Longshore: Potential intervention threat to negotiations

All eyes in the global transport universe are on the West Coast, where a crucial waterfront battle is brewing in the contract negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), representing 10,500 longshore unionists, and their employers, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), representing 85 shipping lines and stevedoring companies.

Long before negotiations began, the fight over the contract, which expires on July 1, was developing into one of the most contentious class-struggle battles on the waterfront since the 1972 strike. Before sitting at the table May 13, Joseph Miniace, CEO of the PMA, threatened to lock out dockers if the union did not give in to employer demands.

While the battle has been centered at the San Francisco negotiation table, the fight is now enlarged to Washington, D.C., where Miniace and his lobbying team have been working to convince President Bush to use the Taft-Hartley law to intervene in the case of an ILWU strike or slowdown.

According to Lindsay McLaughlin, ILWU legislative director, the PMA has exploited security concerns after Sept. 11 in an attempt to undermine contract negotiations

“Homeland Security is being used by the PMA as a pretext to create a crisis, so the government will intervene,” McLaughlin told the World.

Under the Taft-Hartley Act, President Bush could invoke an 80-day cooling-off period in the event of a strike if the action is declared a “peril to national health or safety” Employers have said to the press that they believe Bush will do this. The PMA is also lobbying for Congress to adopt port security legislation that carries anti-labor measures.

McLaughlin added that shippers like Wal-Mart have joined with the PMA in creating unwarranted alarm by making “sky is falling” declarations about what would happen to national security and the economy if the contract is not settled by July 1.

Challenging that contention, McLaughlin pointed to the past where several contracts were successfully negotiated in the weeks following the July 1 expiration date without a strike or lockout. “Past practice shows that contract expiration actually facilitates a negotiated settlement,” he said.

While the PMA is raising these false alarms to Congress, McLaughlin reported that at the negotiating table they are out to bust the power of the union. “They are going after everything the ILWU stands for including medical benefits, pensions, the hiring hall, and [making] proposals to outsource our jobs to other countries and right-to-work states,” he said. “The ILWU believes that it is real security issues that need to be addressed, not removal of workers union rights and civil liberties.”

The ILWU has alerted Congress that impending port security legislation does not give longshore workers the right to inspect containers, which is a major security problem. The union states that longshore workers should have the right “to open containers, check seals against the manifest and check any anomaly that sends a red flag.” There are no such provisions in port security legislation now.

Those measures would create more union jobs at the port, which would help stimulate the economy. “What’s wrong with that?” asked McLaughlin.

On the other hand, the port security bills are heavy on criminal background checks of workers with loss of jobs to unionists who committed felonies in the past, even though those felonies do not pertain to security.

“There are threats to security at the ports, and longshore workers do not want to be the next World Trade Center,” stated McLaughlin emphatically. “But real security lies in checking out containers not on checking out American workers.”

While opposing background checks, the ILWU insists that if checks are to be done and jobs lost, then it must be proven that a person is a terrorist security risk as opposed to just having been convicted in the past of any number of non-security-related crimes. The union is also calling for a fair appeal process.

The ILWU has maintained a strong lobbying presence in Washington, D.C., for many months on port security and contract issues. An ILWU lobbying team representing the major West Coast ports is in Washington this week speaking to members of Congress and representatives of the Bush administration.

The AFL-CIO has made the longshore contract battle one of its national priorities and is working with the ILWU to lobby against government intervention in their negotiations.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, International Longshoremen’s Association, International Transportation Workers Federation, representing five million workers around the globe, and the International Dockworkers Council, representing 30,000 longshore workers, and the AFL-CIO were joining with the ILWU in a Solidarity Day action held at all major West Coast ports June 27.

Both the Senate and House have passed port security bills. The bills are headed to conference and it is expected that a final bill will be put before the Congress by the end of July.

The author can be reached at evnalarcon@aol.com