Sitting on the docks by the bay

Posted: Oct 11, 2002 12:00 AM
It was after 5 p.m. Tuesday, and President Bush had just won a court order to end the lockout and put dockworkers back to work for 80 days. International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) pickets packed up their signs. "This could work in our favor," said a union member, wearing a Raiders cap, who didn't want to give his name. Maritime St. in Oakland was lined with waiting trucks -- hundreds of them -- while drivers stood in small groups. Mo, from Manteca, said he supported management. He's paid by the job, he said, and the ILWU's summertime slowdown -- what the union calls a "work safe" mode -- has cost him money for the past three months. Publicly, the ILWU is steamed at Bush for invoking the Taft-Hartley Act to reopen the ports. The union had agreed to the 30-day return to work as Bush requested, but employers nixed it -- and then got what they wanted, a reprieve that keeps the docks running through the holiday season rush. Bush did the right thing. Agriculture and industry can't stay in business without shipping in good times. With the U.S. economy tottering toward recovery, he had to act quickly. That's why even generally pro-labor types like Sen. Dianne Feinstein had pushed to use Taft-Hartley. But woe to Bush if he believes that now he can sit back and watch. Yes, Bush is busy with Iraq, but if the economy tanks, he tanks. Yet his administration seems clueless about the dynamics at play here. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao is a savvy woman. But she told me Tuesday that she couldn't think of "anything more" Bush could do. She added, "A third-party imposed solution will not be long-lasting. That's why the government has consistently urged both sides to come together and craft an agreement." Wake up. The Pacific Maritime Association locked out its workers and then PMA President Joseph Miniace showed up at negotiations with an armed bodyguard. The union's work slowdown cut into the profits of the PMA, as well as those of freight-dependent industries and other workers. There's nothing genteel about their relations. "What they're trying to do is bust the union. We're fighting for our very survival here," said ILWU spokesman Steve Stallone. The PMA didn't call back by my deadline. But its story is clear. PMA will save a fortune if it can create nonunion jobs. Also, it has to modernize to stay competitive. No wonder management is more than happy to buy off current workers with a full-time wage of $114,500 and a dream pension in exchange for a future of relatively lower labor costs. I find it hard to begrudge the union salaries for this dangerous job. Dockworker Lyman Hollins, 32, referred to five deaths on the docks this year, then remarked: "You don't get injured. You get dead." Will longshore union members engage in a slowdown? Hollins answered, "People will work safely and continue to produce." Which means: Safety rules can, and will, be used to provide cover for disgruntled workers. The ILWU has angered many with this "work safe" strategy. Industries and farmers aren't rooting for the union. And the union can only fight modernization for so long. If U.S. ports on the West Coast don't modernize, maybe Mexican ports will. Bush can't just expect the two sides to work something out. He needs to get more involved now, a labor source told me. He should name a panel of executives with good relations with labor and of labor leaders with good employer relations. Let them advise as negotiators hammer out a deal both sides can live with. Otherwise, Taft-Hartley could yield 80-days of underproduction, followed by a lockout or a strike. And Bush won't have any tricks left up his sleeve to do anything about it.