A Storm in the Ports

Are shippers trying to bust the union? If they are, their timing couldn't be better.

Continuously tense talks finally broke down completely Sunday night, and President George Bush invoked the Taft-Hartley Act Tuesday for the first time in 31 years, so West Coast ports are reopening. The Pacific Maritime Association's abrupt lockout of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) workers at 29 ports is—for at least 80 days—over.

Only one question remains: Why?

The ostensible basis of the labor dispute has been endlessly reported: The two sides have been unable to agree on how new technology will be incorporated into coveted, high-paying cargo-tracking jobs on the waterfront and particularly on whether those jobs must all be union jobs. But according to most economists, that makes no sense. Compared to the scale of damage to the American economy caused by the maritime association's lockout, the financial difference represented by the two sides is minimal. The estimated difference between new jobs all being union and nonunion is only about $20 million a year for shippers—relative peanuts, representing perhaps 300 or so jobs in total. That compares to the $1 billion to $2 billion a day in economic damage to the U.S. due to the ports shutdown.

Moreover, the ILWU has already agreed to accept new technology so long as remaining cargo-tracking jobs remain unionized, and it has agreed to mediation on the issue. And just ahead of Bush's referral of the dispute for a court injunction, the ILWU offered to go back to work under a 30-day extension of its expired contract.

So why can't the two sides even sit down at the table together? The ILWU charges that after decades of having to honor hard-fought union victories, the maritime association is out to break the union. Further, union leaders and members think the Bush administration intends to help—in fact, it already has by invoking Taft-Hartley, organized labor's single most loathed law.

"The problem isn't the beginning of Taft-Hartley," says Vance Lelli, a spokesperson for ILWU Local 23 and president of the Pierce County Central Labor Council. "It's what [the Bush administration] can invoke at the end of it—the forced contracts, the concessions."

Both the Bush administration and the Pacific Maritime Association vehemently deny an attempt to destroy the ILWU and unionization of West Coast ports, and evidence for the ILWU's union-busting claim is largely circumstantial. It starts with total solidarity and complete unionization among the West Coast's 10,500 waterfront workers, won in the Oakland General Strike of 1934 and defended successfully ever since. Any crack in that solidarity is seen as a potentially devastating loss of union control.

But on a less-theoretical level, the ILWU says its union-busting case is self-evident, starting with the maritime association itself—particularly the man running it, Joseph Miniace. "He's a union buster," says Tacoma's Lelli, who watched from across town as Charles Hurwitz dismantled Kaiser Aluminum three years ago after similar lockout tactics against steelworkers. "This isn't [Miniace's] first and won't be his last. It's the only reason he was hired. . . . He had no experience in shipping. He had one set of experiences, and he's using it."

MINIACE ARRIVED TO run the maritime association in the mid-1990s with a r鳵m頯f successfully attacking unions during confrontations in the health care and airline industries.

He first came to national labor attention at the maritime association by adopting a new tactic: repeated multimillion-dollar lawsuits against the ILWU and its members for losses from job actions. Among them: in 1997, when Oakland dockworkers refused to cross picket lines to unload the cargo of the Neptune Jade in support of a British labor conflict; and in 1995, when there was a coast-wide dock protest to support two Seattle ILWU members the union contended were unfairly disciplined. The ILWU charged at the time that the lawsuits were designed to bankrupt, and thus break, the union.

The ILWU now says negotiations since May have been in the same spirit and part of the same long-term strategy. Local members also charge that recent efforts at the Port of Seattle and other West Coast ports to shift responsibility for work contracts from publicly run ports to private employers is also part of a long-term union-busting effort. This year, the common speculation was that the maritime association would lock out workers if talks extended past the June 30 contract expiration, because shippers were irritated by what they characterized as union work slowdowns during talks in 1996 and 1999.

To nobody's surprise, they did lock the union out. "They've been playing these games since May, give and take back and give and take back," complains Lelli. "That's all they're gonna do for the [next] 80 days. At the end of the 80 days, they'll have all their Christmas stuff in, all their New Year's stuff in. It's a perfect time to lock us out for a few months and see how we hold up. That's where Miniace's going. That's what he does."

FOR ILWU ACTIVISTS, this month's lockout, when it came, was a setup, and so is President Bush's return-to-work order. The nine-day lockout, coming only six hours after a first, 36-hour weekend lockout the maritime association imposed Sept. 27 "as a cooling-off period," was sudden and seemingly unprovoked. The maritime association claimed that when the ILWU returned to work Sept. 29, the union engaged again in slowdown tactics by not assigning enough workers. Most local ILWU workers believe the decision had already been made; in the words of one longshoreman, "We were there to tidy up a few things the bigger companies cared about."

Nine days of paralysis ensued—and the timing of both the lockout and imposition of Taft-Hartley appear to have minimized union leverage. Economists agree that economic damage from the lockout would rise sharply after 10 days, but not all agree that the initial economic impact was negative. The U.S. imports more than it exports across the Pacific, so while the first few days of a shipping freeze hurts Asian countries, it improves the U.S. balance of trade. Taft-Hartley came just in time to avoid major damage to holiday retail distribution, and the 80-day period expires on Jan. 7—after the election and when retail shipping is near its annual low. (It might, however, come precisely as the U.S. invades Iraq.)

At that point, history suggests, more conflict is all but inevitable. Taft-Hartley has been invoked by the president for each of the 11 coast-wide port shutdowns since the law was passed in 1947, including twice during the only time in the ILWU's history that it has struck—a bitter eight-month shutdown in 1971- 72. Of the 11 times Taft-Hartley has resulted in 80-day cooling-off periods, the work stoppage promptly resumed after the 80 days eight times. And the ILWU has charged for months that Bush administration members have personally threatened the union with federal intervention on behalf of shippers, and that the White House is even training Navy personnel to fill in at shut-down ports.

IN THE END, the charge of union busting comes down to aggressive and intransigent negotiating by a trade association dominated by big shipping companies and the presence of Miniace. A January port shutdown could severely damage both the weakened economy and a war effort. But none of that, according to workers like Lelli, matters to Miniace, who appears to be the Saddam Hussein of the ILWU—a personification of all things bad.

"They don't care about the economic damage to people. . . . Miniace's got a pot of gold at the end of this task, and he doesn't care about anything else—not Alaska or Hawaii or the nation's economy," says the Tacoma labor leader.

"How can one man blockade the West Coast, and how can the government come down on his side at the end? This is unbridled corporate capitalism at its finest, and we have to put an end to it." And Lelli foresees that struggle as grim. "This guy was a union buster twice. . . . We may not win this thing. We may be changed forever. But it's gonna be a war between now and then."

gparrish@seattleweekly.com

 
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