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.

A similar scene unfolded in every port. In Oakland half a dozen ships were left at dockside, and a handful more at anchor in the bay. In the enormous Los Angeles/Long Beach port, many more were idle. And in Portland, Seattle, Tacoma and a dozen smaller ports, it was the same. The idle containers held an endless variety of products, including many consumer goods–clothing, shoes, televisions and more–made in factories on the east side of the Pacific Rim. These are the sweatshop goods destined for store shelves at Wal-Mart and the other big retail chains across the country, due to arrive just in time for the Christmas rush.

One wouldn’t think these companies would risk holiday sales on a confrontation with dockworkers–people they don’t employ themselves, and whose wages constitute a tiny fraction of the cost of transporting their products to market. Yet the PMA’s lockout strategy apparently evolved with their consent. When negotiations began this past May to renew the longshore contract, a new organization, the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, publicly warned the Bush Administration about the dangers of a strike provoked by unreasonable union demands. The coalition brought together shipping giants like Maersk and American President Lines with retailers like Mattel, Home Depot and The Gap.

Through the spring, the group held covert meetings with a Bush Administration task force set up to monitor the longshore talks, headed by White House adviser Carlos Bonilla. Once negotiations were under way, Homeland Security adviser Tom Ridge and representatives of the Labor Department phoned ILWU president James Spinosa. They warned him that the Administration would view any union strike as a threat to national security, and would act to stop it. The possible interventions they mentioned included invoking the Taft-Hartley Act, with an eighty-day cooling-off period; the use of the military to replace striking workers; a Congressional bill to place the waterfront under the Railway Labor Act, making strikes virtually impossible; and removing the union’s ability to negotiate a single labor agreement covering ports on the coast.

Meanwhile, a steady drumbeat of publicity announced that a work stoppage would cost the economy $1 billion a day, a figure even business school economists have called exaggerated. In fact, the billion-dollar number has its source in a study issued earlier this year, before negotiations started, by Martin Associates, a Lancaster, Pennsylvania, management consultant hired by the PMA.

West Coast longshore negotiations are normally fractious, but the tense climate made this set of negotiations more antagonistic than usual. From June through August, little progress was made, and the union finally announced at the end of the summer that it would not extend the old agreement any further. Miniace began publicly warning the union not to strike or slow work down.

In fact, according to Clarence Thomas, secretary treasurer of San Francisco’s Longshore Local 10, a larger volume of cargo was moving across the docks than ever before. The Journal of Commerce noted that cargo levels increased by as much as 30 percent over the summer. Thomas accused the PMA of engaging in a massive speedup and compromising safety, citing the deaths of five longshore workers in accidents this year. “They can accuse us of anything they want,” he said. “But it’s not worth our lives to do this work at an unsafe pace.” The union’s negotiating committee passed a resolution stating that “longshore workers and marine clerks should work safely in strict accordance with all provisions of the Pacific Coast Marine Safety Code and all federal and state health and safety regulations, including but not limited to all speed limits and safe practices.” Miniace then accused the union of “working to rule” and using safety complaints to slow work down.

Leading up to the lockout, the volume of container traffic began to cause labor shortages in many ports. A week before, crews couldn’t be filled in Tacoma and Long Beach, despite the fact that many workers were already “doubling up”–working two shifts back to back.

Meanwhile, some of the economic issues in negotiations, such as healthcare coverage, were settled after the union refused to continue extending the old contract. But that left the most contentious issue outstanding–the introduction of automation. For those familiar with waterfront history, the impending collision was reminiscent of the last dock strike, in 1971. That marked the end of one era of great technological change, when container cranes revolutionized shipping, reducing the number of West Coast longshore jobs from more than 100,000 to the present 10,500.

Today dockworkers look with trepidation at the beginning of another era. Decades from now, the waterfront will be largely automated. Workers in front of computer screens, often hundreds of miles away from the docks, will control the movement of cargo on and off ships. Ports like Singapore and Rotterdam already have this new technology, and the world’s shipping companies want to introduce the same system on the Pacific Coast.

Wages and benefits are not the main issue. The hourly rate for longshore workers ranges from $27.68 to $33.48–about the same as a plumber or electrician. Employers paid $32,320 per worker for benefits in 2002, about $16 per hour. Most California longshore workers are African-American or Latino, and longshore jobs have become the economic backbone in many communities of color. While these are good wages in terms of the US industrial average, the shipping companies are not claiming poverty in negotiations, and in general are making large profits.

What the companies would like, however, is to keep certain workers out of the union–the vessel planners who tell the cranes where to put every shipping container, the clerical workers who help track container movement and the drivers who haul containers in and out of the ports. In many ports, workers in these categories have already joined the ILWU, or tried to, attracted by its wage rates. The union wants to include them in all ports, to make up for the potential loss of jobs among the clerks who currently track cargo manually. PMA negotiators have said no. For the union, this is an issue of its own survival.

“As work changes, some jobs disappear, while others increase,” explains ILWU spokesman Steve Stallone. “Right now our jobs are the ones disappearing. When the companies say they don’t want our members doing these new jobs, it’s like saying they want the union to disappear too.”

In the 1960s the PMA reached a historic agreement on the same issue with the ILWU’s most charismatic leader, Harry Bridges. The union accepted the introduction of the giant container cranes and their accompanying technology, in place of the old cargo net and hook. The change cost thousands of jobs, but the shipping companies agreed that union members would do the new jobs technology created.

The PMA now wants to abandon that agreement, which has held for more than three decades. In July the union proposed a basic framework in which it would not object to introducing automatic readers and other devices at terminal gates, permitting companies to track containers without the labor of clerks who now do that job on paper, putting their data into computers. In return, the union asked for jurisdiction over the new jobs created by more-automated ports. According to the ILWU’s Spinosa, “The union has told the employers over and over again, ‘We will meet you in the middle, we will allow for free flow of information, we will allow for technology to move forward, providing that you meet us halfway on the jobs that are left to be done in this industry.'”

When bargaining began on May 13, anticipating the difficulty of resolving this issue, Miniace announced that “ILWU members, our registered work force of longshoremen and clerks will be guaranteed work opportunity under this contract, and, more importantly, the opportunity to move into new positions, with methods of work and a secure future.” Some companies, like Stevedoring Services of America (SSA), that specialize in loading and unloading cargo, consider longshore wages, and the ability to freely implement technology, to be enormous factors in their operations. Large shipping companies have fewer problems with the PMA’s original position, since their profits come from operating vessels and longshore wages are a small percentage of their costs. When these divisions within the employer association made agreement difficult, the ILWU mounted demonstrations targeting the SSA terminals. Accusations from employers of slowdowns, and threats to lock workers out, escalated in response. Finally, on September 27, the PMA locked the union out and the present confrontation began. The lockout didn’t surprise the union. Spinosa noted that “the PMA, going into bargaining, was talking about lockouts, the very thing we find ourselves in today.”

Automation would be a difficult problem to resolve in any round of negotiations. But with the lockout and the use of Taft-Hartley, Bush’s willingness to intervene now overshadows normal bargaining, and every other union in the country is watching closely.

Just prior to the lockout, the Labor Department told the union in writing that it had “no plans” for using troops, bringing the union under the Railway Labor Act or attacking its coastwide agreement. A Taft-Hartley injunction, however, may provide the PMA with a pretext for demanding further federal action, like declaring coastwide bargaining illegal or using troops if longshore workers insist on working at a safe and bearable pace. Even without militarization and more injunctions, an eighty-day cooling off period will allow shippers and retailers to meet the Christmas rush and stockpile for further confrontation. During this period, the PMA will have no incentive to negotiate, and Bush will likely call any union job action a threat to national security.

In 1971 President Nixon used Taft-Hartley to order the ILWU back to work for eighty days. The cooling-off period was followed by a 134-day strike. Today the PMA strategy is again totally dependent on Taft-Hartley and federal pressure. And Bush’s willingness to intervene will affect unions as profoundly as President Reagan’s smashing of the air traffic controllers’ union in 1981. Consequently, the AFL-CIO has helped the ILWU organize a political campaign to get statements and resolutions from elected officials and public bodies, from California Governor Gray Davis and Washington Governor Gary Locke to city councils up and down the coast, urging Bush to stay out of the negotiations.

Ultimately, invoking the Taft-Hartley Act will force union members to load containers onto ships, but those same containers may not be welcome at their destinations. John Bowers, president of the International Longshoremen’s Association, which represents dockworkers on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, has warned that if the conflict escalates, ILA members would honor ILWU picket lines in front of terminal gates. The ILWU won the respect of rank-and-file ILA members when it became the backbone last year of the national campaign to free the Charleston Five [see JoAnn Wypijewski, “Audacity on Trial,” August 6/13, 2001].

The PMA and the White House have also received letters from dock unions in Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Finland, Estonia, Peru, Colombia, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Taiwan and South Africa. Much of that support is because of the ILWU’s willingness to stop work to defend unions under attack in South Africa, Australia and Liverpool over the past two decades. Local 10 secretary treasurer Thomas traveled to France as the lockout began, putting the union’s case before European longshore workers, and the ILWU has announced plans to send out other road warriors as well.

The union seems in no mood to back down. “The ILWU will not be intimidated,” Spinosa declared.