Oct 7, 2002
On the third day of the longshore strike President Bush said, "Any strike's a tough situation, but this one happens to come at – or a lockout is a tough situation or no work is a tough situation – this is coming at a bad time." As Bush's stumble indicates, it's a little harder for him to be appear to be defending the health of the country when it's the bosses who locked out the workers.
Before the lockout began, the Bush administration strongly threatened it would immediately intervene if any strike shut down the ports. Labor Department officials called the union and threatened to use the military to operate the ports, threatened to take away the bargaining rights of the union under the National Labor Relations Act and threatened to break up the coast-wide contract. There was talk of a Taft-Hartley injunction to end any strike. But now Bush appears hesitant to act. After all, it's the bosses who shut down the ports – not the workers.
This doesn't mean Bush won't obtain a Taft-Hartley injunction – and even soon. If the workers don't cave in, facing these threats, he may easily impose draconian conditions on the workers, forgetting who closed the ports. And if Bush does issue the injunction, then what?
Will ILWU leaders be ready to defy Bush? That isn't so clear. The union leaders let months go by after the contract ran out without even asking for a strike vote, and called on Democratic Party politicians for support, despite the fact that it's exactly when the bosses' interests are in sharp conflict with the workers that the Democrats have most clearly shown their support for the bosses. In fact, the last Taft-Hartley injunction was issued by Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, against the miners in l979. And Clinton used the Railway Labor Act to order American pilots to end their strike in 1997, the first time in 30 years the Act had been used.
The longshoremen can defend themselves, not by relying on supposed politician friends, but by preparing to fight for what they want. The coal miners showed in l979 that an injunction can be defied. Not only did they throw back the mineowners' demands for concessions, they backed off the government which didn't dare jail them – or even dare try to fine them. But they were ready to fight.
The same determination is needed today.