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The ILWU from Bridges to Spinosa

By Lee Sustar | November 22, 2002 | Page 11

WHAT WOULD Harry Bridges do? That question has been on the minds of activists among the 10,500 dockworkers in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) ever since George W. Bush invoked the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act against them in October.

Bridges was president of the ILWU from the union's founding in 1937 until his retirement some four decades later. At a time when pay was terrible and getting work depended on the whims of all-powerful bosses, Bridges emerged as a leader through his commitment to union democracy and radical action during the 1934 West Coast waterfront strike that culminated in a general strike in San Francisco.

Soon afterward, the federal government launched what would be the first of four efforts to deport Bridges to his native Australia on the charge that he was a communist. But Bridges prevailed--including in two Supreme Court decisions--because of his support among dockworkers.

The ILWU was also an early target of Taft-Hartley, passed in 1947 in an employers' attack on organized labor and the left. Democratic President Harry Truman used the law to impose an 80-day "cooling-off" period to prevent a strike during the ILWU's 1948 contract negotiations.

Under Taft-Hartley, the National Labor Relations Board ordered a vote on management's contract offer during the 80-day period imposed by a federal judge. Of the 26,695 ILWU members eligible to vote in the election, not a single one did so. Once the cooling-off period was over, the union won its every demand in a 95-day strike.

But there's another side to Bridges' legacy. During the Second World War, he initiated cooperation with the government and the employers to drastically increase productivity on the docks to help the war effort--which angered the ILWU rank and file.

Bridges fully embraced partnership with the employers in the Mechanization and Modernization (M&M) agreement in 1960. Under the deal, the ILWU accepted the containerization of cargo that wiped out thousands of longshore jobs in exchange for early retirement benefits and continued jurisdiction over jobs created by new technology.

While the remaining workers achieved wage gains in the mid-1960s, this was due mainly to the boom in military cargo during the Vietnam War. By the time the M&M agreement expired in 1971, the conservative International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) on the East Coast--from which the ILWU had split in the 1930s--had achieved better wage and pension increases through a series of strikes.

M&M also created a new category within the ILWU, known as "B-men"--long-term probationary members who lack job security and who have no vote in union meetings. This was a major retreat from the gains of the strike of 1934, which won the hiring hall to ensure equal treatment of all dockworkers.

Ultimately, a rank-and-file revolt over the effects of M&M pressured Bridges into calling a strike in 1971--and led to another Taft-Hartley intervention, this time at the order of President Richard Nixon. Bridges' response to these pressures was to seek mergers with the Teamsters and the ILA.

After Bridges' death, the explosion of U.S. trade with Asia gave the ILWU new leverage. And the progressive traditions of the ILWU continued--most recently when the union shut down the ports for a day of solidarity with death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal and to support the 1999 Seattle protests against World Trade Organization.

Nevertheless, the strategy of partnership has undermined the ILWU's old slogan of "an injury to one is an injury to all" and fostered conservative tendencies in the union. This conservatism is reflected in the way that the current ILWU president, James Spinosa, has handled negotiations--refusing to hold a strike vote, embracing "national security" and offering the employers concessions in the media before informing members.

The bosses locked out the ILWU anyway. Nevertheless, the lockout showed that nothing moves through the ports without dockworkers' labor. It's that rank-and-file power that gives dockworkers the ability to fight back and win today, just as they did in the 1930s.

So the key question in this struggle isn't, after all, what Harry Bridges would do. It's whether the ILWU's best traditions of struggle, solidarity and rank-and-file democracy will come to the fore.

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