A Union on the Line
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.