The Port and Maritime Security Act of 2001, a bill now before the Congress, is one of the legislative overreactions to the Sept. 11 terrorist attack that could gut union rights at our nation’s ports.

As written after Sept. 11, the bill, introduced by Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), could have prohibited any labor work action at ports that obstructed the flow of commerce, considering them acts of terrorism. The bill would also screen and ban waterfront workers from the docks as security risks.

Realizing the danger this posed, the West Coast International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) jumped in with both feet to stop the “security at all costs” train. After months of lobbying in Washington, DC, the ILWU was successful in deleting the provision that could have made making any strike, job action or labor dispute a criminal offense. While the bill still contains anti-labor provisions, the removal of this one was a major victory.

“A few months ago it seemed we could not slow this bill steamrolling through Congress. But we have,” said James Spinosa, ILWU international president in the January issue of The Dispatcher, the union’s publication. “We have more allies on board and cooler heads are considering our reasoned proposals.”

While the ILWU began this fight single-handedly, they now have the support of the East and Gulf Coast International Longshoremen’s Association, the Teamsters, the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department and other maritime unions.

The bill was already before Congress before Sept. 11, but when originially introduced it targeted the war on drugs, not the war on terrorism. It had been introduced after some Florida longshore workers were allegedly aiding a drug smuggling operation. Using the incident, anti-labor legislators rushed to require criminal background checks on all longshore workers.

After Sept. 11, the bill was renamed as anti-terrorist legislation. Treating longshore workers as terrorist threats, the bill pressed for criminal background checks, creating a situation where workers could lose their jobs because of long-past incidents.

Just before Congress adjourned for its holiday break Dec. 20, the U.S. Senate passed a version of the bill. Before final approval, it contained the provision prohibiting union actions. With the support of Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the ILWU succeeded in getting the section removed.

While the Senate version still contains the criminal background checks for union members, the ILWU was able to reduce the span of time that checks for felony convictions from the last 10 years to the last seven years. It would also pertain only to workers with access to ocean and passenger manifests and for those who work in “controlled access areas.”

The issue of what are “controlled access areas,” would be worked out by the Secretary of Transportation in consultation with local port security committees, which the bill now stipulates must have representatives of longshore unions or other transportation workers.

The ILWU will continue its battle to change the bill into one with authentic security provisions rather than anti-worker measures as the legislation goes to the designated House Committees.