Under the pervasive blanket of ‘national security,’ Congress and the White House House are hastily preparing to reinstitute a program of screening waterfront workers with background checks that go back as far as 10 years regarding such matters as arrests for drugs, petty crimes, or other ‘improper activities.’

The 23 disqualifying crimes include felony convictions involving ‘sedition. burglary, theft, dishonesty, fraud, misrepresentation, illegal possession of a controlled substance punishable by a maximum term of imprisonment of more than a year.

The Port and Maritime Security Act (S-1214) sponsored by Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), includes among its many repressive and undemocratic features, a provision to give the Coast Guard and Maritime Administration authority to carry out background checks of any and all workers with access to the nation’s harbors.

At the height of the Cold War and with the beginning of the Korean ‘police action’ by the U.S. in 1950, a similar screening program was carried out and given legal sanction by the passage of the Magnusen Act. The Magnusen Act, named after its sponsor, Sen. Warren Magnusen (D-Wash.), was used to remove more than 3,000 seamen and other waterfront workers from the maritime industry because of their political or union activities or beliefs.

Some six years later, after several court suits had challenged the constitutionality of the Magnusen Act, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that the Act had violated the constitutional rights of the waterfront workers and they were allowed to return to the industry.

Now, under the guise of fighting ‘Terrorism,’ the government is again moving to impose a screening program of doubtful constitutionality, that would do nothing to stop terrorism but would undermine union control of hiring and weaken the very existence of unions on the waterfront.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), under the leadership of its feisty president, Harry Bridges, fought off four attempts to deport Bridges, and also was able to protect its members from becoming victims of the screening program.

This latest attack on the waterfront workers through the Port Security Bill has been denounced by the present leadership of the ILWU with ILWU President Jim Spinosa stating that there is no evidence to indicate that West Coast dockworkers have been involved in terrorism, drug smuggling or any other illicit activity that screening would attempt to prevent.

‘We’re not terrorists, but we’re being treated like we are. We’re not part of the problem. We’re part of the solution,’ said Spinosa, noting that because dockworkers unload containers from ships, they can report anything suspicious.

The ILWU leadership has been lobbying against the Hollings Bill in Washington, and union members have been urged to write their congressmen urging them to work to defeat the bill.

West Coast waterfront employers, organized in the Pacific Maritime Association, and the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, have been trying for years to do away with the union-controlled hiring hall which is the bedrock of union wages and working conditions on the waterfront. These employer groups are enthusiastically backing the new screening program which they see as giving them the upper hand in coming negotiations for a new contract between the ILWU and the PMA in the Spring of 2002.

Waterfront unions and their allies at home and abroad are gearing up for an all-out fight to protect their hiring halls and working conditions, which they feel are part of the democracy and living standards that are basic to real national security.

Herb Kaye is a West Coast labor reporter for the People’s Weekly World.