The Struggle on the Docks – Will Bush Intervene?

Six days ago the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA,) the organization of West Coast shipping owners and port operators, without any prior warning locked out the 10,500 longshoremen of the ILWU. The lockout is in effect at all 29 ports along the US pacific coast, from San Diego to Seattle. The lockout was announced after the dockers had already been working for two hours, and followed a full day lockout the previous day. Contract negotiations are still on, and now are under the "mediation" of federal officials. The PMA, along with several major corporations and the Bush Administration are combining forces in an attack on the US Labor Movement. But the longshoremen are ready to fight and have no intention of allowing Bush and the bosses to destroy the ILWU.

The dockers refuse to back down on the issue of new technology on the docks. The PMA wants to introduce higher levels of computerization, which will cut the number of jobs on the waterfront. The union has offered to compromise on this issue, accepting some short-term job losses, but the port operators want the new technical jobs to be non-union. This is a direct attack on the union's future. It is an attempt by the shippers, industrial corporations, and the state to mortally wound what is one of America's most powerful unions. At its height in the 1950s, the ILWU was 100,000 strong. In the 1970s "containerization" was introduced which drastically cut the number of workers employed in the ports down to its current number of around 10,500. However, the ILWU was able then to ensure that the new positions would be totally unionized, but not without a fight. The whole history of the ILWU, from its inception, like that of the Labor Movement around the world, shows that nothing can be gained from the capitalists for free.

The West Coast ports occupy a very important position in the US economy, as well as that of the entire Pacific Rim. For example, in 2001, $46.29 billion worth of goods were imported into the ports from China alone. Japanese exports to the US via the Pacific accounted for $46.14, those from South Korea amounted to $10.91 billion and Taiwanese exports to the US were just under $10 billion.  In the same year $19.02 billion was exported to Japan. Several analysts have estimated that for every day the ports are shut down the US economy loses $1 billion in industrial and agricultural exports, railway shutdowns and the idling of factories using "just-in-time" production methods. Already two Toyota plants in California and Tennessee have stopped production because their parts are entirely produced in East Asia. Grain warehouses in several parts of the Midwest are completely full, to the point where grain is being stored in the open air. October is also the time of year when most retail goods are imported for the Christmas season. Many major importers stocked up on goods in the previous months, however, to offset the effects of a shutdown.  Many companies are also now importing from Asia by air, but air cargo has a limited capacity and is also three times as expensive as ocean-going shipping rates.

The Bush Administration and its corporate underwriters are obviously very concerned about the situation on the West Coast. As we explained in a previous article, an administration task force has already made a cornucopia of threats against the ILWU if a strike should break out. Among them are included court ordered injunctions via the Taft-Hartley Act, and the intervention of the National Guard and Navy in the ports – using them as scabs and strike breakers. Bush has already shown that he has no scruples with state intervention against strikes. He has threatened on three separate occasions to invoke the National Railway Act against workers in the airline industry alone. And he hasn't even reached the middle of his four years in office! The PMA, industrial producers and retailers are all clamoring for Bush to invoke Taft-Hartley, but the state has as yet to take any action other than appointing a federal mediator to oversee the contract negotiations. But negotiations are stalled, and both the PMA and ILWU have realized this, thus the PMA's lockout of the workers.

President Bush II undoubtedly is ready and willing to clamp down on the West Coast dockers and the Labor Movement as a whole. But the administration does not have the room to act freely in the matter. The drumming up of war against Iraq in the name of "regime change," with or without the UN's blessing, is taking up most of the administrations activity and attention. The economy is sliding ever downwards despite all of the efforts of the Federal Reserve Bank. Latin America is showing signs of falling into crisis, following the lead of Argentina. Not to mention that Bush has been courting the support of the Carpenters Union for 2004, the leadership of which recently broke away from the AFL-CIO on very shady grounds. Also, the mid-term Congressional elections are coming up in November, and even the Three Stooges of US Capital Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney realize that a heavy-handed intervention against Labor will swing many voters away from the Republicans. That could possibly give the majority in both houses of Congress to (for lack of any real alternative) the Democrats. The Democrats have already expressed their "heart-felt support" to the ILWU against military intervention and legal injunctions.

However, one has to remember that this "heart-felt support" comes from the same people who introduced the Napalm bomb and Agent Orange into warfare. Not to mention the "Welfare-to-Work" program, NAFTA, GATT, FTAA – the list goes on. The Democrats are "siding" with the workers in order to improve their election day results, to hold onto their 'alliance' with the labor bureaucracy and they may also realize (unlike Bush) that provoking a fight with the ILWU and the AFL-CIO will only provoke the American workers into a broader fight to defend their interests.

As we said above, the ILWU is more than prepared to fight. In the words of an unnamed docker interviewed by the BBC for its 10-05 international program "Its a fight now. We'll have to dig in our heels and we're not going anywhere until it's over." The ILWU has rich and militant history. Born in 1934 during the general maritime strike, it still honors its members who were killed by the police more than 70 years ago. Every year on July 5 every port on the West Coast remains still for a silent commemoration of Bloody Thursday, when six longshoremen were murdered by the police in the 1934 strike. The outlines of two of the martyred workers are outlined in chalk on the exact spot where they died in San Francisco. Failure to remove hats when entering an ILWU union hall draws a $50 fine. The dockers are said to always refer to each other as 'brother' or 'sister.' That is the kind of militant working class organization that the Democrats understand will fight till the end, while Bush doesn't even grasp the situation, imagining as he does that he has the power and authority to continue to trample on workers' rights. After a period of having their heads down, the working class is once again waking up.  Faced with economic, political, social, and military uncertainty and instability, the opening shots of the revival of the Labor Movement in the US may be not so far away.

Are you a communist?
Then apply to join your party!