Lawmakers back longshore workers

LOS ANGELES – California lawmakers lambasted the Bush administration for its threatened intervention in West Coast longshore negotiations, at a public hearing held at Banning Landing at the Port of Los Angeles on Aug. 16.

The hearing was called in response to revelations that a secret federal task force established by President Bush threatened the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) with using the Taft-Hartley Act, military troops and National Railway Labor Act-type laws to take over the ports in the event of a strike or slowdown.

Calling the collective bargaining process “the right of American workers,” State Senator Richard Alarcon (D-San Fernando Valley), chair of the hearing and chair of the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations committee, said, “It is not our practice to engage in contract negotiations, but when President Bush threatened to intervene, we felt it was absolutely necessary to hold this hearing.”

Legislators on the hearing panel included state Sen. Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach), Assemblymembers Paul Koretz (D-West LA), who chairs the Assembly Labor Committee, Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) and Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.). The hearing was called by the State Senate and Assembly Labor and Industrial Relations committees.

Rep. Harman announced that Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) joined her in sending a letter to Bush opposing his interference in negotiations. Federal intervention is “harmful” and “the wrong thing to do,” she said. “My message to the Bush administration is: ‘Stay Away!’”

Three panels presented testimony to the hearing representing labor, management, and the community, followed by comments by the public.

Labor leaders spoke passionately against the collusion of the Bush administration with the dockers employers, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), and retailers represented by the West Coast Waterfront Coalition.

“Federal intervention took place before the contract negotiations began,” said Miguel Contreras, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, who represented AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and the entire 14 million member AFL-CIO.

“The PMA wants to reduce their fees to get richer, and Wal-Mart just announced a 26 percent increase in profits,” continued Contreras. “No president should have the right to aid and abet corporate interests to crush the voice of working families. The ILWU will fight in the streets with the support of the entire AFL-CIO.”

Peter Peyton, the co-chair of the ILWU Coast Legislative Committee, described the unprecedented gang-up by the PMA in these negotiations. “Two years ago the PMA dramatically changed the game,” he said. “They sponsored the creation of a new organization of shippers and retailers and assembled a management team that includes the PMA, the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, the Bush administration, public relations experts, lobbyists, Washington law firms and academics-for-hire.”

Ramon Ponce de Leon, Jr., president of ILWU Local 13 in Los Angeles representing 5,000 dockworkers, told legislators that the PMA was using the Bush administration as leverage in the negotiations to force the employer agenda upon the union. “The employers have leverage enough to say no to everything that is on the table,” he said. “We’re not going to accept any proposals to reduce benefits for people who have dedicated their lives to the ports, nor are we going to accept a two-tiered system that divides our membership. We take care of our own and we’re not going to allow the PMA to change that!”

Noting that Bush could choose a different road, Gary Smith, Teamster port Division leader, spoke of the 1997 United Postal Service strike, when then-President Clinton refused to invoke Taft-Hartley.

Teamsters President James Hoffa, Smith said, “told the PMA that the Teamsters who represent 1.4 million members, many of whom are directly affected by the negotiations ... will never cross a picketline. ... The containers will not be moved off the docks by our members.”

Kevin Kucera, president of International Association of Machinists Lodge 1484, said the union’s international president pledged that their union would act in unity with the AFL-CIO against Bush federal intervention. “The right to withold our labor is bottomline to our democracy,” said Kucera. “We have no intention of rolling the clocks back to 1982 when the military was used to intervene in PATCO.”

The West Coast Waterfront Coalition sent a letter refusing to testify at the hearing, saying that they have no relation to the PMA, which drew huge laughs from the union audience. Joe Miniace, CEO of the PMA, also did not appear, instead sending Jack Suite, PMA’s director of contract administration.

Suite denied that the PMA encouraged the Bush administration to intervene, but Suite remained uncommitted when asked if the PMA would join legislators in calling on Bush not to intervene.

Assemblyman Lowenthal told the hearing that a resolution, calling on Bush not to intervene on behalf of California, was headed for the state legislature’s approval.

In closing the hearing, Senator Alarcon pledged that the legislature would continue to watch and monitor this situation including other hearings if necessary.

The author can be reached at evnalarcon@aol.com