A Union on the Line | The Nation


A Union on the Line

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David Bacon
David Bacon is author of Illegal People—How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants, and the...

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Dozens of longshoremen and women surrounded Richard Mead, president of the San Francisco dockworkers' local, in front of the harbor terminal at the end of Oakland's Seventh Street Pier. All the gates in the port were padlocked shut. The giant cranes that move the steel boxes on and off the huge container ships sat motionless in the dusk.

"This is it," he told them. "If you want your children and families to have the same kind of life you've had, you know what you have to do." Workers in overalls, sweatshirts and heavy work boots divided themselves up. At the call of their union business agent, most volunteered to sit in front of the closed gates for the first part of the night. A smaller second group agreed to take the shift from midnight to dawn.

It might seem unnecessary to mount a watch in front of locked gates, particularly since these same workers had been unceremoniously pushed off terminal property only hours before. But they had little faith that this lockout wasn't some trick by the big shipping companies to bring in new workers, or even soldiers, to take their places on the wharves and ships. After recent threats by the Bush Administration to militarize West Coast ports, they might have had reason for suspicion.

On Friday, September 27, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents the shipping and stevedoring companies in bargaining with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), declared that for thirty-six hours union members would be locked out of their jobs from San Diego to the Canadian border. The action, according to Joseph Miniace, the association's CEO, was punishment for what he called a slowdown by the union. "I will not pay workers to strike," he announced. "I will only pay them to work."

When the punishment period had elapsed, however, the lockout was lifted only for a few brief hours in most shipping terminals. In some, the gates never reopened at all. Declaring that the union was not dispatching qualified workers to operate the towering container cranes, Miniace shut down West Coast shipping indefinitely. Work would only resume, he said, when the union either agreed to a new labor contract on the PMA's terms or was willing to go back to work under the old one. "They treat us like children and want us to come back like puppy dogs," Mead told his members as they left to picket their chosen gates.

The union's fears that the lockout was a setup to demand federal intervention were well grounded; after a week, President Bush invoked the Taft-Hartley Act and ordered the workers to return to their jobs for eighty days. The government even proposed, and the ILWU accepted, that they return to work for thirty days under the old contract. But the PMA refused the offer, preferring Taft-Hartley.

The lockout left millions of dollars in cargo sitting on docks up and down the West Coast, or on ships motionless at anchor. Some, like the two huge freighters sitting at one Oakland terminal, were partially unloaded. The spanking-new terminal here just began operations a few months ago. Its container cranes, some of the world's largest, were the celebration of the San Francisco waterfront when they sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge, delicately carried on specially built ships across the Pacific from China. But the cranes stood like huge, still birds with beaks in the air, oblivious to the ships below stacked with the containers they were meant to handle.

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