What’s Up on the Docks?

Bush turns to Taft-Hartley to battle the country’s most militant union

David Moberg

The longshore lockout is really about the power of workers to have a voice at their jobs.
President Bush’s request for a Taft-Hartley injunction to open up the West Coast docks is not simply a brazen use of governmental power on behalf of employers in a collective-bargaining dispute. It is part of an ongoing battle by global shipping and terminal operation companies, backed by the world’s biggest retailers and manufacturers, to weaken longshore unions.

Historically, dockworkers have been the most willing of all labor groups to act in international solidarity, and they hold a strategically critical position at the heart of global production networks that are increasingly vulnerable to disruption. “This is a fabricated, well-planned, union-busting program, using the American people to pay the price and having the hammer of the U.S. government deliver the blow,” says Ray Familathe of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

The government’s injunction is not likely to resolve the dispute, which is centered in the union’s insistence on having jurisdiction over jobs that are created as technological change takes place. Indeed, if the White House and the maritime companies aggressively push their agenda to weaken the union, the dispute could escalate into an international labor conflict with widespread political and economic consequences.

In recent years, shipping and stevedoring companies have attacked dockworkers in England and Australia, and their attempts to introduce nonunion operations on the East Coast spurred a conflict that led to criminal charges, eventually dismissed, against five leaders of the International Longshoremen’s Association in Charleston, South Carolina. In other countries, such as Mexico, privatization of the docks has weakened or eliminated unions (giving shippers a cheap option for some cargo diverted during the lockout).

The ostensible issue on the West Coast is the company’s ability to introduce new technology, including computerization and bar-codes. But it is really about the power of workers to have a voice at their jobs and their fair share of gains in productivity. Since 1960, when the ILWU agreed to accept containerized cargo, the union has accepted new technology as long as it has jurisdiction over new jobs created, guaranteeing future workers the rights, power and wages that the union provides.

The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) has tried to move new work out of the union’s jurisdiction, but it has lost every one of 30 arbitration disputes about the boundaries of union jobs over the past two decades. Now management is willing to buy off existing workers with the promise of lifetime jobs, but it wants the freedom to define new work as nonunion. “What they’re proposing is technological suicide for us,” says Richard Mead, president of ILWU Local 10. “There’s no future for us in the contract they propose. Suddenly every job is not your job. It belongs to somebody else.”


Early last summer top administration officials, including Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, made it clear that the administration would not tolerate any labor disruption when the contract between the ILWU and the PMA expired at the end of July. They threatened not only to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, but also to run the ports with Navy personnel, breaking up the coast-wide bargaining unit that has existed since 1934 and restricting the union’s right to strike. That stance clearly reinforced PMA’s hard line in negotiations.

On September 29, claiming that ILWU was engaged in a slowdown, the PMA locked out 10,500 workers at 29 ports. The union insisted it was simply enforcing contractual safety rules. The safety issue had grown more urgent since seven dockworkers (including five ILWU members) were killed on the West Coast this year.

Meanwhile, the West Coast Waterfront Coalition—a group including corporate giants like Wal-Mart, Toyota, Gap and 3M, as well as many shipping and logistics companies, along with the PMA—demanded that Bush invoke the Taft-Hartley injunction to end the lockout, which the PMA itself had imposed. The ILWU insisted that the PMA end the lockout and repeatedly offered to extend the contract. Shortly before Bush officially called for an injunction, the White House gave business lobbyists—but not the union—a briefing. Officials claimed to be seeking a way of avoiding the politically explosive Taft-Hartley action. The union agreed to the White House request for a 30-day contract extension, which could have given Bush the opportunity to maneuver past the midterm elections and then ask for an injunction, but the PMA refused. Despite their professed opposition, in court PMA lawyers did not challenge the order ending their lockout.

Although the White House was uncomfortable with the timing, the overall strategy had been in place for many months. “There was an employer-orchestrated sense of crisis for Bush to act like PATCO,” says Peter Olney, director of the University of California Institute for Labor and Employment, referring to Reagan’s destruction of the air traffic controllers union in 1981.

The workers needed no order to go back. They’d already been willing. But the Taft-Hartley injunction means that they cannot strike for 80 days, which will take the industry past the busy fall shipping season into the slow months early in the year, when a strike will have less effect. Union members and officials also now can be fined or jailed if the court finds them in violation of the contract or the injunction, which included a stipulation that they work at a “reasonable” pace. Union President James Spinosa insisted that the union would follow the safety code—“in a question of tonnage vs. safety, safety first”—but predicted that management would accuse workers of a slowdown and take the union to court.


Bush’s injunction “will not have an independent positive effect on negotiations,” predicts Michael LeRoy, a labor law professor at the University of Illinois and author of a recent study of Taft-Hartley injunctions (which have been used more than 30 times since 1947). “If parties settle, it’s not because of the injunction. Roughly half of these did not settle during the injunction period. The ‘cooling off’ period becomes a ‘heating up’ period.”

Although court fines and jailing of labor leaders have been rare, this is the first time an injunction was issued to stop an employer lockout, not a strike. “I rate the odds higher that the court will be more involved in enforcement” in this case, LeRoy says, and that increases the odds of a wider conflict.

The law provides that injunctions can be issued only to protect national health and safety, but courts typically have granted injunctions based on economic “inconvenience” that has been greatly overstated, LeRoy found. The oft-repeated estimate that the lockout was costing $2 billion a day was quite likely exaggerated, says Peter Hall, an expert on port economics at the University of California Institute of Industrial Relations. Yet it is true that a dock stoppage has new weight today, since most corporations maintain extremely low inventories and rely on computerized logistical systems linking sales in a Chicago shopping mall immediately back to production in Chinese factories and then through West Coast ports.

The number of workers on those docks has shrunk because of increased efficiency, and because their historic functions are more dispersed. The 10,500 registered union dockers make an average of $80,000 a year, reflecting both the dramatically rising productivity on the docks and the union’s ability to make sure they share in those gains. But another 5,000 casual dock workers make much less. In any case, Olney estimates that labor makes up only 5 percent of port costs. There are also about 10,000 very poorly paid truck drivers, defined as self-employed to foil efforts to unionize them, who move cargo containers to warehouses. “If they keep outsourcing all the jobs with every technological change, we’ll be eliminated from the waterfront,” says union spokesman Steve Stallone, “and that’s their plan.”

Shipping companies point to ports like Rotterdam, Hong Kong and Singapore as their technological models, but Kees Marges, the union leader who negotiated the contract for Rotterdam and is now an official of the International Transport Workers Federation, says that “comprehensive jurisdiction has never been an issue there.” As the port changed, the unions continued to represent all workers, except for upper management.

Unions in Australia, Korea and Japan, as well as some European countries, such as Denmark, have already pledged support for the ILWU, and Marges has called a meeting of worldwide dockworker leaders to plan for action. If either Bush or the companies push too hard, especially if the president uses the military to operate ports, it is likely that workers in at least some countries will refuse to unload ships arriving from the United States (as many threatened to do in 1948, stopping Truman from deploying troops).

When it becomes evident that the Taft-Hartley injunction has not broken the resolve of the union, Bush is likely to pursue legislative action to break up the coast-wide bargaining or to restrict dockworkers’ right to strike. In what could become a global PATCO scenario directed at one of the most militant and progressive unions in the United States, the stakes will be high both for the labor movement, here and around the world, and its allies in the movements against corporate globalization.

David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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