SAN FRANCISCO – On Oct. 8, President George W. Bush invoked the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act to request an injunction ending a 10 day lockout of the ILWU on the West Coast. The injunction replaces the lock out with what many workers are calling a “lock in.”
“The employers got what they wanted – the ports will be reopened,” Richard Mead, president of the longshoremen’s local in the San Francisco area, told the New York Times. “We now have a new dock boss. His name is George W. Bush.”
Under the terms of the injunction, the ILWU can be faced with contempt charges, leaders can be jailed, and members fined, if they engage in any industrial action after returning to work. Giving a nod to employers who wish to avoid a slowdown, Bush has ordered that work “resume at a normal pace,” according to AP Labor Writer’s Leigh Strope’s report on the Bush decision.
The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), an employer organization that represents 79 dock operators, had locked out 10,500 dock workers on the West Coast after, PMA representatives claim, workers staged slowdowns. ILWU spokesman Steve Stallone has denied that there was a slowdown but admits workers were working carefully since 5 dock workers have been killed due to unsafe conditions during the past year.
The PMA has been intent on securing government intervention against dock workers since the ILWU contract expired on July 1.
In one of the most telling events in the affair, the ILWU announced on Oct. 8 that it would accept a Dept. of Labor truce offer to return to work for 30 days under the terms of the expired contract. In Washington, DC, however, a Bush press conference was moved up to coincide with the announcement of this ILWU decision, effectively drowning it out. It was during this “hastily arranged” press conference, as the AP called it, that Bush announced his decision to compel workers to return to work for an 80 day “cooling off” peiod, handing PMA bosses the victory they desired. The White House “insisted the timing of Bush’s announcement was not changed to scuttle an agreement,” the Associated Press reports.
The Bush order came only a day after he appointed a “fact finding” commission to report on the situation at the docks. Bush appeared determined to intervene despite what his own hand-picked commission determined, however. He gave his decision literally hours after the commission convened. The appointment of a fact-finding commission is a legal prerequisite for government intervention under Taft-Hartley.
For weeks, the PMA has been trying to inflame the situation so that Bush’s heavy hand would be forced into the picture: During the past few weeks PMA representatives have showed up to negotiation sessions with armed bodyguards, have called in riot police armed with pepper spray in Port Hueneme near Los Angeles, and finally, of course, locked workers out of their jobs, costing the US economy between $1 and $2 billion per day.
Not surprisingly, support for the federal intervention intot he labor dispute was bipartisan. One of the most vocal advocates of a Bush intervention was California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. ILWU lawyers are curently contesting the legality of the lockout in courts.
Although many individual dock workers are happy to be returning to work, labor activists see the federal intervention as yet another example of big government looking out for big business.
“No president has ever been on this side of management this overtly,” said Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, in an AP wire report.
“We’re extremely disappointed,” said Bret Caldwell, a spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, according to The New York Times. “The whole strategy of locking out the workers and urging the president to invoke Taft-Hartley was clearly an employer strategy to get around negotiating a contract with these workers. It’s a bad precedent. It gives management the upper hand.”
This “seems to be Bush’s model of labor relations, to side with the employers and penalize the workers,” Steve Stallone of the ILWU told the Wall Street Journal. “He is setting a dangerous precedent.” Stallone also told the Associated Press that “[a]ll along, they [the PMA] wanted the government to come in and solve the problem for them.”
The decision to intervene is doubly interesting, coming as it does from an administration that has professed a dedication to the free market principle of government abstinence from economic matters.
Only twice have courts denied injunctions under Taft-Hartley. The most recent was President Jimmy Carter’s attempt to compel mine workers to return to work in 1978. In the end the court did grant Carter a restraining order that compelled workers to return.
Management reaction was reported in the press as well:
PMA CEO Joseph Miniace claimed in a press release on Oct. 8 that the “union wasn’t willing to go along” with the negotiations process but gloated that “the President has clearly put the national interest first” by intervening on his side.
Pat Cleary, a spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers (an employer group like the PMA), supported the President’s decision as well.
Amazingly, the “terrorist” card was also played: Another boss group, the American Trucking Assn., said in an open letter to Bush that federal intervention on behalf of bosses was necessary because the situation was threatening the nation’s security as accumulating ships “enrich[ed] target opportunities for terrorists.”
– Brian Oliver Sheppard is a member of the National Writers Union, a labor activist, and an independent writer and researcher. He writes regularly for Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, the IWW’s Industrial Worker, and has published pieces in the NWU’s’s American Writer as well as Z-NET, Black World Today, Ashville Global Report, the Palm Beach Gazette, and others. His “Exploitation and How it Affects You” was published by Barricade Books in Australia in 2000.