The Barbed Wire Straitjacket
by David Bacon
Z magazine, February 2003
It n 1981, when President Ronald Reagan
replaced thousands of air traffic controllers and threw their
leaders in jail, the permanent placement of strikers became a
normal aspect of U.S. Iabor relations. Strikes became far riskier
for workers than they'd been at any time since the turn of the
Labor relations are now undergoing an
similar, equally profound n change. West coast dockers have -
compared the new terrain they a faced in bargaining their recent
y contract to negotiations in a barbed wire straitjacket. Although
their - union and the world's largest ship- ping companies reached
agreement , on a new pact in late November, the circumstances
overshadowing the talks were a clear warning to the rest of labor
throughout the country.
A new attitude towards unions under the
Bush administration is changing that terrain. Threats and legal
intervention by the Federal government essentially made job action
by longshore workers, intended to pressure their employers to
arrive at an equitable settlement, as risky as the air traffic
controllers strike a generation ago.
"Given what we went through over
the last six months, including the lockout of workers in every
port, and then the invocation of the Taft-Hartley Act, we're glad
we were able to reach an agreement at all," explained Steve
Stallone, communications director for the International Longshore
and Warehouse Union (ILWU). "So the fact that we were able
to make progress on all three issues important to us was a big
In December, representatives of the local
unions that work the docks from San Diego to Canada met for four
days, and after intense discussion, recommended by a 92.4 percent
margin that ILWU members ratify the package in January (results
were still not known at the time this article is written).
Other voices in the union, however, were
critical. "A labor contract is much more than benefits,"
said San Francisco longshoreman Jack Heyman. "The truth is
that labor can not negotiate a good contract with a Taft-Hartley
gun pointed at its head.... We, longshore workers, should reject
this contract and send our negotiating committee back, this time
to negotiate with some muscle by lining up concrete support in
the U.S. and internationally. "
Longshore workers went into negotiations
last June with three goals, according to Stallone.
* They wanted to preserve their healthcare
benefits in the face of demands by the Pacific Maritime Association
that they pay part of skyrocketing costs
* They wanted increases in their pensions
* They wanted to ensure that employer
proposals to implement new technology wouldn't result in the loss
The new agreement preserves longshore
workers' health benefits with no copayment by workers, at an estimated
present cost to employers of $220 million annually.
By the end of the six-year agreement,
that cost is estimated to rise to $500 million. The pension settlement
will increase benefits by 60 percent over the same period.
But both provisions came at a cost. The
PMA will implement a new system for tracking container movement
using scanners and other computer-aided devices, replacing the
system under which longshore clerks manually entered information
into the shippers' database. That will eventually eliminate about
400 jobs, out of a total clerk workforce on the west coast of
1,200. No clerk will actually lose his or her job, since the contract
guarantees 40 hours of work a week for the career of every current
member. But in the future, the number of jobs covered will be
reduced. In return, the union was able to win jurisdiction over
jobs planning the movement of containers on trains and in yards
on the waterfront. Those jobs were previously outsourced.
The objective of the employers was to
keep workers using the new technology out of the union entirely.
Workers in these categories also included vessel planners, who
tell the cranes where to put containers on the ships, and clerical
workers in company offices. A few hundred of them have already
the ILWU in many ports, attracted by its
high wage rates. To make up for the potential job loss among the
clerks, the union sought to include them in all ports by extending
its jurisdiction. Now it will have to organize them.
"There are problems with the settlement,
as you might expect from any contract negotiated under the gun
of Taft-Hartley," Stallone noted. "The wage differential
between the highest- and lowest-paid increased, which we've always
fought against." In addition, there is now a new differential
between the wages of drivers in the huge container cranes and
those operating cranes used to load and unload bulk cargo.
The six-year agreement is also unusual.
Unions normally seek to limit contracts to two or three years,
since inflation can spiral out of control, taking large chunks
out of paychecks. Other changes involving automation and technology
can be difficult to resolve under agreements that don't foresee
them. The ILWU agreed to the long term in order to space the large
pension increase out over a number of years. The expiration of
the agreement in 2008 also means that the union might avoid renegotiating
it under Bush, even if he's reelected in 2004.
The bargaining strategy of the Pacific
Maritime Association rested on removing the union's ability to
exert pressure during negotiations to protect wages and conditions
on the docks. With the Bush administration in office, now was
the time, employers believed, to take their best shot.
Before negotiations began in June, the
shippers and some of their biggest customers, including the Gap,
Target, Mattel, and Home Depot, organized the West Coast Waterfront
Coalition. Together, they held secret meetings with a Bush administration
task force headed by White House advisor Carlos Bonilla. Once
negotiations began, Homeland Secretary Tom Ridge, and representatives
of the Department of Labor, phoned ILWU President Jim Spinosa,
warning him that the Administration would view any strike or interruption
of work on the docks as a threat to national security. They threatened
to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, to use the military to replace
striking workers, to place the waterfront under the Railway Labor
Act (making a strike virtually illegal), and removing the union's
ability to negotiate a single labor agreement covering all ports
on the coast.
The ILWU avoided being provoked into a
strike, but finally, at the peak shipping season, employers locked
out their own workers. As a pretext, the PMA accused the union
of organizing an alleged work slowdown. According to the Journal
of Commerce, however, 30 percent more cargo was crossing the docks
than last year-the greatest volume in history. The speedup on
the docks was so intense that the accident rate shot up, costing
the lives of five longshore workers in 2002. When the union told
its members to work at a safe speed, the PMA called it a slowdown.
Once the dockers were locked out, employers
then demanded Bush invoke Taft- Hartley. The Administration's
legal brief before Judge Alsup voiced a startling new philosophy,
elaborated by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield. He held that
all commercial cargo could be considered important to the military,
not just specifically goods intended for military use abroad.
Any stoppage on the docks, therefore, was a threat to national
Instead of defining a threat to national
security in terms of vital life-dependent services, this use of
national security defines it as economic. Any strike halting the
continued operation of an industry or a large profitable enterprise
could be defined as such a threat and made illegal.
PMA based its strategy on this philosophy.
Long before negotiations even started, it sponsored a steady media
drumbeat announcing that a waterfront strike would send the economy
into a tailspin. One study made in April predicted losses of $1-2
billion a day. The study was made by a Lancaster, Pennsylvania
management consultant firm, Martin Associates, and paid for by
the PMA. During the lockout, those figures were often quoted in
the press as a measurement of actual losses, not predicted ones.
After U.S. District Court Judge William
Alsup invoked Taft-Hartley, using those numbers as a justification,
Patrick Anderson of the Anderson Economic Group made another study.
He was only able to document actual losses of $1.67 billion, or
$140 million a day. The higher figure, he said, was "closer
to the economic impact of sinking the ships than delaying them."
By then, however, the original figures had already justified Federal
At the beginning of October, the men and
women of the docks went back to work, after having been locked
out for 12 days. They returned, not voluntarily, as they had offered
to do from the beginning, but under the Federal injunction won
by the shipping corporations. Bargaining continued for another
month, therefore, under the Taft-Hartley Act's 80-day "cooling
On the surface, it seems incomprehensible
why the association would need a Federal order to open the gates
of the closed terminals. After all, they'd shut them themselves
and could have opened them at any time. But the resumption of
work was never really the issue. Instead, the PMA wanted two things.
It wanted a guarantee that dockers would be forced to continue
unloading ships through the peak shipping season, when goods traveling
from the sweatshops of the eastern Pacific rim are en route to
stores for the Christmas rush. It wanted to make the union so
vulnerable that it would be unable to put any pressure on employers
After work resumed, the PMA continued
to accuse the union of slowing the pace as a means of threatening
to invoke further Federal intervention. "The ILWU is playing
games with the U.S. economy, and inflicting economic pain and
hardship on scores of companies and their employees," said
Joe Miniace, PMA director.
Longshore wages were never the primary
issue. The hourly rate on the docks, prior to the new contract,
ranged from $27.68 to $33.48-about the same as a plumber or electrician.
These are good wages in terms of the U.S. industrial average,
but the shipping companies never claimed poverty, and are making
At the root of the dispute was the PMA's
decision to try to end an arrangement that successfully allowed
the introduction of advanced technology onto the docks for the
last 40 years. In 1960, the union agreed that employers could
introduce the first container cranes, the giant machines that
now move cargo containers on and off the huge ships built specially
to carry them. Even though this change cost the jobs of tens of
thousands of west coast dockers, the union agreed that so long
as its members did the new jobs technology produced, it would
not try to stop it.
Over the coming two decades, the companies
want to automate shipping far beyond the use of automated scanners
and tracking devices. In their vision of the future, cranes and
dockside machines will eventually be operated by remote control,
perhaps by people miles away from the wharves. That day, however,
is further in the future than the expiration of the present contract.
The definitive battle to determine whether the philosophical framework
of the 1960 agreement still holds-technology for jobs-was not
fought to a conclusion this time around.
What did surface, however, was the new
interventionist attitude of the Bush administration, justified
in the name of national security. While a contract is in place,
the new Republican-dominated Congress could still implement the
threats made by Bush when negotiations started. One possible move
might place the union under the
Railway Labor Act, eliminating its right
to strike. Even under Clinton, with Democrats in control of the
Senate, Congress placed Federal Express under the RLA, effectively
ending efforts by its workers to organize. A Republican Congress
might also break up the ILWU's coastwide contract into separate
agreements in every port, making strikes pointless, since employers
would be able to ship goods to working ports while workers struck
Agreeing to a six-year contract was designed
to forestall that possibility. "We think it will help avoid
legislation coming after us," said Stallone. "By showing
labor stability on waterfront, we're hoping that problem won't
resurface after Congress convenes in January."
But the Bush administration, which also
used back-to-work orders against employees at Northwest and United
Airlines last year, has established a precedent. Interruptions
of economic activity, this new doctrine says, are a threat to
national security. As a result, other workers may see the Federal
government intervene forcefully on their employer's side.
David Bacon is a freelance writer and