The men and women of the docks went back to work this week, not voluntarily, as they had offered to do, but under a federal injunction won by their employers. The coming 80 days covered by the Taft-Hartley back-to-work order, however, will be far from productive. The basic disagreement at the root of the conflict not only is unresolved, but will get sharper and more bitter as time goes by.

On the surface, it seems incomprehensible why the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), made up of shipping and stevedoring companies, would need a federal order to open the gates of the closed terminals. After all, they‘d shut them themselves, and could have opened them at any time during the 10 days they’d locked out their own employees. Even at the end of that period, the workers had accepted a Department of Labor proposal that they go back to their jobs for 30 days, under their old labor agreement.

But the PMA said no, even though, at the beginning of the lockout, the organization‘s president and CEO, Joseph Miniace, had declared that the lockout would end if the workers were willing to resume their labor under that old contract. The resumption of work was never the issue.

Instead, the PMA wanted two things. It sought a guarantee that the workers could be forced to continue unloading ships through the next two months, the peak of the shipping season, when the goods traveling from the sweatshops of the eastern Pacific Rim are en route to stores for the Christmas rush. And it wanted the union made so vulnerable that it would be unable to put any pressure on employers during negotiations and forced to accept a settlement on the association’s terms.

For the PMA, the Taft-Hartley injunction is a step in a well-ordered campaign that has unfolded with inexorable precision since last spring. And its success in using the power of the federal government to tilt the collective-bargaining process completely in employers‘ favor should be a wake-up call to every union in the country. If it succeeds on the West Coast docks, the same strategy will appear in bargaining in industry after industry. Unions that are already suffering from declining membership will see their power to bargain drastically eroded as well.

The PMA and some of its biggest customers, including Gap Inc., Target, Mattel and Home Depot, organized the West Coast Waterfront Coalition in 2001. a Together, they held secret meetings with a Bush administration task force headed by White House adviser Carlos Bonilla. Once negotiations began, Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, and representatives of the Department of Labor, phoned James Spinosa, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). They warned him that the administration would view any strike or interruption of work on the docks as a threat to national security. They threatened to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, to use the military to replace striking workers, and to propose legislation placing the waterfront under the Railway Labor Act (making a waterfront strike virtually illegal) and removing the union’s ability to negotiate a single labor agreement covering all ports on the coast.

Although negotiations resolved only a few minor issues from June to September, the ILWU nimbly avoided being provoked into a strike. Finally, with the arrival of the peak shipping season, employers locked out their own workers. As a pretext, the PMA accused the union of organizing an alleged work slowdown. But according to the Journal of Commerce, 30 percent more cargo was crossing the docks than last year — the greatest volume in history. In fact, the speedup on the docks was so strong that the accident rate shot up, costing the lives of five longshoremen since January. When the union told its members to work at a safe speed, the PMA called it a slowdown.

At the root of the dispute is the decision by the PMA to end an arrangement that has successfully allowed the introduction of advanced technology onto the docks for 40 years. In 1960, the union agreed that employers could introduce the first container cranes, the giant machines that now move cargo containers on and off the huge ships built specially to carry them. Even though this change cost the jobs of tens of thousands of West Coast dockers, the union agreed that so long as its members did the new jobs that technology produced, it would not try to stop the changes.

Today, the companies want to automate shipping, at first using scanners and tracking devices to replace waterfront clerks. Eventually, the cranes and dockside machines will be operated by remote control, perhaps by people miles away from the wharves. Once again, the union has said it won‘t oppose these moves, so long as its members get to do the new jobs technology creates.

But this time, the PMA has said no. It wants the union confined to the jobs that will disappear, while workers in the new jobs have no union. That means lower wages and benefits, and therefore costs, to employers, while the shippers gain total control over the work process, with no negotiation with their own workers.

It’s no wonder the PMA put together its elaborate battle plan last spring. And no wonder that simply opening the gates and letting workers go back to their jobs wasn‘t good enough. What the association needed to win this dispute was the backing of the federal government. And they got it.

At the end of the 80 days, this bitter dispute will resurface — perhaps even sooner. Meanwhile, the Bush administration, which used back-to-work orders against employees at Northwest and United Airlines last year, has established a new precedent. Interruptions of economic activity, it now says, are a threat to national security. And workers can expect to see the federal government intervene forcefully on their employer’s side.

LA Weekly