated, he promised he would be "a uniter, not a divider." Creature of the corporations that he is, there was never much chance of that. As soon as he took office he began slashing away at pro-worker legislation and laying the basis for corporate tax cuts. The difference since September 11 is that assaults on civil liberties in general and workers' rights in particular are now cloaked in rhetoric about national security.

The terror attacks exposed the incompetence of the private airport screening companies. Under pressure, the work was nationalized or "federalized." The employees involved were exempted from the automatic union protections enjoyed by equivalent federal workers; citing national security, the administration effectively removed their right to join a union.

In January, Bush issued a presidential executive order removing collective bargaining rights from 1,000 US Justice Department employees. Once more national security grounds were cited. Legislation now going through Congress will merge all or part of 22 US agencies (including the coastguard, customs, immigration and transportation security offices) into a new Department of Homeland Security that will replace the existing OHS and have cabinet status. There will be 170,000 workers and (if Bush gets his way) no union rights in the new "flexible" department.

Bobby Harnage, leader of the federal employees' union AFGE, says all the flexibility claimed to be necessary already exists. "Either they don't understand the federal employment system, or else they're lying to the US people," he says. "I think they know exactly what they're doing ... They're just anti-union, anti-worker, and represent corporate America rather than the US way of life."

Local government union AFSCME described the president's actions as "providing a road map for right-wing state and local officials ... to mount their own assault on collective bargaining and civil service protections for public employees."

With the Republican victories in November's Congressional elections, US unions can expect renewed attacks over the months ahead.

Whatever the result of the longshore dispute, US trade unionists increasingly recognize that it's not their lack of patriotism that worries Bush but their collective strength and solidarity.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close
alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.