A Union on the Line | The Nation


A Union on the Line

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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.

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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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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.

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