Obama administration intervenes against West Coast dock workers

President Barack Obama intervened over the weekend in the increasingly tense confrontation between West Coast dockworkers and the cargo shipping companies and terminal owners organized in the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA). The White House dispatched Secretary of Labor Tom Perez to oversee talks for a new five-year labor agreement.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which has kept its 20,000 members on the job for nine months without a contract, faces an increasingly restive rank and file, which is opposed to another concessionary contract undermining jobs, wages and working conditions.

Accusing the ILWU of organizing a slowdown, which it said “amounts to a strike with pay,” the PMA locked out workers at 29 ports in California, Oregon and Washington State over the Presidents Day holiday weekend.

The White House move follows demands for an end to the labor dispute from major retailers, who depend on imported goods passing through the ports. A bipartisan group of US congressmen has called for the president to use the strikebreaking Taft-Hartley law, as his Republican predecessor George Bush did in 2002, to force open the ports and impose management’s dictates on the workers.

“Out of concern for the economic consequences of further delay, the president has directed his Secretary of Labor Tom Perez to travel to California to meet with the parties to urge them to resolve their dispute quickly at the bargaining table,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said on Saturday. “Secretary Perez is already in contact with the parties and will keep the president fully updated.”

Jonathan Gold, the vice president of the National Retail Federation, hailed the announcement, saying, “The slowdowns, congestion and suspensions at the West Coast ports need to end now.” This was echoed by US Representative Janice Hahn, a California Democrat, who said she hoped Perez “will work to keep both sides at the table and help them find a resolution that keeps our ports open and our workers on the job.”

The White House is intervening entirely on behalf of the shipping and terminal owners and, more generally, the corporate and financial elite in the US, which is determined to resist growing demands by workers for wage increases and other improvements. Perez is being sent to give the ILWU its marching orders: break the resistance of the rank and file to another sellout contract and prevent the outbreak of a serious struggle, which could link up with striking oil workers in the US and rail workers in Canada and become a catalyst for a movement of broader sections of the working class.

The move by the White House reflects concerns within sections of the political establishment that unilateral actions by the employers, marginalizing the union apparatus rather than utilizing its services, could provoke a movement of the working class that the unions would be unable to control. For months, think tanks and journals have been warning about the danger of a “wages push” by US workers angry over the continued erosion of their living standards even as corporate profits and the stock market soar in the sixth year of a supposed economic recovery.

The strike by over 5,000 oil refinery workers in California, Texas, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Washington enters its third week today, with the oil giants refusing to budge on workers’ demands for improved wages and safety conditions. The selective strike policy of the United Steelworkers (USW) union, which has limited the walkout to less than one-fifth of the 30,000 USW-organized oil industry employees, has led the workers into a dead end, and there is increasing sentiment among rank-and-file workers for a national strike.

Meanwhile, 3,000 railroad workers at Canadian Pacific walked out Sunday morning over grueling work schedules and safety issues in a strike that threatens to impact industries throughout North America, including oil, lumber and auto as well as retail goods that arrive at ports in British Columbia. The Canadian government is expected to introduce strikebreaking legislation today.

While holding the Taft-Hartley law in reserve, the White House is relying on the ILWU to smother rank-and-file opposition. Long allied to the Democratic Party, the ILWU has colluded with the employers and the government for decades to erode jobs and living standards in the name of improving “labor flexibility” and “competitiveness” with ports in Asia and Europe.

It has sought to whip up nationalism in order to divide US dockworkers from their counterparts internationally and line them up behind their “own” American employers.

As part of the Maritime Labor Alliance, the ILWU endorsed Obama’s reelection in 2012. The union praised “the President’s initiatives to increase American exports, to enforce existing buy and ship American policies, to fund and implement the Maritime Security Program, and to ensure that our nation has a fleet of US-flag vessels necessary to meet the economic, homeland and military security requirements of our Nation.”

The president’s policy of increasing exports largely depends on reducing the wages of American workers so that US firms can compete with China, Mexico and other low-wage countries. Obama’s “security” policies have meant unending war and the destruction of democratic rights in the name of the “war on terror.”

In justifying the use of the Taft-Hartley against dockworkers in 2002, President Bush, with the full backing of Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, cited not only potential damage to the national economy, but also the harmful impact of a work stoppage on the US military in the run-up to the Iraq War. The suggestion was that any industrial action constituted a threat to national security and was therefore illegitimate and illegal.

The PMA has repeatedly cited the tax on “Cadillac” health care plans under Obama’s Affordable Care Act as justification for slashing the medical benefits won by dockworkers over generations of struggle.

Under agreements first worked out in the late 1960s to introduce new technology, the ILWU accepted the destruction of jobs and a vast increase in productivity in exchange for the PMA’s acceptance of the principle that the ILWU would retain bargaining rights for all of the workers who remained and that the distribution of work would continue to be controlled through the union hiring hall.

Over the last two contracts, however, the ILWU has acceded to the demands of the PMA for a vast expansion in the use of contract workers, leading to a gradual return to the days of the hated “shape up” system, when management hired and fired workers at will and workers who loaded and unloaded ships had no guaranteed wages, hours or safety protection.

In the current talks, the PMA is offering a meager wage increase of 2.8 percent in each of the next five years and seeking concessions on pensions and contract work. For its part, the ILWU is chiefly concerned with the institutional interests of the union, seeking some type of commitment for minimum staffing levels.

On Friday, ILWU President Bob McEllrath agreed to a federal mediator’s request for a 48-hour news blackout so the union could negotiate a sellout agreement behind the backs of 20,000 dockworkers.

The intervention of the Obama administration underscores the fact that workers fighting for decent wages and working conditions confront a political struggle not only against the oil giants and ship owners, but against both parties of big business and the capitalist system they defend.

Such a struggle can be developed only in opposition to the unions, which function as tools of the corporations and government. The isolation of different struggles must be broken through the building of new organizations of struggle, controlled by rank-and-file workers, to unite the entire working class in an industrial and political counteroffensive in defense of jobs, living standards and democratic and social rights.