Dangerous men like John Ashcroft and Tom Ridge have been loosed on the American people. They are the bent personalities that front the most sweeping attack on civil and democratic rights since the McCarthy red scare of the 1950s. In the name of a phony “war on terrorism,” the Bush administration is rolling back the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to standards more acceptable to big capital and the hard-right.
Much of the brunt of their attack is against immigrants. Mass numbers of Arab Americans, Middle Easterners and Muslims, in particular, have been illegally arrested and detained without charge. The FBI and the CIA are being integrated into a new national and international police force with extensive new undemocratic powers. For the first time in our history, the Pentagon has established a homeland military command. This flies in the face of over 200 years of principles separating civilian and military authority.
Underneath it all is a concerted attack on labor rights. In the cross-hairs of this attack are the transportation unions, particularly the Longshore and Teamsters unions. Capitalist globalization has increased the need to move goods on a worldwide scale, like never seen before. It is not just finished products, but also parts and components needed in the production process. “Just in time” and “modular” production methods have amplified transportation as a critical element of manufacturing itself.
In the tragic aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the ultra-right in Congress, with the urging of the shipping companies, introduced some 43 pieces of “Port Security” legislation. Cynically exploiting popular fears, the legislation claims to protect ports and harbors from terrorist attacks. Sensational speculation was the game of the day. Terrorists were planning to smuggle in nuclear devices in cargo containers, through our wide open, unprotected ports, they said.
But none of the legislation would have made it mandatory for the shipping companies to inspect the containers. That would require more workers and money. Instead, the legislation for the most part would give the companies the right to arbitrarily screen and fire workers. As one longshore union leader put it, “We’re the best port security they have. Nobody cares more about protecting our ports than we do; we have to work there every day. They just don’t want to spend the money to let us really inspect what comes in.”
In the middle of this debate on port security comes the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) contract, set to expire on July 1. The various forms of the port security legislation in both the House and Senate put incredible pressure on the union. At the same time, the Bush administration has shown that it is more than willing to interfere in collective bargaining. Right after he was appointed President, Bush threatened and used executive powers under the Railway Labor Act to coerce airline unions. Now several employer groups in transportation are calling for the Railway Labor Act to be extended to all transportation industries, including longshore.
Even without including longshore under the Railway Act, the president has the infamous Taft-Hartley injunction in his potential strike-breaking toolbox. This allows Bush to order a cooling-off period if labor “imperils the national health.” Clearly, while no one in labor is seeking a strike, the threat of injunction is aimed at union bargaining power. Funny how presidents don’t tend to use cooling-off periods to end company lock-outs.
Wal-Mart has become one of the key players in the West Coast longshore negotiations. They have helped to form an association of retailers to help bring corporate pressure to bear on the negotiations. The famous close ties between Wal-Mart and the Bush administration tend to expose the real concerns on port security – not nuclear bombs but the unfettered flow of goods, free from union working conditions.
The ILWU contract and the UPS contract with the Teamsters, which expires July 31, are shaping up to be decisive battles for labor. Both have great potential for federal intervention. The hype and hysteria of the Bush administration’s “war on terrorism” sets the stage for bringing the full weight of the government down on the side of these giant transnational corporations. The full support of labor and working families everywhere will be decisive.
But in the long run, only mass pressure will roll back the hysteria and expose the undemocratic opportunism of these sweeping attacks on democratic and civil rights. At the heart of such a rollback must also be basic labor law reform that takes the government out of collective bargaining.
The ILWU and Teamsters go into these negotiations fully prepared to defend their union rights. Successful negotiations can help set the stage for stopping the assault on democratic and civil rights.
Scott Marshall is a vice chair of the Communist Party USA and the head of its labor commission. He can be reached at email@example.com