LOS ANGELES – The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) revealed this week that a secret Bush administration task force has threatened a military takeover of West Coast ports if the union decides to strike.

In response, the national AFL-CIO and prominent leaders including Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn and Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) are rallying to the side of the union demanding that the Bush administration stay out of negotiations.

The task force has included the participation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield, Homeland Security head Tom Ridge, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and is chaired by Carlos Bonilla of the National Economic Council. In a statement to his members, ILWU International President James Spinosa described how the task force contacted him and other members of the Coast negotiating Committee directly.

“The task force has threatened to invoke a Taft-Hartley injunction against our union, to pass special legislation to restrict our legal collective bargaining rights and to break up our coastwise contract,” he said. “Most ominously, it has threatened to bring National Guard troops onto our docks.”

Spinosa said that their employers – the Pacific Maritime Association – have been encouraged not to negotiate in good faith because “they know they have the Bush administration on their side.”

“Every proposal they have brought to the table was carefully crafted to be unacceptable to the union,” said the longshore leader. “Not since 1948 … have we seen an employer so emboldened, so ready and eager to bust the union. It was apparent right from the first day of bargaining that the employers were on a mission. Their opening proposal was full of takeaways. … They didn’t leave anything out, from maintenance of benefits, to the dispatch hall to the arbitration system and the workplace.”

“Let’s be frank about what we are facing,” continued Spinosa. “A union’s strongest weapon is withholding its labor … and now Bush wants to take away the biggest source of power we have. We have to stay focused. This is a fight for the very existence of the ILWU.”

The AFL-CIO has teamed up with the West Coast union to launch a national campaign to stop government intervention. They have assigned staff in a half-dozen West Coast port cities to organize actions and adopted a strongly worded statement of solidarity with the ILWU. (See story page 3)

The deadlocked negotiations are in recess until August 13. Next week, a series of labor solidarity actions will take place starting on August 12 at all major West Coast ports. Daschle will be the featured speaker at the Portland, Ore., rally. Hahn and Napolitano will speak at the Los Angeles rally.

The ILWU also faces threats from the West Coast Waterfront Coalition (WCWC), representing retailers like Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Target.

In a memo dated June 4, Robin Lanier, executive director of the WCWC, reports that the coalition has conveyed to President Bush that they want concessions from the ILWU and government intervention “to avoid labor disruptions.” The memo calls for active lobbying and states, “while it’s true the administration understands our concerns, they need political cover from you to come out with a strong response.”

Steve Stallone, ILWU Communications Director, told the World that Andrew Siff, a Department of Labor lawyer, told union officers that they were looking at a “PATCO-type scenario.” He threatened them with Taft- Hartley, which has not been used since 1978, when President Jimmy Carter unsuccessfully tried to end a national coal strike, but also with breaking up the ILWU’s coastwide contract, which would force it to bargain port by port and “destroy whatever strength we have as a union.”

Siff also threatened to put the ILWU under the jurisdiction of the National Railway Labor Act, which would undercut the union’s ability to strike.

“We are seeing a recurrence of the McCarthy era where instead of using Communists as a cover to attack the workers movement, the Bush administration is exploiting Sept. 11 to use national security and terrorists as a cover to destroy labor rights,” Stallone said.

“The ILWU is targeted, but there is also a straight up attack against collective bargaining by government workers unions, as well as railroad and airline workers,” said Stallone. “National security is being used as a smokescreen for union busting. The Bush policy seems to be that union rights equals national security threat.”

A public hearing called by the California State Assembly and Senate Labor Committees is being planned for August 16 in Los Angeles, where legislators will hear testimony on the impact of the ILWU labor negotiations on working families.

A packet is now available on the ILWU website (www.ilwu.org) where union supporters can get resolutions, letters and other solidarity action materials.

The union’s contract with the Pacific Maritime Association controls the flow of about $260 billion in cargo through the nation’s 29 major West Coast ports.

Juan Lopez contributed to this article
The author can be reached at evnalarcon@aol.com