Was the ILWU right to leave?

September 19, 2013

Carl Finamore, a delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, examines the factors surrounding the longshore union's decision to leave the AFL-CIO.

ON AUGUST 29, the 60,000-member International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) announced it was leaving the 13-million member AFL-CIO.

The ILWU explained it was taking this action because of "the Federation's moderate, overly compromising policy positions on such important matters as immigration, labor law reform, health care reform and international labor issues."

The longshore union also cited "attacks from other national affiliates [unions belonging to the AFL-CIO], who actively tried to undermine our contract struggle by filing legal claims and walking through our picket lines."

I was at the September 7-11, 2013, AFL-CIO quadrennial convention in Los Angeles and can attest that the ILWU's presence was sorely missed, especially when "overly compromising policy positions" were openly laid bare.

For example, discussion on health care consciously avoided pointed criticism of the enormously controversial Affordable Care Act (ACA). Forbes reported there was an agreement between AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka and President Obama to "soften the harshly worded resolutions that several unions planned to push" at the convention.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (Alex Hogan)

According to the New York Times, Trumka agreed to "make sure to strip out some proposals that called for repealing the [ACA] legislation."

While some union leaders forcefully stated from the convention floor that the ACA should be repealed if multi-employer union plans, in particular, were going to be essentially taxed out of existence, none of these concerns made it into a resolution.

Predictably, only a few days after the Los Angeles convention, in a meeting at the White House on the ACA, Obama essentially told the unions to "Drop Dead." In fact, a Forbes article applauded the president for his "nice work" in misleading the federation from challenging the law.

Again, the "overly compromising" approach of the AFL-CIO, noted by the ILWU, failed miserably.

In this context, the ILWU's staunch support for an alternative, single-payer, Medicare-for-all, national health care system minus insurance profiteers, which the federation formally endorses, would have considerably added to the discussion.

The same was true in the immigration debate, where union leaders at the AFL-CIO convention supported the Democratic Party's immigration bill, known as S. 744. What kind of genuine immigration reform is it that proposes $45 billion to militarize the border and contains long-term, onerous provisions, such as requiring 13 years of continuous employment, in order to be eligible for legalized status--a qualification that would exclude almost half of the 11 million undocumented workers from eligibility, according to the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law?

Without question, the ILWU's militant example and traditions are critically important to discussions inside the AFL-CIO "House of Labor."

Strategically Placed on the Docks

The ILWU draws strength from its presence in West Coast ports of the U.S.--a presence that began with the successful 1934 San Francisco waterfront strike lasting 83 days. That strike included a four-day general strike shutting down the whole city.

In one fell swoop, all the West Coast docks were unionized and union hiring halls established. Henceforth, work crews were dispatched by the union, ending once and for all employers picking and choosing who would work and who would not--hiring Black workers only as scabs during labor troubles and blacklisting anyone who dared to wear a union button.

It was truly a remarkable struggle immortalized in literature and lore. The strength of the union on the docks remains to this day. For example, ILWU members working the port of Portland, Ore., only the 17th-largest container port in the U.S., still load for export the largest amount of wheat grown in the U.S. and still unload for import the largest fleet of autos anywhere in the country.

In the huge Los Angeles area, the power of the union is even more pronounced. In November 2012, more than 20 loaded container ships were idled at the Port of Los Angeles and adjacent Port of Long Beach after the union's Office Clerical unit went on strike. These 450 clerks are skilled technology workers who track the flow of cargo and equipment.

Both ports were entirely shut down by this relatively small number of workers after their fellow ILWU dockworkers refused to cross the picket line. This has always been the power of the ILWU--its unassailable solidarity and its strategic placement on the docks.

Solidarity Broken

But solidarity and union power work both ways. The ILWU has also received extremely valuable solidarity assistance from AFL-CIO affiliates that the union's president, Robert McEllrath, openly acknowledges in the same letter that announces the disaffiliation.

This--what the ILWU gives and what it gets-- is why I believe leaving the AFL-CIO was so unfortunate.

But the longshore union's actions, based on frustration with the AFL-CIO, can in no way be compared to Trumka's indefensible obstruction and blatant refusal to honorably resolve a jurisdictional dispute over which union should represent workers on the docks.

Beginning in 2010, the 460,000-member Operating Engineers (IUOE), in particular, have attempted to undercut established working standards in the Port of Longview, Wash., by agreeing to displace the ILWU's historic claims to waterfront work.

This is shorthand for the IUOE conducting a raid on ILWU jurisdictions--not the first time the Operating Engineers have faced such a charge from another labor organization.

In fact, "for this reason, they aren't that popular even among some of their own building trades' coalition of unions," a veteran ILWU member explained to me. "Ironically, the union of choice for the employers in Western strip mines when the Trumka-led United Mine Workers tried to organize was the same IUOE!"

As a result, many unions, even other IUOE locals outside the Northwest region, sided with the ILWU. But AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka nonetheless intervened on behalf of the Operating Engineers, according to McEllrath, who wrote: "Your office added insult to injury by issuing a directive to the Oregon State Federation to rescind its support of the ILWU fight at EFT [a new Longview grain terminal], which threatened to be the first marine terminal on the West Coast to go non-ILWU."

This breach in solidarity is without justification. The ILWU has a historic 70-year claim to waterfront work.

Trumka was also disingenuous when he advised the ILWU to seek relief for its Longview jurisdictional dispute under the AFL-CIO's Constitutional anti-raiding clause, Article XX.

From the ILWU's point of view, why should an Article XX hearing be necessary to decide waterfront representation long established as ILWU territory. The union might also have been walking into a trap if it attended, because if an Article XX hearing actually sanctioned the raid by the Operating Engineers--a decision it appeared Trumka would not oppose--it would buttress potential court filings against ILWU jurisdiction.

This must have been a very serious consideration for the ILWU--to avoid any precedent-setting decision from a judge too eager to remove the most militant union from the waterfront.

What Now?

Technology inevitably changes the scope and character of virtually every job, and this is definitely true on the waterfront.

For example, from 1980 to 2010, containerization of cargo completely replaced bulk loads that were individually handled, piece by piece--leading to super-profits for shippers and increases in productivity of around 500 precent. "What took two weeks now takes two days," an experienced dockworker told me, "and it's done by machines not people."

The same is true of the more recent revolution in information technology. "Tracking the flow of cargo and equipment has grown by 150 to 200 percent, the dockworker said.

Productivity improvements via machines means less people. As a result, the ILWU workforce on the West Coast has remained steady all these years at between 10,000 and 15,000 workers. Industrial unions, in particular, face this same dilemma, a shrinking workforce producing huge production surpluses. For example, there is the same amount of steel being produced today in the U.S., but with far fewer workers than 30 years ago.

For the ILWU, without expected growth on the docks, organizing will likely occur inland, where solidarity with other unions and community groups is critical. The growth off-dock is in three categories of workers, an experienced ILWU organizer told me: warehousing, trucking and the knowledge-based technology workers like the clerks who struck Los Angeles and Long Beach ports in November 2012.

But there are many organizing obstacles because the nature of technology-based work means it can be relocated almost anywhere, far away from the union's traditional power base on the docks. Therefore, it seems essential for the union to assemble the remaining power of the ILWU on the docks to expand outward.

It's very difficult for any union or group of workers to stand alone. Nor is it desirable under any circumstance. Whatever decision ILWU members ultimately make to keep their union strong and growing, they deserve our solidarity. Even if some do not believe they have been wronged, we should do it because it's the right thing to do and because we know they would do the same for us.

A version of this article was first published at BeyondChron.org.

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