United States

Biden Threatens to Use National Guard at Los Angeles Area Ports

U.S. President Joe Biden is prepared to use the National Guard at the privately owned Los Angeles (LA) and Long Beach ports on the country's west coast, where as of November 16, 84 ships were waiting to unload. There is also a backlog of containers to be transported to warehouses. Asked at an October 21 town hall on CNN if he would consider using the National Guard, President Biden responded, "Yes, absolutely, positively, I would do that. But in addition to that, what you got to do is you got to get these ships in and unloaded." He also said he would use the National Guard men and women as truck drivers to transport goods from the ports to warehouses, following up his answer with a threat: "The answer is: Yes, if we can't move -- increase the number of truckers, which we're in the process of doing."

Both LA and Long Beach container terminals are privately owned and currently process about 40 per cent of all products coming into the U.S. The President also made clear whose interests he is serving: "I want to get the ports up and running, and get the railroads and the rail heads and the trucks in port ready to move, because I've gotten Walmart and others that say, 'We're going to move stuff off of the port, into our warehouses.'"

Prior to the town hall, Biden had met with people from Walmart and similar companies about forcing the port workers to work a 24/7 schedule. This is contrary to the existing contracts of the estimated 5,000 LA and Long Beach port workers who belong to International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 13 but was agreed under the intense pressure from the President and major corporations. Port workers are also still fighting for sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) and safe working conditions, given the continuing COVID-19 concerns. Due to a lack of PPE and safe conditions, more than 700 members have contracted COVID-19, and at least 13 died. Now with operations going 24/7, concerns about safety remain, something Biden has completely ignored.

One has to wonder why -- given that he says "you got to get these ships in and unloaded" -- he does not speak of using the public ports in San Francisco and Oakland, which have long had 24/7 operations. There is no backlog at these ports; ships could just as easily dock there, but they do not. Instead they are concentrating at the LA and Long Beach ports. ILWU Local 10, representing Oakland and San Francisco port workers, has said their workers are ready and waiting. They question the decision by the shippers -- companies like Walmart -- and now President Biden, to have ships backed up in LA and Long Beach instead. At the very least it has created conditions for the threatened and potential actual use of National Guards against port workers and truck drivers.

In addition, the problem for truck drivers -- like the many millions resigning from work -- is the lack of safe working conditions, wages and benefits that are acceptable to themselves. The federal minimum wage of $7.25, far below the poverty line, has not been increased for years, although 29 states have a higher rate that is still generally at or below $10 an hour. Even the demand for $15 an hour, which some of the fast food monopolies are currently offering, is poverty level for families given the great increases in costs for food, gas, housing and health care.

Moving cargo containers from the ports to retail warehouses relies on the labour of nearly 2 million truck drivers in the U.S. According to Biden and the trucking monopolies, there is a "shortage" of about 80,000 drivers. Like everywhere else, however, whether in health care, fast food outlets, dollar stores or many other workplaces, the problem is unsafe, poorly paid conditions, including forced overtime and lack of health care benefits.

Before 1980, the average unionized truck driver made more than $96,000 in today's dollars, and they produced far more than that in value taken by the private owners. In 1974, membership in the Teamsters union, the main one representing truck drivers, was more than 2 million. Today there are fewer than 75,000 unionized drivers. The median wage for drivers is around $45,260, with 40 per cent lacking health insurance. This has largely been the result of government deregulation of the industry in the 1980s, which greatly increased monopolization and undermined wages and working conditions for drivers, including opening the way for more non-union companies.

Port drivers are joining the millions of others refusing to work in such conditions. Fast food and dollar store workers, for example, are resigning together in groups, posting signs on the doors saying "Closed Because We Quit." The majority of the resignations are occurring in low wage jobs that have no health benefits, in conditions where workers deal with the public and COVID-19 remains a problem. Those resigning include child care workers, who often make only $13-14 an hour. About three to four million people are resigning monthly.

The millions of resignations are a form of resistance, as are the many thousands on strike. Workers are taking their stand to refuse to work without safe conditions, higher wages and health care benefits. They are also expressing their social consciousness by demanding safe conditions for all.

(Photo: ILWU)

This article was published in

November 24, 2021 - No. 111

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