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US Longshoremen locked out by bosses

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The "war on terrorism" is used as a pretext to attack west coast dock workers, writes Lesley Day

More than 10,000 dock workers in nearly 30 ports from Seattle to San Diego in the west coast of the USA were locked out by their employers on 3 October. Most of those are members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) based in Los Angeles port, the centre of a dispute since May over renewed contracts.

The west coast ports handle more than half of the nation's trade, around $300 billion worth of cargo each year or more than 7 per cent of the total gross national product.

The Pacific Maritime Association, the port bosses' organisation, has said the loss of revenues and wages is running at more than $1bn a day.

Many businesses stocked up on supplies in thee last four months in anticipation of a strike or a lock out, but others are facing crippling shortages within a week. Air freight can be 20 times as expensive as ocean freight.

At a time when US company earnings are taking a dive this can only be bad news for US bosses and be to the advantage to the ILWU.

The Bush administration indicated in August that it will seek to block a West Coast dockers' strike by any means necessary. Claiming national security and the "war on terrorism" as a pretext, Bush is looking for any excuse to add a strategic victory over "the enemy within" as Margaret Thatcher used to call the British workers' movement to his hoped for victory over Saddam Hussein .

The dispute is a real problem for the many companies that rely on just-in-time production and goods that pass through west coast ports from Asian-Pacific suppliers.

Because of their strategic location the dock workers on the west coast have a traditionally strong union and a negotiation system covering 29 ports right along the west coast.

The shipping companies plan to install new technology that will eliminate many jobs. The union wants to ensure the new technology is run by existing union members and ensure that newly created jobs are then included in an ILWU-negotiated contract.

Two months ago, the ILWU revealed that a Labor Department official, Andrew Siff, issued threats on behalf of the administration to ILWU union officials. In the event of strike, Siff said, Bush was prepared to mobilise the National Guard to take over ports, bring in Navy personnel to move cargo and petition the US Congress to declare the ILWU a monopoly, thereby legalising the break-up of the union into 29 separate bargaining units for each port.

The President of "the land of the free" has considerable powers under the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, better known as the Taft-Hartley Act. He can ban a strike or lockout for 80 days and impose arbitration. All he needs is to proclaim that it would "imperil the national health or safety."

In fact the people of the USA would not go short if the ports were to be shut. All that would be "imperilled" would be the profits of the shipping companies and the retail companies who import goods. This, of course, to a capitalist is a "national" emergency.

By showing such eagerness to intervene, Bush has emboldened the shipping companies to refuse to meet the union's demands.

Stevedoring Services of America (SSA) the largest of the dock employers has systematically blocked negotiations between the ILWU and the PMA. SSA wants to move as much dock work away from unionised sectors as possible. It has moved several hundred ILWU jobs off the west coast docks in recent years.

Bush and the employers clearly want to smash the ILWU just as Ronald Reagan smashed the air traffic controllers union Patco in 1981. That defeat was a terrible blow for the whole US labour movement. It led to nearly twenty years of falling real wages and shrinking unions.

American labour has only just begun to recover from this over the past few years. Now Bush wants to use recession and war to knock them down again.

Dockers, wharfies, longshoremen whatever the name have played a key role in international solidarity over the last decade. All workers around the world should organise a massive movement of solidarity with the ILWU now the lockout has started.