On the Waterfront

    As President Bush begins the process of intervening in the West Coast port debacle, America is baffled that a small union local of 10,500 longshoremen has been able to gain a chokehold on the flailing economy. Indeed, concerns are increasing that the $2 billion-a-day port closures could push the nation into double-dip recession. This is a threat to the nation's well-being, and it deserves a response as resolute as the one the president is making on the international scene.
    Although invoking the Taft-Hartley Act may temporarily reopen the ports, it does not confront the underlying problem -- government-granted union coercive power.
    America's labor law, crafted almost 70 years ago, concentrates numerous coercive powers in the hands of union officials -- powers not held by any other private citizens. Though they include immunities from antitrust and anti-extortion laws, the chief of these privileges is compulsory unionism in the form of union monopoly bargaining and forced union dues.
    Monopoly bargaining creates -- and then perpetuates -- a conflict-based collective bargaining system and forces employers to bargain with union officials on behalf of all employees. Union officials control union treasuries, union offices, strike votes, and contract negotiations without fear of workers exercising any practical restraint. Meanwhile, rank-and-file employees are denied the right to make their own contracts based on individual merit.
    Under this system, designed to pit business against unions, it should come as no surprise that union officials make their demands when they have the greatest leverage. And now is the ideal time to stage a fight at the West Coast ports. You see, not only is the fourth quarter the busiest time at the docks, but companies increasingly use "just-in-time" inventory systems and rely heavily on an uninterrupted flow of goods.
    Contrary to union propaganda, union negotiations usually come down to the core issue of union power, not worker benefits. Na´ve employers are often stunned to find that union negotiators will sacrifice higher wages, shorter hours, and better working conditions for their members to induce employer cooperation in stripping union-dues money from their employees. In the case of the ports, for example, the main sticking point is whether employees added or reassigned through modernization should be included in the bargaining unit and be dues-paying members.
    Sadly, union officials have employed this strategy of reaching for power during previous periods of national crisis as well. Take their spectacular successes during World War II. Big Labor's power-grab began in 1941, when the federal government became more deeply involved in key defense-related industries. Realizing that their leverage would increase due to the national crisis, union officials instigated a series of 13,000 often violent and crippling strikes.
    In one of the most notorious of these strikes, mineworkers' union bosses shut down the coal mines owned by steel firms (steel was, of course, vital to the war effort). The union officials' chief demand was that all mining employees be forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment. When a federal agency recommended a settlement that did not include this requirement, President Roosevelt turned the matter over to an arbitrator who ruled in the union's favor.

    As more U.S. industries became enmeshed in war production, the Roosevelt administration repeatedly used so-called "labor peace" as an excuse to rope hundreds of thousands more individuals into compulsory unionism.
    Toward that end, Roosevelt created the National War Labor Board and gave it authority over just about every industry in wartime America. In July 1942, the NWLB revealed its loyalty to the union hierarchy when it ruled that workers may not resign their union memberships for the entire length of a union's collective bargaining contract. Before World War II, only 20% of unionized employees were governed by contracts that required forced union dues payments as a job condition. By 1947, the figure shot up to 78%, where it remains today.
    In spite of efforts to placate Big Labor, "labor peace" never did develop during the war. The number of strikes rose 26% in 1943, and 32% in 1944, and declined by only 4% in 1945. Donald R. Richberg, in his 1957 book, "Labor Union Monopoly: A Clear And Present Danger," detailed the "exasperation with which a war-stricken people had watched the unions take advantage of war necessities to force unreasonable demands on private industry and government."
    So outrageous were union actions during the war that citizens pressured Congress to amend federal law in order to rein in abuse. Passed in 1947 over President Truman's veto, the Taft-Hartley Act allowed prosecution of unfair labor practices committed by unions and banned the closed shop, where union membership was required before an employee could be hired. But Taft-Hartley did not eliminate compulsory unionism, the root of union arrogance and abuse. Instead, it sought to regulate its ill effects.
    Invoked 35 times since 1947, the provisions that allow the president to impose an 80-day cooling-off period have a mixed record of success. Presidential intervention has sometimes lubricated a settlement, but on 10 occasions, strikes ensued after injunctions were lifted.
    While invoking Taft-Hartley might cause one or both sides to cave during this particular controversy, the action would be no more than a band-aid on a gaping wound. The fundamental problem of government-granted union coercive power is yet to be addressed. Now is the time to rethink federal labor policy, which concentrates extraordinary power in the hands of the few.

The above is excerpted from "On the Waterfront" by Stefan Gleason
The Wall Street Journal - Thursday, October 10, 2002