Bush Declares War on West Coast Port Workers

“We have told them that if they act in a manner that is disruptive, we will use any means necessary to make sure our troops in the field get what they need.” Who was this Bush Administration threat directed at? Saddam Hussein? Al Qaeda operatives? No. West coast Longshore workers attempting to negotiate a good contract.

45 giant corporations like Wal-Mart and The Gap, with over $1 trillion in annual sales and 100,000 manufacturing, distribution and retail centers, have been lobbying Bush to avert a strike or slow-down, which would disrupt their “just-in-time” system of delivering goods in 48 hours. With 7% of the gross domestic product flowing through west coast ports, the 10,500 port workers defending their jobs, healthcare and pensions in the face of the introduction of new technology are a threat to corporate interests.

Bush threatened to replace the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) on the west coast with federal troops if they go on strike, and to fire them if they organize a slow down. Bush has threatened to use the Taft Hartley Act, last used by Democratic President Carter in 1978, and to somehow expand the jurisdiction of the Railway Labor Act, which governs union activity in rail transport and airlines, to justify his actions. There is also talk about using recently passed “anti-terrorist” legislation like the USA PATRIOT Act and the Office of Homeland Security to investigate the background of all workers on the waterfront.

Longshore spokesman Steve Stallone explains the essential issue: “What power does a union have other than withdrawing its labor? These have been recognized as legitimate worker rights since 1934 and are still the law of the land.”

Clearly we are witnessing a new front in the “War on Terrorism.” Except this time the enemies are ordinary US workers, and the intent is to cower any acts of union militancy. Bush claims his “War on Terrorism” is about protecting freedom and democracy, but where is the freedom to strike or organize for decent living conditions? In reality, Bush’s war is about defending the power of US capitalism and weakening any forces that stand against it.

Bush cynically exploited the tragic events of 9/11 to pass laws that take away our civil liberties and increase the power of the government. But as Justice warned, these laws would inevitably be used against union, anti-globalization and other activists.

Bush’s threat is a replay of Reagan’s firing and replacing striking air-traffic controllers in 1981 and the smashing of their PATCO union. At that time the union leaders failed to respond, putting the labor movement on the defensive. This defeat was an important factor leading to 20 years of concessions. The unions should have responded by shutting the country down, as 13 million workers in Italy did a few months ago. The unions must not make the same mistake again.

Any move by Bush to use troops to break a strike must be followed by a mass mobilization, the shutting down of all cities where workers are involved, and if necessary a one-day nationwide strike. Anything less will not be enough to stop this attack, allowing Corporate America to further attack the wages and conditions of tens of millions of workers.

If the union leaders had taken a clear stance from the beginning against Bush’s “War on Terrorism” as a war against workers, the unions would be in a much stronger position to effectively fight this attack. Unfortunately, the union leaders went along with Bush after 9/11, which only served to disarm workers for the inevitable attacks Bush was preparing.

Successful rallies have already been held on the west coat. The next step has to be a massive outreach to the public. Speakers must be sent to all unions, community organizations, youth organizations, and radio shows. TV stations that refuse to carry the message must be picketed. Wal-Mart, Home Depot and other companies involved in this attack need to be targeted for informational picketing and flyering. Further mass rallies must be organized to demonstrate that workers will not accept a military intervention to break our unions.

Justice #31, September 2002