Bush Taft-Hartley court order forces shippers to end lockout

President George W. Bush secured a court order Oct. 8 ordering the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) to temporarily end its lockout of 10,500 dockworkers at 29 West Coast ports and ordering work to resume without a contract.

Dockworkers returned to work Oct. 9.

Just hours before U.S. District Judge William H. Alsup in San Francisco acted, Bush directed the U.S. Department of Justice to seek a federal court order under the Taft-Hartley Act to intervene in the lockout. Judge Alsup's temporary restraining order opened the ports and instructed both sides to return to court Oct. 16, when he would consider imposing an 80-day cooling off period during which time the ports would remain open. (That meeting took place after this issue went to press.)

On Oct. 8, the Bush Administration asked both parties to agree to a 30-day cooling-off period. The union agreed but the PMA turned down the request, in favor of the harsher Taft-Hartley injunction, just before Bush made his announcement.

"This is the first time in the history of the United States that a president has let an employer lock out workers in an extended quest to undermine the workers' union - creating a phony crisis - and then reward that employer's action with government intervention," said AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka. "It is a tragedy with historic ramifications."

The PMA indefinitely locked out the dockworkers, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), on Sept. 29. They had continued to work since their contract expired July 1.

Talks between PMA and the union broke down Sept. 29 when the PMA also refused federal mediators' suggestion - accepted by the union - that the dockworkers work under their expired contract for seven days, to be renewed on a rolling basis as mediation continued. The following day, Bush officially named a federal board of inquiry to look into the injunction.

"The parties had only been in mediation four days," said Trumka, "not enough time for this process to succeed." While the PMA was brushing off the federal mediators, the three members of Bush's inquiry board - headed by former secretary of labor and former Republican Tennessee U.S. Senator Bill Brock -already had arrived in the port areas.

"The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) members have wanted to work all along," said Trumka. "Early in the process, the Bush Administration threatened to use the military to operate the ports and threatened to invoke Taft-Hartley - thus strengthening the employers' hand in bargaining and giving the Pacific Maritime Association little incentive to bargain in good faith."

Since returning to work - and facing unprecedented amounts of cargo - the PMA has continually charged the union with "slowdowns," the same charges it made when initially locking down ports the first time.

While the problem was widespread, it was most evident at docks in Oakland and Seattle, the union said.˜

Union officials said the PMA could help alleviate the congestion by promoting casual workers to full-time registered Longshore workers.˜PMA is reluctant to make that move because casuals make a lower wage and don't qualify for health benefits or pensions and because new workers would then become union members, bolstering the union. "The PMA has the power to move this cargo safely and efficiently - but they need to hire more hands," said ILWU President James Spinosa.˜"Instead, the PMA has chosen to continue its pattern of holding the American public and economy hostage by serving its own interests first and furthering its plans to weaken the workers' union.˜They did that when they locked the workers out, and they're doing it now."˜

The union called on the public, small businesses and retailers to contact the PMA directly at 415-576-3200 to ask them to hire and train more workers.

Although the PMA is saying it regrets Taft-Hartley was invoked, this was what the employers planned all along, the union charged. " They had ample time and offers to avoid it if they wanted to," Spinosa said From the beginning of the lockout PMA said it would open the ports if the union would only sign a day-to-day contract extension. On Sunday, Oct. 6 the ILWU offered something more-a seven-day extension-but PMA suddenly changed terms and demanded 90 days.

On Tuesday, Oct 8, minutes before Bush went on national television, PMA rejected a deal the White House was trying to broker - a 30-day contract extension. The ILWU had already agreed to it.

The 80 days of the Taft-Hartley injunction gets PMA through the peak shipping season and to the slowest time of the year, relieving companies of any urgency to bargain.

"Taft-Hartley gives them 80 days of free shots at the union, and we expect the employers will be dragging us to court daily, trying to bankrupt our union and throw our leaders in jail," Spinosa predicted.

Back in January 2002, PMA President Joe Miniace previewed to the press his plan to lock out the union. He also bragged about taking out a $200 million line of credit to help PMA last through the lockout.

Robin Lanier, the head of the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, the retailer group PMA set up in Washington, D.C., to lobby on its behalf, told her members last spring that they should prepare to hold out for a two-week lockout.

In mid-June an attorney with the Bush Administration's Department of Labor threatened the ILWU with the Taft-Hartley injunction, with special legislation to take away the union's legal rights to collectively bargain and to strike and with sending in military personnel to seize the ports and operate them as scabs and strikebreakers.

"No one should be surprised by the turn of these events," Spinosa said. "Bush has always actively sided with employers against workers. This collusion between the government and the employers was planned well in advance."

ILWU represents 10,500 workers at 29 West Coast ports, including those in Portland, Seattle, San Francisco-Oakland and Los Angeles-Long Beach.

Approximately 1,350 longshore workers from Portland to Astoria are represented by Locals 8, 40, 50 and Vancouver Local 4.

Negotiations have bogged down primarily over the issue of computer technology. PMA is demanding unlimited use of the technology to cut union jobs. ILWU initially resisted that, but later agreed to use technology - on condition that any jobs it creates or preserves must be union jobs.

PMA refused, and when ILWU didn't yield to the job-cutting and anti-union demand, PMA locked the workers out, bringing sea commerce on the West Coast to a halt. The two sides later worked out exceptions for Alaska and Hawaii, which are sea-commerce-dependent, and for cruise ships and military shipments.

ILWU returned to work under terms of the old contract, which expired July 1. That includes its safety terms, which the shipping operators have disregarded, Spinosa said.

With five fatalities in the last six months at various West Coast ports - a high number for a comparatively small workforce - federal data show dock work is second only to mining in fatal danger to workers, the union said. "We are tired of burying our people. All Joe Miniace ever talks about is about how many containers" of freight "get moved, and how fast. You never hear him cite statistics of the deaths and injuries, of the human toll of his profits," Spinosa said.

Besides the dispute over technology, an ILWU fact sheet says PMA is offering workers raises of between $1 and $2.26 an hour spread over five years, and backloaded to the end of the proposed contract. And while PMA offers a $5-per-year pension payment hike, it would go only to active workers. PMA wants to junk an arbitration process that has prevented strikes for 48 years.

Though Spinosa did not mention it, one reason talks broke down is that when a federal mediator convened a session on the technology issue on Oct. 3, PMA brought gun-toting security guards into the bargaining room.

October 18, 2002 issue

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