March 10, 2006

   Dubai Ports World Uproar--- Dockworkers Keep Your Eyes on the Prize!

Thereıs a lotta smoke being blown about the sale of marine terminals in U.S. East Coast ports from British-owned P to Arab-owned Dubai Ports World (DP World). Will the sale breach port security? If the anti-union Dubai port employers offered to train scabs in the Australian wharfie contract dispute in 1998 what will they do to the ILA longshoremen now? Are our jobs threatened by foreign-owned employers? Why is President Bush backing the sale of American ports?

Maritime workers need to take a close, careful look at this one. With all the orchestrated flag-waving going on itıs hard to see any difference between Republicans and Democrats, union officers and CEOıs, national security agents and politicians running for office.

To begin with the very nature of the maritime industry is international. It has been even before Columbus landed on the shores of America, trying to find a shorter route to the Spice Islands. Today, 95% of the dry cargo handled in U.S. ports is carried on predominantly foreign-flag vessels and most terminal operators in U.S. ports are foreign-owned. Our jobs depend on global trade. Weıve got a stake in fighting for union conditions on the docks and on the ships whether itıs U.S.-owned or foreign-owned. The same applies to outsourcing manufactured products like cars. The key is to make sure theyıre union made. There are foreign-owned auto plants in the U.S. like Toyota in Fremont, California that produce union made cars. Then there are U.S.-owned companies like Ford that manufacture Saturn cars in non-union plants in Kentucky. Keep your eyes on the union label not the color of the flag.

            How the Shipownersı Union-Busting Scam Works

After World War II, U.S. shipowners started registering ships in foreign countries. The vessels never called in those ports. The seamen, mainly from third world countries, didnıt come from those ports of registry, nor did the rich shipowners who lived in the U.S. and Europe. So why did they register ships overseas? PROFITS! By using a foreign flag on the stern of the ship, known as a ³flag of convenience², they werenıt subject to U.S. laws-- no taxes, no unions, no environmental regs. With a green light from the big business-controlled U.S. government, both Democrat and Republican administrations, it was smooth sailing for greedy shipowners. The deep sea unions never effectively put an organizing program together to organize seamen regardless of the shipıs flag. The unions were devastated, both in North America and Europe where capitalists were doing the same thing-reaping huge profits while exploiting the hell out of third world seamen, working under slave-like conditions with no unions to fight back.

                The Red Scare Beheaded Maritime Unions

At the same time the government and capitalists conducted an anti-communist witchhunt, especially targeting the maritime unions. Militant maritime workers, many whoıd been instrumental in building both AFL and CIO maritime unions, were purged. Some like Ferdinand Smith, the great orator of the National Maritime Union was deported to Jamaica. Hugh Bryson, president of the Marine, Cooks and Stewards Union, went to jail for ostensibly lying to HUAC, the witchunting congressional committee. Bill Bailey of the Marine Firemenıs Union and Shaun Maloney of the Sailorsı Union were purged. The government tried four times unsuccessfully to deport ILWU President Harry Bridges. Many, including Jim Herman, found safe haven in the ILWU and played leading roles in the union.

Perhaps one of the worst cases of union-busting took place in Canada after WWII. The seamen struck for better conditions after the war. Shipowners played the red card against the leadership of the Canadian Seamenıs Union. Although the Canadian seamen received international strike support, as ships were tied up around the world, the shipowners with the backing of the government were able to split the leadership, bust the union and register the entire Canadian fleet under foreign flags. (The film ³Betrayed² by Elaine Briere documents this tragic struggle well.)

   From Ship ³Flag of Convenience² to ³Port of Convenience²

The other side of the maritime industry, the shoreside or stevedoring side, was revolutionized with the advent of containerization. Here the longshore unions were weakened, not gutted like the seamenıs unions. Always seeking greater profits, the capitalistsı mantra during the Reagan-Thatcher years, became deregulation and privatization, i.e. allowing cutthroat non-union competition, the law of the capitalist jungle, to prevail and selling off publicly-owned entities like railroads, port operations, mines and forests. After trashing the mineworkers, British Prime Minister Thatcher, without any significant organized opposition from the trade union movement, in 1989 was able to abolish the National Dock Labour Scheme which provided dockworkers with a measure of job security. In port after port, unions fell as casual workers replaced union dockworkers. The Liverpool dockers waged the last serious struggle on the British docks. They fought a valiant fight but were isolated by a traitorous trade union leadership and in the end lost. But the lesson they imparted to dockworkers, portworkers, longshoremen and wharfies around the world is that job security for workers under capitalism doesnıt exist.  

For now ³free trade agreements² reign globally. For capitalists that means labor laws are changed to free employers from any legal obligation to unions for employment, wages, hours, benefits, the whole ball game, while unions are legally shackled to prevent strike action. Union bureaucrats use ³free trade² agreements as a scapegoat to do nothing. They shift the focus to electing phony Democrat ³friends of labor² while union contracts are ripped up by airline employers with impunity. The main weapon in laborıs arsenal, as Liverpool dockers defiantly showed employers, their government and do-nothing union heads is international solidarity action.

Last month thousands of dockworkers from Europe, Australia and the U.S. successfully demonstrated in front of the European Parliament against a plan to deregulate ports. Eight Belgian dockers are still in jail since the Strasbourg protest. Dockworker unions should demand their freedom. (To contribute to their defense see bank address at bottom.) The plan would have allowed the anti-union shipboard epidemic of ³flag of convenience² to spread down the gangway to the docks. The scheme would have meant that terminal operators could have ignored union contracts and used shipıs crews or casual non-union shoreside labor to do longshore work on the docks and ships. Thatıs what P, the British company that sold the East Coast terminals tried to get legislated in Australia. All maritime workers, seamen,  longshoremen and casuals, need to unite internationally in this ongoing struggle against the global maritime employers, shipowners, terminal operators and stevedore companies‹regardless of the ownersı nationality.  With the boom in global trade we can win good union conditions for all of us, shipboard and shoreside workers. If international trade is stifled because of protectionist reaction to this Dubai Ports World deal, then workers jobs are lost too.

Another shining example of labor solidarity was the successful contract struggle of the Charleston longshore union who were picketing U.S.-owned non-union Winyah stevedoring company when they were attacked by hundreds of riot police. With the support of the Spanish dockworkersı union, La Coordinadora, ILA Local 1422 was able to sign a contract with the Danish shipping line Nordana. And victory for the  Charleston 5, black and white longshoremen who were victimized by the state of South Carolina for manning a militant picket line, was won through a powerful campaign of international labor solidarity.  


This is the sale of marine terminals, not U.S. ports which are government-owned, either by the municipality or the state. And the sale of marine terminals to foreign-owned companies has been happening for a long time. In West Coast ports most of the cargo is handled by terminals operated by foreign-owned companies, Maersk (Danish), Cosco (Chinese), APL/NOL (Singaporean), Mitsui (Japanese), Hanjin (Korean). Some are partially government-owned.  

All employers are the same. Itıs smoking mirrors to think that U.S. employers are good and foreign employers are bad. Theyıre all out to make a profit by hook or crook off our labor, while gutting union power so they have a free hand at cutting jobs, benefits and working conditions. These thieves sit at the ³free trade² table wheelinı and dealinı companies like itıs a card game with one goal in mind to maximize profits while holding labor down. Thatıs the nature of the capitalist beast. At the ILWU-sponsored Pacific Rim Dockworkers Conference held in San Francisco in 1993, the Panamanian delegate explained how a union organizer was killed while trying to organize dockworkers at SSAıs facility in the Panama Canal Zone. In front of the SSA terminal gate in the port of Oakland longshoremen and demonstrators were shot, some in the back and face, with so-called non-lethal weapons during an anti-war protest at the start of the Iraq war. Thatıs the same company that tried to sabotage the last ILWU-PMA longshore contract. The port of Dubai offered to train scabs during the Australian wharfie strike in 1998, very much the way it is offering its port for the U.S. war in Iraq. SSA, DP World, itıs all about $$$.

Letıs look at the bloody hands of British-owned P that sold the marine terminals to DP World. In 2004, P took over a terminal in Buenos Aires, forcing a strike by refusing to negotiate with the union (SUTAP) or to re-instate union steward Dardo Viani. P manager Siro de Martini was a judge during the bloody military dictatorship of General Videla (1977-1983) when thousands of trade union militants and leftists were ³disappeared². As in the bloody Chilean coup in 1973, the military overthrew the democratically-elected Allende government to make it safe for U.S. business interests. In 1998, in Australia P, which preferred a legislative assault on the MUA, backed Patrickıs Stevedore in battling the wharfies. The year before P participated in a secret plan by the Minister of Industrial Relations Peter Reith to bust the MUA. After it became publicly exposed, the scheme was ditched.

Bridges: ³National Security² is a Club Wielded Against Workers

Many longshore workers are concerned about port security. This not the first time national security has been raised. Under Harry Bridges ILWU opposed ³national security² scams like screening maritime workers and refused to participate in government ³security² committees. Former President Jimmy Herman headed up the Committee to Against Waterfront Screening because during the McCarthy period the union correctly saw screening by the Coast Guard, the waterfront cops, as a way to ban militants from the maritime industry.  

But now ILWU International officers Spinosa, McElrath & Co. have changed course and back the ³national security² ruse. They embrace the Maritime Security Act and participate on government ³security² committees. Since 9/11 we have been seeing the militarization of our ports. Weıre forced to undergo invasive background checks, show photo IDıs at locked unmanned gates, be spied on with cameras at terminals including in breakrooms and now wear ID bracelets to go up the shipıs gangway to lash. Whatıs next chains? Will Homeland Security try to screen ILWU members who are Muslim or of Middle Eastern, African or Asian descent? Government screening could determine who works on the docks not our hiring hall, the unionıs power. Theyıll ban union militants as threats to ³port security² as they banned ILWU President Jim Herman and other  longshore workers from docks as threats to ³national security².  

During 2002 contract negotiations Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge threatened to occupy the West Coast ports with troops because, he claimed, ILWU dock actions would jeopardize national security. If ports are to be run like a military base, then what happens to basic rights like the right to strike or protest? ILWU International officers are parroting a rightwing, anti-union refrain: ³We are the first line of defense.² Police, supposedly fighting ³terrorists² shot longshoremen during the anti-war protest in the port of Oakland while demonstrators were peacefully exercising First Amendment rights. Fighting the ³war on terror² is a dangerous game because workers donıt define a ³terrorist² threat, the government does. So whoıs got our back? Not Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown. He had the gall to appear at a rally at APL in opposition to the sale of terminals to Dubai Ports World billed as a threat to ³port security². Yet, he backs the bloody cop attack on longshore workers and protesters.

Bush should be drug tested for his daffy remarks about the sale to DP World. How can he say that scuttling the deal will stir up anti-U.S. sentiment in the Arab world. He and his Daddy waged two wars in Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands of Arab men, women and children and enflamed the Middle East against U.S. imperialism. As always the Bush family has had heavy investments in oil with strong links to the Middle East. The sale of  the terminals to DP World wouldnıt have made a difference for port workers. However, unions need to remain vigilante that ³port security² is not used to further shackle union rights.

The issue of ³port security² is being used by the Democrats to go after  the Republicans from the right. Both parties support union-busting ³free trade² agreements, both parties support the slave labor Taft-Hartley Act and both support the war in Iraq.  Waterfront workers need to protect themselves by defending publicly-owned ports and exercising workers control of the maritime industry through their unions. But this is not a short or easy struggle. To replace this government, owned lock, stock and barrel, by the corporations will mean building a workersı party to struggle for a workers government to nationalize the maritime industry.


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