Santa Claus Conquers Longshoremen

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The mainstream media have buried the biggest labor story in decades, far bigger than the Reagan Administration’s decision to fire the air traffic controllers. The Bush Administration has used the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, not to break a strike, but to slap down a union already locked out by employers. Never before has the government used this power in a lockout.

After months of hostile negotiations, mainly over outsourcing, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union resisted striking despite all media predictions. The business press had been whipping importers into a frenzy all summer, and shipping through West Coast docks had increased dramatically in anticipation. This created “more jobs than people to fill them,” (SF Chronicle), and the ILWU said the “speedup” was unsafe. Five workers had been killed on the docks in the last five years, the union noted, and called on workers to “work to rule.”

Break the Rules, or Else
“Work to rule” means that workers follow all safety and other rules strictly, depriving the employer of the unpaid or unsafe work – during breaks, lunch, or when safety procedures demand extra time – that workers normally provide. The Longshoremen also began refusing overtime and rotating shipping clerks so that no one clerk had to handle the busiest ports all the time. The most careful reader would have found virtually none of this information in the mainstream media.

Instead, press reports were full of employer condemnations and accusations that workers were engaging in a “slowdown,” a legally unprotected activity that involves workers intentionally dragging their feet, now apparently also known as a “strike with pay,” (NYT). “I have said it before and I will say it again,” says Pacific Maritime Association president Joseph Miniace, “I will not pay workers to strike,” (SF Chronicle).

The summer news of the speedup, sparse as it was before, was completely forgotten by the second day of the PMA’s lockout. And the workers’ perspective appeared as a kind of footnote, if at all: “The union denied that it had orchestrated slowdowns, saying it merely urged members to refuse overtime and to strictly follow safety rules.” But such radical suggestions were quickly balanced by the PMA’s plaintive explanations: “We just talked to the union’s international officers and asked them not to do these things…If they do not give us labor, then that’s a strike. And if there’s a strike, the gates would be locked,” (LA Times). The workers refused to call a strike, so the bosses did it for them.

Blaming the Workers
Owners closed the ports Sept. 27 and again Sept. 30, at a cost to the national economy estimated at $1 billion a day. Still the media blamed the workers. In an article titled, “Labor’s muscle on Pacific docks,” the Christian Science Monitor opined, “Few unions can cause this kind of ruckus any more.” The article recounted past strikes by coalminers, “threatening America’s ability to heat their homes,” and steelworkers, “roiling President Kennedy and national inflation,” before telling us that the waterfront dispute “would seem to hold the holiday season hostage, with millions of Christmas toys and televisions from Asia trapped on a conga line of ships left bobbing in untended harbors.”

For added authority, we had chief economist for Merrill Lynch, Bruce Steinberg: “I don’t think the government will let the economy be held hostage by some longshoremen.” Then the article compared the lockout to a “violent” 1934 strike, when police had killed several dockworkers.

Backed by media cheerleading, the Bush Administration set the Taft-Hartley wheels in motion Oct. 7, ordering a one-day investigation. The President appeared to have his mind made up, reported the Associated Press, as of course he likely had well before the contract expired July 1. Business lobbyists had reported a “sympathetic ear” in the Oval Office all summer, citing “post-September 11 national security concerns,” (AP). Labor Secretary Elaine Chao warned the ILWU early in negotiations that the White House would intervene, possibly with federal troops.

No national media explained the history of the Taft-Hartley Act’s passage after World War II, with FDR dead, amid a national backlash against organized labor, much less the history of the act’s usage. Taft-Hartley has always weakened the union and often failed to settle the conflict, concluded one study in 2000 (Arizona Law Review). But in the media, federal intervention was neutral and imminently necessary.

All the News That Fits (Our Story)
After all, Christmas was coming, and probably a war on Iraq. Gifts and military supplies had to flow freely. A long shutdown would completely cut off Hawaii and Alaska. This was such an exciting story that most media seemingly could not bear to include the facts. When the lockout came, the Longshoremen volunteered to handle shipments for Alaska, Hawaii, the US military and all cruise ships – without pay. With the help of a federal mediator, ILWU convinced the owners to allow this work, but the national media never reported this, or the dock owners’ weeklong opposition.

Here and there in the national media, the careful reader might find a more revealing tidbit, such as the dock owners bragging that they would “keep the ports closed until the longshoremen agree to extend the expired contract,” (AP). But this was rare. Even when the union did agree to a 30-day extension, as demanded by Labor Secretary Chao – and the owners refused – the President invoked Taft-Hartley anyway, moving up his announcement 15 minutes to coincide with the ILWU’s announcement that the union had agreed (AP). Not to be upstaged by agreement when employing force, is of course vintage Bush.

By then, it really should not have been surprising that the big media failed to report the historical significance of Bush’s decision. To do so would require focusing on the fact that the waterfront “walkoff” (CNN) did not exist, but a lockout did, and on why that difference is everything. Undisciplined minds might have wondered why the White House was so clearly and disingenuously siding with the bosses who “created a phony crisis,” as AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka put it.

“President Bush saves Christmas,” was the preferred theme. Jubilant reports almost always reminded audiences of the enormous cost of the port shutdown and, of course, how well paid those nasty Longshoremen are anyway – the ten percent whose jobs haven’t already been eliminated, that is. Nowhere does the press mention how much the bosses make.

Negotiations during the Taft-Hartley “cooling off period” are likely to be ugly. Negotiators for the companies have already turned up at the bargaining table with armed guards, an outrageous “breach of protocol” and attempt at intimidation, as noted by the head of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS press release). Nowhere in the national press is this story to be found, much less the suggestion that it might have been the bosses “holding the holidays hostage” – with the help of the White House.

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