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The Dockworkers' Struggle - Debating the Issue

By Brian Oliver Sheppard - Industrial Worker, November 2002

A few hours ago I called a Dallas AM radio station, KRLD, because the subject of the show was the lock-out of dock workers on the West Coast. This is something I happen to feel very strongly about, as should anyone who cares about the current state of the labor movement, or the economy, or human affairs in general. The views of the radio show's hostess typified the boss class's views on the matter. Unfortunately, many people are mouthing similar ideas -- even people who have no real interest in seeing ILWU dock workers hurt; they just cannot think any other way because of what the media drums into their head night and day.

The show's hostess, whose name escapes me right now, was coming down hard against the ILWU and unions in general. "What kind of sympathy do they think they deserve, making anywhere from $90,000 to $150,000 per year? That's almost as much as the ball players were making when they went on strike!" She would also occasionally slip up and refer to the lock-out as a "strike" -- which it is not and never has been.

What she was asking was was Bush right in invoking Taft-Hartley? Are the union's demands legitimate? I called to tell her. Some callers had been insinuating that this was all a Democratic plot to make Bush and other Republicans look bad right before the Fall elections. "I don.t think unions and Democrats are synonymous," I said. "In Texas the Teamsters supported Bush's candidacy for governor just like they support his arctic oil drilling program. And a Democrat, California's Senator Dianne Feinstein, was one of the most vocal in urging Bush to step in to this dispute. This is more a matter of the PMA, the Pacific Maritime Association -- who are a union also, a union of employers who have come together to protect their interests, just as the ILWU is a union of workers protecting theirs -- trying to get the federal government to help them break a union."

She asked if I opposed Bush intervening. "Yes, I do. I think it was the intent of the PMA to force Bush's hand by locking out the workers, so that the government would have to step in to remedy the situation."

Left to their own devices, the ILWU is much more powerful than the PMA; after all, they are the labor that make the PMA's profits possible. The PMA is an association of some 79 employers who operate docks all along the West Coast. In more honest times, such a collaboration of bosses might be called a cartel. Nevertheless, the ILWU is so strong that if the government had stayed out there is no doubt that the ILWU would have eventually won, lock-out or not.

All along, the PMA has maneuvered to get the government into the process; they know they stand a much better chance with business-friendly Bush on their side than they do on their own. PMA reps have come to negotiation sessions with armed bodyguards because they say they are "scared" of union officials. They locked the gates and refused to allow workers to come in after they claimed workers were engaged in a slow-down. Riot cops armed with batons and pepper spray were called down in one incident at Port Hueneme, near Los Angeles. They have done whatever they could to inflame the situation to cause Bush to invoke Taft-Hartley, a despicably anti-working class piece of legislation from the 1940s.

The radio hostess was adamant that the workers were engaged in a slow-down -- which, she maintained, is worse than a strike because you keep getting a paycheck. But the slow-down allegation hasn't been proven. I mentioned this.

Even if there were a slow-down, the ILWU had every right to engage in one, working as they have since July without a contract and with no sign that the bosses wanted one. Nevertheless, the "slow-down" is continually harped upon as evidence of the dock workers' bad faith, or that they are up to some kind of chicanery on the job.

But look at what management did: they locked out the workers. In many cases lockouts are illegal, yet few boss shills are rushing to condemn the PMA for acting this way. Because the PMA claims there was a slow-down, it has been taken as fact in the media. And why would workers feel compelled to slow down, anyway? Defenders of Bush and the PMA don't want to think about it.

This should have been one of the things uncovered by the fact-finding commission Bush appointed on Oct. 7: was there really a slowdown? What are the facts? But the fact-finding commission, which is a legal prerequisite to ordering workers back to work, convened for just a few hours before telling the president he should get a court injunction against the workers.

How often do we wish the government was this expedient in NLRB cases in getting us back wages? Bush didn't care about the facts; he was just going through the motions to get to the point where he could get the injunction against the union.

The KRLD hostess kept going back to the technology issue. I didn.t get a chance to comment on it, but her contention was basically that the ILWU are "Luddites" because they oppose new technologies that may eliminate their jobs but which, nevertheless, she claimed, make society better and make many things less expensive (ha!).

But the ILWU has never opposed technology -- they oppose eliminating union jobs. If the people who service and use the new technology are ILWU members, then they are not opposed. The issue is the union membership status of those working with it. This distinction is extremely important. Only in the anti-worker mind of a conservative talk show host does this amount to "Luddism" or hating technology indiscriminately.

What about the fact that dock workers make high pay? The hostess made much of a pay range of $90,000 to $150,000 per year, which is on the high end. A more constant figure I.ve seen is $60,000 to $80,000.

Either way, it's a lot of money -- and rightfully so. This is skilled labor, highly skilled labor. It is extremely vital to the economy -- something proven by the fact that when this kind of labor is withdrawn from the economy, as it was during the lock-out, it costs about $1 billion per day, according to most reports. So it's integral labor, without which the economy slowly grinds to a halt. How can it not be worth a lot, then?

Is it really like baseball? No, it isn't. This isn.t entertainment, or a past-time. This is the transport of vital goods: foods, communications equipment, medical equipment, autos, you name it. And why the outcry over how much the dock workers make, and not, for example, over how much money the PMA makes off the dock workers? Why no outrage over the PMA's billions in profits?

The dock workers have every right to every penny they get -- not just because their labor is highly skilled and often dangerous (ever operate a loading crane 200 feet in the air over an oceanside port?), but because for decades dock workers have struggled to secure the decent living they now receive. They have fought tooth and nail for their livelihoods and it cost many of them their lives.

One caller called up to complain that she was a nurse and "only" got $45,000 a year, so she wasn't sympathetic at all to these overpaid dock workers. Another caller had the moment of the night when he suggested she quit her job to become a dock worker, or start a union so that she could get benefits and higher pay. Every which way these anti-worker arguments turn, they run up against the wall of reality.

Because this talk show was on around midnight, many of the people listening were unionized truckers, driving on local interstates, tuning in from their cabs. Many expressed the union position much more eloquently than I did. "You keep going on about how much these dockworkers make" Well, here I am, hauling freight from a refinery to Oklahoma, where I will get out and hook the parts up to another refinery location. I make $90,000 per year. Is that too much for you?"

"No, I'm not saying that."

"Well, how much do you make per year? Why don.t we talk about that?"

"That's none of your business."

"If technology was being introduced that eliminated some parts of your job, and you got paid less, you wouldn.t be upset? Don.t you think people have a right to get a decent income from their livelihoods?"

The hostess wasn't impressive in her response. Or another caller: "Maybe we should all just go and work at Wal-Mart, or 7-11, or Sears, or JC Penney, and let all the high paying jobs go down the toilet?"

Finally the hostess back-tracked to a position of "Well, I think unions are okay in some circumstances" -- a far cry from her earlier claim that they had "outlived their usefulness" -- "but technology now gives us things for cheaper and more efficiently." But, again, nobody said they were against technology in this case -- just technology that is serviced by non-union, low-paid, workers!

She was determined to see things in such away that her views would be verified no matter what. This is something I've seen in most conservatives: "Facts be damned, I'll think what I want." Anyway, it was refreshing to hear truckers and some others call in to this show and defend unions and workers, and it helped me remember that not everyone on the planet is against unions or people having a decent standard of living. (You get these ideas sometimes when you live in as conservative a place as I do.)

As of this writing ILWU workers have been ordered back to work by Bush, the compassionate conservative who believes government shouldn.t intervene in the economy. It remains to be seen how this important struggle will play out. Hopefully it will also serve to re-energize belief in the positive effects of unions in our society. In this regard I'll always remember one caller, who called up and said, "Well, I'm in management, and I don't support the ILWU at all, but I guess some people feel like they need to be paid a certain amount in order to live." Nah, really?