October surprises are built into our system, since elections come in November. Cliffhanger movies in Hollywood’s old days could not have staged it better. Leaving aside hurricanes roaring out of the Gulf of Mexico, we now have, aside from the thump of the war drums:
a lockout of some 10,500 dockworkers at every port on the West Coast from Seattle to San Diego, with the owners and big retail chains like Wal-Mart begging Bush to help them break the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). In the event of a strike Bush could start by imposing a ninety-day back-to-work order under the Taft-Hartley law.
He could escalate by trying to place the longshore workers under the aegis of the Railway Labor Act rather than the National Labor Relations Act. The former allows the government to close down a strike by fiat and impose a settlement.
Another line of attack would be to try to undercut the ILWU’s strategic ace in the hole, its status as a bargaining unit for every port on the Pacific Coast. Before Harry Bridges won that right for the union back in the 1930s, the owners could simply whipsaw the different bargaining units by shifting shipments from a struck port to one still operating.
The Administration has already had Tom Ridge hector ILWU leader Tony Spinosa with a phone call declaring that a stoppage would be injurious to the country. Implication: that the dispute would be cast as a terrorist attack by longshoremen against the national interest. The White House has also threatened to bring in the Navy to work the ports.
How tempting it must look for Bush and his political managers! Amid the war cries against Saddam they could stage a reprise of Reagan’s onslaught on the air traffic controllers, with Bush waving the flag and deriding the longshoremen as Al Qaeda’s auxiliaries, overpaid and bent on resisting modern technology that could fortify America’s competitiveness on the battleground of world trade. He could even wave some appliance from Wal-Mart, made by a Chinese teenager working for 20 cents an hour, and proclaim that 50 percent of its retail price could be blamed on the greed of the dockworkers.
Actually, the longshoremen stand as a good symbol of what organized labor can do: get its members a decent wage (after thirty years or so of dangerous, skillful work they can maybe hope to earn what an MBA in his mid-20s, two years out of the Wharton School, would demand on walking in the door at a Wall Street firm); display a social and political conscience; and advertise the unfashionable idea that blue-collar work does not have to mean a starvation wage, looted pension fund and no healthcare. If you want the latter, drive, as I have, down the streets of Odessa, Texas, which is where George Bush formed his notions of what constitute workers’ rights and a livable wage, and which has a murder rate that regularly battles Miami for first place on the national charts.