Labor solidarity backs West Coast dockers

OAKLAND – Leaders of unions representing transport workers from around the world locked arms at a Solidarity Day rally here on June 27 in support of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). The ILWU is in the battle of its life, faced with a threatened lockout by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) – and the danger that President Bush will invoke the Taft-Hartley Act in the event of a strike or slowdown.

The ILWU was joined by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) and the East Coast International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) in rallies at West Coast ports and at several East and Gulf Coast ports.

This alliance, backed by the 5-million-member International Transportation Workers Federation (ITF), the 30,000-member International Dockworkers Council (IDC), leaders of the AFL-CIO and community organizations, pledged that they will not allow the ploys of “national security” and a “weakened economy” to be used to destroy the ILWU.

In the days that followed, that message resonated in the halls of Congress, with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and seven other senators from California, Washington, Oregon and Hawaii sending a letter to Bush not to intervene in the ILWU contract negotiations. “We urge you not to intervene in this ongoing labor negotiation,” the letter says. “We believe that any such intervention would be harmful to the swift resolution of this negotiation.”

ILWU President James Spinosa defended union right, saying, “When we exercise our rights to collectively bargain new contracts with better wages and conditions, when we enforce those rights the only way we can by collectively withdrawing our labor in a strike, they claim we are unpatriotic. But these are our legal rights. There is nothing unpatriotic about American workers insisting on their rights under American law.”

Referring to PMA charges that job action by ILWU members is a threat to national security, IBT President James Hoffa, Jr., said, “How dare anyone question whether American workers are patriotic. [The PMA] cannot hide behind patriotism to steal our jobs.”

Standing with Spinosa, Hoffa told the cheering rally in Oakland, “I walked into the negotiating room today and told the PMA that the ILWU does not stand alone, the 1.4-million-member Teamsters union are with them! If you lock out the ILWU, you lock out the Teamsters!”

Ken Riley, president of ILA Local 1422 in Charleston, S.C., thanked the ILWU for their generous support in the case of the Charleston Five, dockers who were recently cleared of trumped up felony charges. “This time,” Riley said, “we are here to reciprocate. We are standing ready. We are on high alert. If they take on the ILWU, they will take on the ILA on the East Coast.”

In addition to the letter circulating in the Senate, 45 Democratic members of the House have signed a letter urging PMA President Joseph Miniace and ILWU President James Spinosa to negotiate in good faith.

The letter, clearly directed at the PMA, emphasizes that post-Sept. 11 fears should not be used as leverage to convince the Bush administration to intervene in the negotiations. The letter also expresses concerns that the PMA is “manufacturing a labor crisis” to secure government intervention.

Tom Ridge, the head of Homeland Security, recently phoned the ILWU to discourage a strike, and to let the union know that the White House is watching the negotiations closely. President Bush could use the Taft-Hartley Act to force longshore workers to go back to work in the event of a strike by imposing an 80-day cooling-off period.

The West Coast Waterfront Coalition, representing importers and exporters, including corporate giants like Wal-Mart, Target and Toyota, has joined the PMA in lobbying for government intervention. At the same time, Robin Lanier, president of the Waterfront Coalition, has publicly told the PMA to play hardball in negotiations and not to back off of their anti-union demands of the ILWU. “Don’t roll over like last time,” Lanier has said.

At the negotiation table, the PMA is demanding major concessions, including cutbacks in health care, no increases in pensions, and bringing in new technology to outsource jobs. That precedent could affect other transport workers in the nation and worldwide.

This week the PMA announced that they will impose a “defensive” lock out if the ILWU conducts a slow down.

ILWU Communications Director Steve Stallone told the press, “The only people who have numbers on the production is the PMA and they can call it a slowdown whenever they want. We are not striking but if PMA wants to destroy the world’s economy ‘in a defensive action’ they can go ahead and take the responsibility.”

At the Oakland rally, Kees Marges, ITF dockers section secretary, said that employers are exploiting Sept. 11 to push their agenda. “They are playing with fire by misusing this disaster and won’t get the port security they want and need by doing that,” Marges said.

Marges reported that the ITF held a meeting two weeks ago with delegates from around the world pledging to do “everything necessary” to support the ILWU. “If you go on strike, we will try to stop ships,” said Marges.

Julian Garcia, general coordinator of the IDC, joined that call by saying that the IDC affiliates are ready to do whatever is needed to guarantee a victory for the ILWU.

California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, also joined the host of rally speakers to express their solidarity with the ILWU.

In addition to the 1,000 at the Oakland port, close to 4,000 port workers rallied in Los Angeles, the nation’s largest port, and hundreds more rallied in Seattle, Tacoma and Portland. Rallies were also held at the ports of Charleston, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Fla., and Savannah, Ga., where hundreds of ILA members and Teamsters demonstrated in solidarity with the ILWU.

Evelina Alarcon can be reached at evnalarcon@aol.com; Juan Lopez can be reached at ncalview@igc.org