Dock Workers vs. "Homeland Security"

Revolutionary Worker #1170, October 13, 2002, posted at

Since early this summer, the dockworkers on the U.S. West Coast--members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU)--have been in a bitter contract dispute with the port operators and shippers. The ILWU workers are vital to the running of 29 West Coast ports that handle $300 billion worth of goods each year. So at any time, a work dispute involving these dockworkers has major impact.

But these are times when the U.S. government has declared itself on permanent war footing and threatened, "You're with us, or you're with the terrorists." When the ILWU refused to go along with all the demands of the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA)--the grouping of port operators and shippers--the dockworkers found themselves face to face with Big Brother and accused of being a "threat to national security."

The main issue in the current contract dispute has to do with the effect of further mechanization and computerization on longshore jobs. There has been a long history of the employers shrinking the workforce on the docks, especially unionized jobs, in the name of "efficiency" and "keeping up with the competition." And the capitalists are trying to further reduce the number of ILWU workers.

There are now about 10,500 ILWU dockworkers--the majority of them African-American and Latino. The ILWU leadership agreed to a further cut of several hundred jobs but demanded that all the new technical/computer jobs be unionized. The PMA refused.

When the last contract expired in June without a new agreement, the largest corporations that use the ports--such as The Gap, Wal Mart, Target, and Home Depot--formed the West Coast Waterfront Coalition (WCWC) to back the PMA and oppose the dockworkers. The Bush administration--widely known to be packed with former CEOs and other pro-business figures--assigned a White House advisor to meet with the corporate coalition. The administration also set up a task force--including officials from the departments of Homeland Security, Labor, Transportation, and Commerce--to figure out how to prevent a dockworkers strike.

The Bush administration then moved to intervene even more directly and ominously. Tom Ridge, the head of Bush's Homeland Security department, called ILWU President Jim Spinosa to warn that a strike would be viewed as "a threat to national security." In other words, if the dockworkers strike, they would be labeled "traitors" who are "with the terrorists."

At a time when the U.S. government is on a juggernaut of war and repression, its Homeland Security director has fired off a serious threat against a union whose workers have a history of taking progressive social and political stands. For example, ILWU workers have acted in solidarity with the movements against apartheid and capitalist globalization and in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal, revolutionary political prisoner.

There have been reports that Bush officials were considering a number of ways the government might step in if there is a strike: 1) Getting the Congress to place the ILWU under a law called the Railway Labor Act, which gives the government the power to end a strike and impose a contract; 2) Invoking the Taft-Hartley Act and forcing a 90-day "cooling off" period, in effect forcing the workers back to work; 3) Declaring that the ILWU's unified bargaining with all the West Coast ports is an illegal "monopoly" and forcing separate contracts for each port--in effect making the union powerless or even breaking it up; 4) Replacing the dockworkers with military personnel.

The threat of direct federal intervention is reminiscent of President Ronald Reagan's move against the air-traffic controllers' strike in 1981. The crushing of that strike by the federal government marked a major turning point in the trade union movement in this country, opening the door to a series of attacks on unionized workers.

As we go to press, the PMA has imposed a lock-out of the dockworkers, accusing the ILWU of conducting a work slow-down. This appears to be an attempt by the capitalist port operators to trigger intervention by the federal government. The WCWC has issued a public letter to Bush saying, "We implore you to take whatever steps necessary to reopen the nation's West Coast ports." A federal mediator has come in to oversee negotiations between the ILWU and PMA.

It's a sign of the times that the refusal of workers to cave in to unjust demands of corporations has become a "national security issue." The "war on terrorism" has become a justification to portray anyone opposing those in power as "disloyal" and to threaten the direct use of the machinery of the state against them.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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