The Barbed Wire Straitjacket


1981, when President Ronald Reagan replaced thousands of air traffic
controllers and threw their leaders in jail, the permanent replacement
of strikers became a normal aspect of U.S. labor relations. Strikes
became far riskier for workers than they’d been at any time
since the turn of the century.

relations are now undergoing an similar, equally profound change.
West coast dockers have compared the new terrain they faced in bargaining
their recent contract to negotiations in a barbed wire straitjacket.
Although their union and the world’s largest shipping 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.

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.

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 achievement.”

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).

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.”

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

  • They wanted
    increases in their pensions

  • They wanted
    to ensure that employer proposals to implement new technology
    wouldn’t result in the loss of jobs

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.

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.

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 joined 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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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 security.

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

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.

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 action.

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 off” period.

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 during negotiations.

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.

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 large profits.     

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.

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.

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 in others.

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.”

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

Bacon is a freelance writer and photographer.