AFL-CIO blasts Bush threat of troops versus longshore workers

The labor movement is blasting Bush Administration threats to send troops to operate West Coast ports, ejecting International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) workers - the first such threat in almost half a century.

In response to Bush's threat, the ILWU staged mass rallies Aug. 12 at the four largest of 29 West Coast ports - Los Angeles-Long Beach, Seattle, San Diego and Portland, where some 600 people met at the ILWU Local 8 hall in Northwest Portland to demand that the federal government stay out of the fray.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., appeared briefly at the Portland rally, saying that Democrats will help defend workers and their right to benefit "from the free enterprise system we have had for the last 200 years."

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon said the ILWU and the management association have successfully negotiated contracts without outside interference for the last 30 years.

"The Bush Administration should build on that success by pledging not to interfere with the collective bargaining process, instead of undermining the civil rights of working men and women," Wyden said.

The ILWU is not keeping quiet about a secret White House task force that it learned convened around the time bargaining with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) began last May. Since then, the task force has met with representatives of the PMA, as well as the closely allied retailer West Coast Waterfront Coalition, to outline plans for intervening in negotiations.

The four largest ports handle 25 percent of the nation's seaborne freight, so major shippers - such as Wal-Mart, Nike and The Gap - financially back the PMA because they fear the flow of their imported products could be disrupted, said AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Edward Wytkind.

Representatives of the task force contacted union officials during negotiations to warn that the government was considering intervention in bargaining by bringing in federal troops to operate the ports should the two sides not reach agreements.

ILWU Vice President Bob McEllrath said PMA has been unwilling to bargain with the union because it knows the government will operate ports if a strike is called.

McEllrath said the Bush Administration also has threatened to declare a national emergency and invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, which would force workers to remain on the job during an 80-day cooling off period.

"By colluding with the owners of these shipping companies, federal officials undercut the bargaining process," said Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt. "Threats of federal intervention have a chilling effect on good-faith bargaining because management has no incentive to settle if they know that troops will come in and operate their port facilities."

ILWU is negotiating with PMA on a new contract to replace a pact that expired July 1. The contract affects more than 15,000 dockworkers, including 10,500 ILWU members.

In Oregon, more than 1,000 jobs are covered by the contract, and port-related work accounts for another 5,000 jobs. Throughout the West it is estimated that more than 4 million workers benefit from the high-quality jobs held by dock workers under the ILWU contract, union officials said.

Key issues in negations are PMA demands for computerization of workers' jobs - thus cutting the workforce - contracting out of future work, its attempt to create a two-tier benefit system, elimination of arbitration, and its plan to shift health care costs to workers.

"We will never get to productive bargaining until the Bush Administration gets out of our business," the ILWU's McEllrath said."Bush is creating a new policy that says union rights are a national security threat."

Negotiations resumed Aug. 13. The union has not threatened to strike, but strike authorization has been granted if talks fail.

August 16, 2002 issue

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