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Will dockworkers' union stand up to attacks?
Bosses up pressure on ILWU

By Brian Belknap | July 12, 2002 | Page 11

WEST COAST dockworkers' union leaders were continuing to negotiate with management and extend their contract day-to-day as Socialist Worker went to press. This stands in sharp contrast to the 1999 contract, when the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) agreed to work without a contract and then used "work-to-rule" tactics to slow the ports to a crawl. The employers' organization, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), caved in a matter of days.

This year, there has been no work-to-rule. A strike would require a membership vote that would take at least two weeks--and ILWU President James Spinosa hasn't called one.

This stands in sharp contrast to the militant tradition of the ILWU, whose members over the years have taken solidarity action to support workers from South Africa to Liverpool, England to Chile.

And it's not sitting well with the rank and file. "There's a growing sense of frustration among ILWU members that the PMA is stonewalling negotiations. There's a sense that progress is not being made and concern over loss of our wages, hours and working conditions," ILWU Local 10 business agent Jack Heyman told Socialist Worker. "There is a great concern over the erosion of the hiring hall, and more and more longshore workers are speaking up about this."

Meanwhile, the PMA is pulling out the big guns. Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge has made thinly veiled threats to the ILWU, saying that a strike would not be in the national interest. In addition, proposed legislation would further hamper organizing efforts on the docks.

All these threats have led to a "play it safe" strategy on the part of the union, which has focused on winning the support of Democrats.

Militants in the union like Heyman have a problem with that. "What they're trying to do is get legislation passed parallel to the Railway Labor Act which much more tightly regiments and, during these days of the so-called war against terrorism, that militarizes the dock and that's a real threat to trade unions on the waterfront," Heyman said. "The way to counter that is not to stick your head in the sand. The way to counter a threat to trade union rights is to exercise trade union rights--and to bring in all those who are concerned about the loss of civil liberties under the guise of Bush's war against terrorism."

Heyman continued: "I think that the portworkers' solidarity rally [June 27] was a step in that direction. Not only were there trade unionists at the rally, but there were people from the west Oakland community, and there were defenders of [death-row inmate] Mumia [Abu-Jamal] at that rally too. All these groups are concerned with the loss of civil rights in this repressive period since 9/11."

Anti-labor laws have been used by employers over the last 20 years as they succeeded in reducing some of the most powerful unions in this country to mere shadows of their former selves. This has helped business to move to "lean production" methods where they can reduce inventories and use "just-in-time" production techniques in which parts are manufactured in other parts of the world and are scheduled for delivery shortly before they are to be used. Essentially, cargo ships have become floating warehouses.

That's what makes the fight with the ILWU so important. Robin Lanier, executive director of the West Coast Waterfront Coalition--which includes Wal-Mart, Target, Toyota--was blunt. "A strike, lockout or slowdown would be very damaging to shippers and the economy," Lanier said. "But failing to address the problems at the terminals would be equally if not more costly over the long term."

"We have an enormous responsibility to negotiate an agreement without any work interruption on the waterfront," said Joseph Miniace, president and chief executive officer of the PMA. But the PMA has shown its true colors by trying to impose a speedup during negotiations. This has put ILWU President Spinosa to the test.

But if the militants in the ILWU have their way, the PMA won't get away with these attacks. Said Heyman: "I think the sense among the rank and file right now is that it's time to take the handcuffs and the muzzles off, it's time to start fighting back against the PMA and it's been so far a one-sided propaganda war. For longshoreman, it's important to counter that verbal attack but it's even more important to exercise our power on the docks."

Using that power to beat back the PMA is vital--not only for this fight, but for all the other labor struggles to come.

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