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Union-Busting on the Dock of the Bay
By Bruce Tompkins (aka Sean Bennett)
On September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush was given a sort of carte blanche by the American people. I realize the country was in a state of shock, but this was not a good move. The President has shamelessly taken advantage of the tender post-September 11th political climate by pushing forward numerous items on his extreme right wing agenda. Bush has recently turned his attention toward California’s West Coast, where a labor dispute threatens to pit Bush against longshore workers fighting for their very survival. Like Ronald Reagan’s 1981 defeat of an air traffic controllers strike, President Bush is aiming toward avoiding a strike on the docks.
Looking back briefly to those dark days over twenty years ago, one is strained to point out just how far we’ve come. Indeed it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same. There’s a conservative Republican in the White House, a self-inflicted economic recession, and perhaps most importantly, a constantly plotting omnipresent enemy, used to justify outrageous and otherwise unacceptable domestic programs. It is this omnipresent enemy, that diverts minds away from undesirable questions and debates, and forces the national dialogue to occupy itself with one simple manageable issue. Like Saddam Hussein for example. This is why few notice the ferocity with which Bush is bludgeoning the labor movement. Already fledgling for decades, organized labor in America is faced with the daunting challenge of standing what little ground it has left. With The War on Terrorism, Inc. looming ever present, the outlook for working Americans, grows bleaker by the day.
First to find itself in Bush’s crosshairs, are the government employees unions. Particularly those representing workers of homeland security-related agencies. President Bush has threatened to veto legislation creating a Department of Homeland Security, if it does not give him the flexibility to hire and fire these workers as he sees fit. A move such as this would be a major defeat for government employee’s unions, and yet probably wouldn’t make us too much safer. But if Bush can get away with this, why stop the fun here?
Since July 1st, contract negotiations have been underway between the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents 10,500 west coast dock workers. The PMA is hoping that Bush will throw his weight behind them and use his presidential power to show the ILWU who‘s boss. Already, powerful forces are coordinating efforts to break the union. Powerful retailers, like The Gap and Wal-Mart, have joined forces with the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, lobbying the President to intervene on behalf of the PMA.
A special task force put together by the Bush administration, involving the Departments of Labor and Defense, the Office of Homeland Security, and the Council of Economic Advisors,
recently issued a report threatening such intervention against the dockworkers, should they partake in any workplace action. Among the weapons in the President’s quite extensive arsenal, is the Taft-Hartley Act, which he could use to prevent the union from striking. This would eviscerate the unions’ collective bargaining abilities. If matters became more urgent, Bush could deploy the National Guard. According to Ron Bigler, writing for In These Times Magazine, the Administration has even been talking about breaking up the union into twenty-nine separate bargaining units. Since much of the unions strength comes from its numbers this could be a devastating blow. Say’s Ron Bigler; "The Bush administration’s intervention in the longshore workers’ negotiations seems intended to neutralize one of organized labor’s few remaining strongholds." Depriving the ILWU of the right to strike could be catastrophic for the union.
The Bush administration would like us to believe that this is all in the interest of national security. However, it looks more like Bush is simply looking after the security of corporate profits. From the Bush administration, this is just more of the same. Since the beginning, Bush and his corporate benefactors have been plucking political capital out of the tragedy of September 11. With the repeal of the Estate Tax, repeal of the Alternative Minimum Tax, and the passage of the Economic Stimulus Package, Bush has been giving away the US Treasury, with Corporate America lined up at the trough. All this has come at the painful expense of working and middle class Americans. The federal deficit is estimated at around 200 billion dollars, unemployment is up 36 percent from the time Bush took office, and thousands of pension-holders were put out to pasture after the Wall Street meltdown.
So it must not be enough that Bush has to wreck the economy with his own special brand of voodoo economics. Now he wants to take food directly out of the mouths of working people, by preventing unions from successfully bargaining. Doesn’t Wal-Mart and the Bush family have enough money and power? Are times really that tight for Corporate America, that Bush has to accelerate the upward redistribution of wealth by attacking the last remaining vestiges of worker strength? Perhaps the Republicans will only be happy when there are no more unions, and everyone is working for minimum wage. Just looking at the trends already underway is cause for alarm. For a frightening glimpse at the future, let’s look at Wal-Mart, since they too would like to play a role in this conflict. Wal-Mart is the nations largest private employer, and is vigorously anti-union and treats it’s workers like just so much overhead, to be reduced whenever and wherever possible. In the America of Bush and Cheney, this "Wal-Martization" of the workforce, currently in progress, means that no jobs are safe anymore. But it need not be this way.
For inspiration, ILWU workers need only remember their own past. The West Coast docks have long been a scene of violent class conflict. Such was the case in the year 1934.
On July 5th of that year, on what has come to be known as "bloody Thursday", San Francisco Police attacked a longshore picket line, killing two, and injuring hundreds more. About a week and a half later, the ILA, a forerunner of the modern ILWU, initiated a general strike that paralyzed the greater San Francisco Bay Area for several days. Conservative union leaders eventually were able to have it called off. However, the ILA, won many concessions from the shipping industry, and went on to organize scores of new workers. Such action would hardly be thought of in this day and age, but it does show that the West Coast dockworkers can be a feisty bunch if they want to be.
American union members have become accustomed to playing defense. But what is now a struggle to defend hard-fought gains, could very quickly become a struggle for survival. As has always been the case, the workers could shake off these corporate predators in the blink of an eye, were they not so cowed by patriotism. This patriotism, which has kept the trade union movement from boiling over on many occasions, now threatens its very existence.
If the Bush administration and it’s corporate cohorts emerge victorious from this struggle, it will be an ugly precedent for labor in modern times. Bush will ride the momentum to the next labor dispute, and the likelihood of victory will be greater. This will only worsen the perception that organized labor is no longer relevant. The last few decades have seen a crushing fall from grace for mainstream labor organizations. Often times, it is politically motivated and sometimes corrupt leadership that is to blame. However, rank-and-file union members, have the ability to change this. Standing up to President Bush and corporate greed would be a good place to start.
And so, on that note I shall conclude with the news that the ILWU has broken off contract negotiations and begun organizing rallies and demonstrations along the West Coast. As emotions heat up, Bush’s obnoxious meddling may yet prove to be too much for the longshore workers to tolerate. It may be just the cold shower Bush needs.
Sean Bennett is a college student at SUNY Cobleskill, who writes and publishes articles under the nom de plume, Bruce Tompkins. Occasionally, Bennett will also publish material under the names Bertha Hann, and Shana Abramovitz. The former, is used when writing deliberately controversial letters to the local newspaper.