White House signals it will move to forestall union strike
The Bush regime is threatening to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act or to use the military to keep West Coast ports open.
By NANCY CLEELAND, Times Staff Writer
The Bush administration has intervened aggressively in labor talks at West Coast ports, with high-level officials signaling that they are prepared to take strong action to prevent an economically crippling strike or slowdown.
Soon after negotiations between dockworkers and shipping lines began in mid-May, the White House convened a working group to monitor them, with representatives from the departments of Commerce, Labor and Transportation and the Office of Homeland Security.
Since then, a Labor Department official has met with the union negotiating committee twice in San Francisco and made almost daily phone calls. That official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, confirmed that he suggested four steps the administration or Congress might take if the union were to call a strike or a slowdown, all of which would keep cargo moving.
One option, and perhaps the most likely, would be for the president to declare a national emergency and invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, which would force the delay of a strike for 80 days. The act was last used in 1978 during a coal miners' strike.
Administration officials said the economic importance of the ports and the level of animosity between the union and employers warranted federal intervention. "The way these guys have negotiated, they make demands and when they don't get what they want, they engage in slowdowns," the Labor Department official said of the dockworkers. "This time, before the normal historic pattern was allowed to unfold, we went in to assess the situation.... It would be irresponsible to wait for the meltdown."
Leaders of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union say the government's involvement has blunted their bargaining strength and actually prolonged negotiations, which are in their third month. They also view it as part of a pattern intended to weaken unions.
Over the years, the union's ability to disrupt national commerce has given it unusual clout at the bargaining table. It has parlayed that power into some of the best wages and benefits in blue-collar America. Members working the docks earned on average $80,000 to $158,000 last year, including premiums and overtime. They also have fully paid medical benefits and generous pension contributions.
Ports from San Diego to Seattle move about $300 billion worth of goods a year, accounting for about 7% of the nation's gross domestic product and supporting 1.4 million U.S. jobs, federal officials estimate.
A coast-wide strike could cost the national economy as much as $1 billion a day, according to a study by UC Berkeley planning professor Stephen S. Cohen.
A contract covering 10,500 dockworkers was due to expire July 1 but has been extended by both parties since then. Negotiations, suspended by the union last month, are set to resume Aug. 13. Conflicts center on the introduction of labor-saving technology and the outsourcing of union jobs.
The union has not threatened a strike, but last month officials made it easier for its negotiating committee to call one. There has not been a port strike since 1971.
According to a member of the union's negotiating team, the administration threatened to force members to work if a strike were called by invoking the Taft-Hartley Act. Other options mentioned included running the ports with U.S. Navy personnel, moving to break up the union's coast-wide bargaining unit or backing legislation that would restrict the union's ability to call a strike.
"There were some pretty harsh statements," said Bob McEllrath, a vice president of the ILWU. "I've negotiated these contracts for the West Coast since '93, and I've never seen this before."
The Labor Department official confirmed that the options were mentioned but said it was in response to union questions and in the context of a job action occurring during wartime.
"We have been very candid," the official said. "We have told them 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."
The implication angered union officials, who said they never have held up military shipments.
The Labor Department official said the administration is neutral on the contract and has applied equal pressure to the shipping lines to avoid antagonizing or locking out union members.
Joe Miniace, president of the Pacific Maritime Assn., an employer group, said the administration pushed him to sweeten medical benefits in his latest contract offer.
"They ought to sit in my seat if they think they're feeling pressure," he said of the union.
White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said the administration had made no contingency plans but is monitoring the negotiations and is in close contact with both parties. "We expect the parties to resolve their differences and wouldn't speculate on what would happen if they fail to do so," she said.
Several anti-strike options cited by administration officials would take months or years to implement and would require the support of Congress.
In the most likely response, President Bush would declare a national emergency and invoke the Taft-Hartley Act. Taft-Hartley was last used by President Jimmy Carter.
An AFL-CIO official said Taft-Hartley allows Congress to impose a contract settlement eventually, but the provision has never been used.
A long-term strategy would be to break up the coast-wide bargaining unit into bargaining by individual ports. That would allow shippers to stagger contract expiration dates, eliminating the threat of a coast-wide action, and thus would allow cargo to be diverted to neighboring ports in the event of a strike. The Labor official said the employers group or any member of Congress could ask for a reconsideration of the bargaining unit, saying that it now has a monopoly.
The use of Navy personnel to operate port equipment such as cranes would be a severe move that the official said would be contemplated only in time of war.
Most troubling to organized labor is the option that would move the Longshore union to the jurisdiction of the national Railway Labor Act, which now governs union activity in rail transport and airlines. The act gives courts and the administration far more power to prevent strikes and impose contract settlements than does the National Labor Relations Act, which governs most private sector labor negotiations. That change would require legislation.
ILWU officials said that merely by raising the options, the administration has tilted the negotiations in the employers' favor. "What power does a union have other than withdrawing its labor?" asked ILWU spokesman Steve Stallone. "These have been recognized as legitimate worker rights since 1934, and they are still the law of the land."
Union officials complained that they have not been given equal access to the administration. For example, an internal memo from an employers association shows that the White House group met with representatives of shipping lines and major retailers during its formation, on June 4. At the time, officials solicited ideas for "concrete steps the administration might take to back up strong statements" it might make to the union. Employers were given a direct phone line to senior White House economics advisor Carlos Bonilla.
Stallone said the union learned of the White House group two weeks later, through a bulletin issued by the employers. At the union's request, U.S. Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and others asked the Bush administration to withdraw. "We strongly believe that the parties should be left to resolve their differences through good-faith bargaining," they wrote in a June 28 letter.
The shipping lines and dockworkers began negotiating in May but still appear to be far from an agreement. The shippers have offered a 17% wage hike over five years, but the real fight is over jurisdictional questions.
Last month, for example, the union offered to accept new technologies that it said would boost productivity and lead to a 30% reduction in highly paid marine clerk jobs. Marine clerks document the movement of goods in and out of the ports, checking trucks at terminal gates and containers moving on and off ships.
In turn, the union asked that only union clerks be used for vessel planning, the configuration of thousands of containers on a given ship. That planning is now done by computer, often at remote locations by nonunion workers.
The shippers rejected that demand, saying those jobs do not belong in the union and that including them actually would increase the union's ranks. It also would not agree to bring under the union all jobs created by new technologies.
Observers in the labor movement as well as the administration said a long history of distrust on both sides has hampered progress. And indeed, the shippers and the union have general complaints about each other.
The Pacific Maritime Assn., which primarily represents foreign-owned shipping companies, says the union has never had to bargain because it has traditionally used the threat of a strike to get whatever it wants.
The ILWU, on the other hand, says the employers group is not negotiating seriously in this round because it is counting on federal intervention if a strike is called.
National labor leaders, including the AFL-CIO, are watching the ILWU talks closely as a bellwether for future negotiations in which the White House also might intervene.
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Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times
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