Dockworkers keep strong grip despite setback

By Justin Pritchard
Monday October 14, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO – Longshoremen are back at work after a 10-day lockout, but who’s in charge on the West Coast docks? 

Historically, while other unions have withered, dockworkers in 29 major Pacific ports have stood strong against the shipping lines and terminal operators that transport more than $300 billion worth of cargo each year. 

The balance of power changed – at least temporarily – this week when President Bush ordered dockworkers back to the waterfront. 

Although it was a lockout by shipping companies and not a dockworker strike that Bush ended, his invoking of the Taft-Hartley Act gave employers the ability to drag the dockworkers’ union before a federal judge on charges of deliberately slowing the pace of work. 

It’s powerful leverage, given that Taft-Hartley’s 80-day “cooling-off’ period lets the shipping lines clear the cargo-choked docks during the all-important holiday import and fall harvest export seasons. 

In his Saturday morning radio address, Bush said he had to end the lockout, which he said was costing the nation up to $1 billion a day in lost business and jobs. 

“We simply cannot afford to have hundreds of billions of dollars a year in potential manufacturing and agricultural trade sitting idle,” Bush said in his Saturday morning radio address. “The action I took this week will help keep our economy moving and allow labor and management more time to resolve their differences.” 

More time, but surely less motivation for a union infuriated by federal intervention. 

Bush’s action compels the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and Pacific Maritime Association to take part in federally mediated contract talks after a meltdown at the bargaining table over terms of a new contract led to the lockout late last month. Both sides said they expect to talk with mediator Peter Hurtgen in the coming week. 

But union officials say the government intervention has only stiffened their resistance to what they see as association attempts to shrivel their ranks by denying them jurisdiction over new jobs created by cargo tracking technology. 

The union might simply wait out the 80-day “cooling-off” period and react angrily once federal involvement goes away. 

Taft-Hartley has been used in West Coast waterfront disputes 11 times before, and has led to an immediate settlement only three times, according to David J. Olson, a political science professor at the University of Washington. 

“My guess is that instead of cooling off, things will heat up,” he says. “The animosity is going to increase, not decrease.” 

On the waterfront, longshoremen aren’t straining to pick up the pace – but they also appear to be doing enough to project the impression that they are trying, given how congested the docks have become. 

When the association said Friday that productivity was down around 25 percent, officials didn’t cite slow work rates, but rather said not enough workers showing up for some jobs. Union officials responded that they’ve asked employers to train more workers, which would swell their current ranks of about 10,500 members. 

Should the association press its case in court that longshoremen aren’t working “at a normal pace,” as required by the judge who implemented Bush’s Taft-Hartley request, union lawyers may have plausible a rebuttal. 

National labor groups say hard feelings over Taft-Hartley will invigorate their organizing for next month’s midterm elections. 

No West Coast contests are close enough for organized labor to target, said Steve Rosenthal, political director for the AFL-CIO. But he added that angry union supporters could affect elections in places as distant as Minnesota, where Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone is in a tight race with Republican challenger Norm Coleman. Union members produced pamphlets targeting Coleman after he praised Bush’s use of Taft-Hartley. 

“You never like to say that something like this is a benefit and it certainly should never have happened,” Rosenthal said. “But do you try to make lemonade out of lemons? Sure.”