Longshore negotiations Key battle for democratic rights

Commentary



The contract battle of the West Coast International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) has emerged as a decisive struggle for workers rights and democracy in our nation.

Not only is the ILWU having to defend its members from the world’s most powerful shipping lines and retailers, but from the President of the United States who is using the Sept. 11 tragedy to draw a line in the sand by threatening to take over West Coast ports militarily if the ILWU decides to strike.

The national AFL-CIO called the threatened use of federal troops to determine the outcome of a collective bargaining dispute, an “undermining of the basic civil rights of the labor movement and all American workers” which has “implications for the entire labor movement.”

That is absolutely true. The right to bargain collectively and strike without the interferrence of government is the guts of unionism and workers democratic rights. If the Bush administration gets away with gutting the ILWU, the entire labor movement and all workers’rights in the United States will be jeopardized.

The ILWU has never been one to flinch in a labor fight, and they won’t this time, but this union which has stood by the side of Nelson Mandela, César E. Chávez, the Charleston 5, the Chilean people, the Liverpool dockers and countless others, now requires the solidarity of every democratic institution and organization in our nation.

The 30-million member AFL-CIO has sent a team of staff on the ground in a half-dozen strategic west coast port cities to organize actions to support the ILWU.

International solidarity is in motion from the International Transportation Workers Federation (ITF) and the International Dockworkers Council (IDC). The Danish dockworkers have delivered a letter to Maersk Sealand – the world’s largest shipping company – telling them to negotiate in good faith with the ILWU or face problems with Danish dockers.

Public officials and entire cities are now responding. An extraordinary public hearing held at the port of Los Angeles by the Labor and Industrial Relations Committees of the California State Senate and Assembly on Aug. 16 rocked the docks with legislators blasting the Bush administration for siding with longshore employers – the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA).

State Senator Richard Alarcon (D-San Fernando Valley), Chair of the Senate Labor Committee who chaired the hearing put it right when he said, “Why is the Bush administration questioning the loyalty of hard working men and women when corporate executives are ripping off the stock market?

“President Bush should get his priorities straight. It is inappropriate use of federal power to team up with corporate America ... who are devastating our economy by lying, cheating, stealing and raiding,” said Alarcon.

“Our ports are healthy because of your hard labor,” Alarcon told the overflow dockers audience. “Why doesn’t the federal government go after Enron which has caused devastation to our nation? We are on a dangerous precipice when we encourage a federal process to be moved by corporate leaders,” he concluded.

All the California legislators present called on Bush to “butt out” of negotiations and told the ILWU that “we will stand with you to insure that every right you have earned is adhered to.” It included Democratic Senators Betty Karnette, Assembly members Paul Koretz, Judy Chu, Alan Lowenthal and many more who sent messages.

There was even a small crack in the Republican party with Rep. Jane Harmon’s (D-San Pedro) announcement that Republican Congressman Dana Rohrbacher (R-Huntington Beach) joined her in signing a letter to Bush calling on the president to stay out of negotiations.

That hearing raised a new bar in defense of workers rights. So did the City of Los Angeles, when its Mayor and City Council passed a resolution which declared that the people of Los Angeles stand “in opposition to any action by the President and the Administration that would impose a Taft-Hartley injunction against the ILWU, would remove longshore workers from coverage by the National Labor Relations Act, or would send military personnel to the West Coast docks to assist in a lockout of workers.”

The City of Long Beach did likewise. Soon Oakland, and other cities will join.

Jobs With Justice (JWJ) has added a grassroots dimension to the fight by launching a national campaign originally initiated by Friends of Labor in San Pedro, targeting West Coast Waterfront Coalition (WCWC) retailers like Target, Home Depot and Wal Mart.

Last Tuesday, Washington Governor Gary Locke upped the ante as the first governor to write to President Bush in opposition to military intervention in negotiations.

The ILWU is leading this battle for democracy at the workplace for all of us. But, they cannot win it alone. On this Labor Day, let us show our solidarity by getting our Congressional Representatives to tell Bush to “butt out,” by pressuring our local WCWC retailers, by getting our unions and organizations involved, and our city councils and legislatures to pass resolutions and write letters to President Bush. An injury to the ILWU, is an injury to all!

Evelina Alarcon is the national coordinator of the César E. Chávez Holiday Campaign. The author can be reached at evnalarcon@aol.com