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Stakes are high in West Coast dockworkers' fight
"This is class struggle"

October 18, 2002 | Page 5

LEE SUSTAR reports on the issues behind George W. Bush's intervention in the West Coast dockworkers' struggle.

ONE DAY after 10,500 dockworkers returned to work under the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act invoked by George W. Bush, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and their supporters sent a message of resistance. "This is a class struggle," Local 10 business agent Trent Willis told the crowd of 200 at a solidarity rally at the ILWU Local 10 union hall in San Francisco.

Calling Bush's intervention in the dispute "Shaft-Hartley," Willis said, "Make no mistake about it--the bosses and the government want to bust our union because they know we represent a militant and progressive tradition that must be broken if they're to succeed in imposing their global corporate agenda."

Taft-Hartley allowed a federal judge to impose an 80-day "cooling-off" period in which work stoppages are banned. The law was last invoked a quarter century ago, when Democratic President Jimmy Carter tried--and failed--to force striking coal miners to return to work.

But Taft-Hartley is just one way that the government intervenes in labor struggles to favor employers. Under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), which covers railroads and the airlines, the president can ban strikes for 60 days and create a presidential emergency board to try to push through a deal. If no agreement is reached in that period, a union may strike, or employers can lock workers out--but Congress can then legislate a settlement.

Bush used the RLA to ban a strike by mechanics at Northwest Airlines last year--and announced a pre-emptive ban on all airline strikes. He was following in the footsteps of Bill Clinton, who used the RLA 14 times to ban potential railroad and airline strikes--including a 1997 walkout at American Airlines.

But even without Taft-Hartley and the RLA, the employers routinely get courts to intervene on their behalf. Under terms of a 1989 consent decree, for example, a federal judge gained oversight of the Teamsters union to rid the union of the mob.

But the government also used its powers to oust reformer Ron Carey as union president following the union's 1997 strike victory against United Parcel Service--even though Carey was ultimately cleared of that alleged wrongdoing in court. This government intervention cleared the way for the election of James Hoffa as president in 1998--whose closest associates in the union have been exposed as corrupt and mob-tied.

Today, Bush is preparing the ground for a possible repeat of the 1981 PATCO strike, when President Ronald Reagan smashed the air traffic controllers' union by firing 11,000 strikers. That threat was addressed by speakers at the October 10 rally at Local 10.

One was Asher Harer, a member of the ILWU strike committee in 1946 and again in 1948--when Taft-Hartley was first used against the dockworkers' union. Harer spelled out the stakes in this struggle. "Money is a secondary question--what's at stake is power," Harer, a longtime socialist, told the crowd. "[The PMA] wants to do what they damn well please, and the ILWU stands in the way of that."

Amanda Maystead contributed to this report.

Bush gang takes aim at ILWU

WHEN BUSH intervened in the West Coast dockworkers' struggle, the White House claimed "national security" as a major justification. According to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a port shutdown would "degrade military readiness, hinder the [Defense] department's ability to prosecute the global war on terrorism and undercut other defense needs and worldwide commitments."

This is nonsense. While some military cargo is handled on civilian ships, the armed forces aren't included under the PMA agreement.

Unfortunately, ILWU President James Spinosa played into Bush and Rumsfeld's hands by making "national security" an issue. "[S]ince 9/11 in this set of bargaining, the union has approached the employers on many occasions, putting forward demands and proposals that would ask them to participate with this union in securing the ports," Spinosa said at a September 30 press conference.

Spinosa's attempt to be more patriotic than the employers is part of a conservative strategy to bury the ILWU's radical history of struggle and support for progressive causes--such as shutting down the ports to demand a new trial for death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal and to protest the World Trade Organization.

"This union has been a responsible union; we have been responsible for over 30 years without imperiling the economic situation in our country," he told reporters. In the effort to be "responsible," Spinosa refused to take a strike authorization vote and imposed a gag rule on union members who criticized his leadership.

And in negotiations in July, he offered to surrender hundreds of clerks' jobs in exchange for continued union jurisdiction over newly created positions. The PMA responded to this "responsible" proposal with a lockout.

Now, with the Taft-Hartley law behind them, employers and the government will try to use a looming U.S. war on Iraq to pressure Spinosa to capitulate in the name of "national security."

The ILWU's history of militancy and resistance isn't some relic of the past. On the contrary, reviving that tradition is the key to winning the battle ahead.

Ken Riley on the lessons of the Charleston Five victory
"We won because of solidarity"

KEN RILEY is president of International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) Local 1422 in Charleston, S.C. He became a nationally known labor leader as the advocate of the Charleston Five--dockworkers placed under house arrest for 20 months after a police attack on a legal picket line of a nonunion ship in January 2000.

Thanks to an international labor solidarity campaign--including the threat of a dockworkers' day of action worldwide if the five went to trial--the men won their freedom a year ago. "The struggle of the Charleston Five showed that the labor movement is collectively up for the challenge we face today," Riley told Socialist Worker. "Through solidarity, we won that struggle."

The first union to offer support was ILWU Local 10, which sent representatives to deliver a check for $5,000 to ILA Local 1422 just days after the police attack. In the months that followed, ILWU members contributed tens of thousands more dollars to the Charleston Five defense campaign--including a check for $167,000 even after the five won their freedom.

Despite the objections of some in the labor movement, the campaign focused on racial justice as well as workers' rights. Four of the Charleston Five are Black--and the ILA in Charleston is overwhelmingly African American, in a state with a history of slavery and racism.

Riley took word of the struggle to local and national meetings of several unions, including the ILWU, United Auto Workers, Service Employees International Union, Transport Workers Union and the Teamsters, as well as civil rights groups such as the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney sent a letter calling on affiliated unions to form defense committees, and the federation backed a solidarity rally in Columbia, S.C., in June 2001. Defense committees raised thousands of dollars at labor rallies endorsed by local labor councils in San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, Cleveland and New York.

"Every facet of what we needed to win was addressed," Riley said. "We had input from a variety of sources. We didn't leave one stone unturned."

After September 11 attacks, some in the labor movement felt that the push for "law and order" would sideline the issue of the Charleston Five and workers' rights. But the defense campaign pressed ahead--and prosecutors finally threw in the towel.

"I think international solidarity was key," Riley said. "The shippers started to realize the impact on their business that would take place if solidarity action would continue to build."

Today, the stakes are even higher--and we need to apply the lessons of the Charleston Five victory on a bigger scale.

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