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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, August 13, 2002

ILWU's message to Bush: Stay away

By Simon Avery
Associated Press

LONG BEACH, Calif. — More than 1,000 unionized West Coast dockworkers and their families marched through downtown yesterday to urge the Bush administration to pledge not to intervene in their collective bargaining process.

Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union urged the White House to pledge that under no circumstances would it use troops to support a lockout and called for the administration to extricate itself from a legitimate labor dispute.

Chanting such slogans as "ILWU wants a contract now" and "Contract yes, government intervention no," the dockworkers drew support as they marched along the port city's oceanfront on the eve of a scheduled return to the bargaining table.

An airline crew boarding a hotel shuttle gave thumbs-up, waitresses came out of a Hooters to wave, and a half-dozen Harley-Davidson riders roared behind the march.

Increasingly militant comments by union leaders during the rally showed that the negotiating environment has drastically changed since talks began in the spring.

At that time, both sides agreed to withhold public comments about the progress of talks. Yesterday the tone was very different.

"We've got our ducks in order, we're ready to fight," said Ramon Ponce de Leon, president of Local 13. "Whatever the cost is we have to stand up and fight this fight."

Leaders called for the removal of the chief representative of the shipping lines, Joseph Miniace, president of the Pacific Maritime Association. George Kuvakas, president of the local ILWU pensioners group, compared Miniace to Mussolini and President Bush to Hitler.

"They want to take away our pensions and welfare," Kuvakas said.

Leaders also threatened to close down the Port of Long Beach if necessary, and tried to broaden their fight to the entire labor movement.

"This is a battle not just for the ILWU but for every working man and woman in the United States," said Dominic Morretti, a member of union Local 63 and liaison between the adjacent ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

"The ILWU is sending a clear message to the White House," said Ponce de Leon. "If you take on the ILWU you take on all the unions."

The heated rhetoric reflected increasing frustration among members who feel the deck has been stacked against them in negotiations.

"Washington is now the PMA's ace in the hole," Morretti said. "Given Washington's support, the PMA doesn't have to negotiate in good faith."

Leaders warned that forcing a shutdown of the ports would have drastic consequences, hurting not only the economy but preventing crucial supplies from reaching troops who are fighting terrorism. Members defended the rhetoric.

"I don't think it's antagonistic. It's getting the message out," said Roxanne Lawrence, a clerk.

"We've been threatened with the National Guard. This is a sign of our increasing impatience," she said.

Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who represents her city's harbor area, urged the federal government to stay out of the dispute.

"There's no room for the federal government. There's only one reason for them to get involved, and that's to break the union," she said.

Union officials say negotiations with port operators and shipping lines have been undermined by comments from the Bush administration saying it would prevent a strike and keep the ports operating.

ILWU officials charge the Bush administration has threatened to block their right to strike and even use government troops to operate the ports in the event of a labor disruption.

The Bush administration has convened a special task force with officials from the Commerce, Labor and Transportation departments and the office of Homeland Security, and has been exploring federal intervention, monitoring talks and meeting with both sides.

The most likely option is for Bush to declare a national economic emergency, forcing a strike delay for 80 days. The last time such authority was invoked under the Taft-Hartley Act was 1978, when President Carter unsuccessfully tried to end a national coal strike.