Socialist ViewPoint and analysis for working people

July/August 2005 • Vol 5, No. 6 •

Report on the State of the ILWU and the Labor Movement Today

By Jack Heyman

The Longshore Caucus [International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU)]was held in April for the first time in plush Palm Springs, in the desert of Southern California, supposedly because of a possible strike by hotel workers in San Francisco. Tacoma Local 23 submitted a resolution, which passed unanimously, to stop that practice and return to holding Caucuses in San Francisco except during Convention years when it is rotated to major ILWU ports.

In another first, the main document, Coast Committee Report, contained no mention of the International Officers’ and Coast Committee’s “New Direction” or partnership with PMA [Pacific Maritime Association], which throws over the side the militant union principles which built the ILWU and made it strong.

Maybe they realized that “partnership” is not going over so well with longshore workers who struggled through the bitter ’02 contract fight against the employers’ lock out and Taft-Hartley shackle, as they gutted our jurisdiction and imposed a 6 year concessionary agreement. A partner’s got your back. PMA’s got a knife in your back.

Some of the big concerns were over the contract and contract enforcement by union officers. Local 10 submitted a resolution on the Skill III grievance. Some employers are not paying the agreed-upon hour overtime for early starts for 9.43 equipment operators. In a referral from Local 13, Coast Arbitrator John Kagel, unfairly ruled that the grievance was submitted in an “untimely” fashion without even dealing with the merits of the case. [San Francisco] Local 10’s resolution to pursue justice for Skill III operators passed.

The question of the third Coast Committeeman came up. Some delegates criticized the Coast Committee for a lack of communication and accountability to members making Coast referrals or appeals to the Coast Arbitrator. Others felt that they may be “overburdened” with referrals, conferences and overseas trips. Still others wanted a third Coast Committeeman to ensure proper representation.

There were questions of which area the “third man” would come from and of the funding. So in their wisdom it was referred to the Coast Committee to decide. Key to the survival of any union is organizing and the ILWU’s Longshore Division is no different. We need to organize satellite yards, intermodal yards and container freight stations in near dock facilities.

Organizing Director Peter Olney gave an informative report. He pointed out that ILWU solidarity has helped win other workers’ struggles, like the Charleston 5. Now it’s time, he says, “ to call in our chips” with workers internationally to organize a new “March Inland” like our Warehouse Division’s organizing drive at Diamond Walnut in Sacramento.

In the richest country in the world, it was reported that 41 million Americans are without full health care coverage. Health care is a right. ILWU with the AFL-CIO should be fighting for national health care for all. As health care costs are skyrocketing, PMA will be looking to cut our health care benefits and increase co-pay for us. It has already happened to other unions.

Our benefits, earned by our labor-pensions, health and welfare—are some of the best plans, but they are not secure. When the courts can rule that United Airlines doesn’t have to honor the defined pension benefit of the machinists union labor agreement, then every union pension is at risk of being stolen by employers and the court.

Labor unity of action in the streets and on the job can defend union benefits. The Port Security report, one of the most instructive reports, revealed that Horizon Shipping (Maersk) CEO Chuck Raymond boasted about using port security to go after unions. The Port Security report stated that Democrats are “shifting their support towards the Republican agenda.” Yet, our officers continue to uncritically support the Democrat Party and to collaborate with government “Port Security” agencies against maritime workers. It’s clear that workers need their own party, a workers party, to represent their interests and to stop government repression.

Both Democrats and Republican politicians see “Port Security” as a hammer to replace the hiring hall, the basis of union power, with a company-controlled telephone dispatch. Job actions, strikes, pickets and other protests in ports will be made illegal. They plan intrusive background checks to screen workers from the waterfront. It’s the employers’ dream and the unions’ nightmare.

The paralysis of the [ILWU’s] Coast Committee and International Officers, petrified by the “national security” bogeyman since 9/11, is obvious. Under their “leadership” fear dominated the ’02 longshore contract negotiations: 1) For the first time no Caucus or rank-and-file strike authorization vote to fortify the negotiating committee in bargaining was ever taken. 2) After two months of working under the old, expired contract, the union refused to extend the contract, but no job actions were organized. 3) The leadership made no appeal for international labor solidarity actions. 4) When PMA moved to impose a 6 year, concessionary contract, ILWU officials worked overtime to sell it as a “victory,” simply because the union survived.

In 2003, when Oakland cops shot longshoremen and antiwar demonstrators with impunity and no port shutdown was organized to protest this bloody government atrocity, it gave a green light for the government to implement TWIC [Transportation Worker Identity Credential] ID cards, surveillance cameras in workers’ breakrooms, the armed militarization of ports and the banning of strikes and pickets.

ILWU has a proud history of opposing government repression of workers for phony “national security” reasons. Now, the illusory ILWU policy is to embrace “port security” in order to influence it. Union action on the docks can stop company/government attacks. That’s our history on the West Coast. ILWU Canadian longshore locals are threatening strike action if the government imposes intrusive background checks.

The recent spontaneous rank-and-file action by San Francisco longshore workers in solidarity with our brothers arrested on a passenger ship picket line in Alaska is another example of union power. However, solidarity actions should have been coordinated by the Coast Committee to show the full power of our coastwide union to defend ILWU jurisdiction and our hiring hall.

Another hot topic was the Public Relations Report. It seems that ever since the last contract fight, ILWU officials have become obsessed with PR. One delegate even claimed that PR replaces job action against employers. Others say that by electing Democrat or Republican politicians we can beat PMA. But workers’ strength lies at the point of production, on the docks, and in mobilizing the labor movement in mass solidarity actions in the streets against government and employer attacks.

The ILWU has a good public image, hard-earned over the years for fighting against racism, war and government oppression and organizing exemplary labor solidarity actions. We don’t need to pay for high-priced public relations outfits, just cultivate ILWU’s image. If ILWU International and Coast officers, instead of undermining, had mobilized our membership for the national antiwar march and rally on March 19th in major West Coast ports, it would have done more for ILWU than all of the time and money put into PR imaging. Such a mobilization would’ve implemented the antiwar position adopted overwhelmingly at ILWU’s 2002 convention, opposition to the war in Iraq and immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.

When I questioned why they hadn’t used this kind of “PR,” the Caucus chairman ruled me out of order to save the International officers the embarrassment of having to explain why they have done nothing to implement the ILWU’s antiwar position or even spoken at antiwar labor rallies. Further indications of the Longshore Division’s shift to the right was the failure of the Caucus to pass the resolution to defend oil-rich and anti-imperialist Venezuela against a U.S. overthrow.

Even the California AFL-CIO Convention passed a similar resolution. In another hotly-debated issue, the Caucus voted not to reprimand ILWU President Spinosa for undermining the Million Worker March, an independent mobilization of workers, initiated by Local 10 and passed at the 2004 Caucus.

In the debate it was revealed that during the Democratic Convention in Boston, Spinosa met at Senator Edward Kennedy’s Hyannisport home with feuding labor tops, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, SEIU President Andrew Stern and Teamsters President James Hoffa. While they may be hellbent on splitting the AFL-CIO apart for their own piece of the pie, they all agreed to prevent an independent workers demonstration before the presidential election lest it jeopardize the electoral chances of pro-war, pro-Taft-Hartley Kerry.

The working class’ fight has become more and more political as government has openly intervened on behalf of employers: invoking Taft-Hartley against ILWU; judges willing to junk workers’ pensions and welfare benefits; schemes to privatize social security; legislative threats to outlaw strikes and union busting by Bush of government workers.

The Caucus voted to participate in the April 28 Workers Memorial Day, a protest in Sacramento against attacks on workers’ comp. Given the high rate of industrial injuries and 3 deaths already this year in ILWU longshore unions, the resolution passed overwhelmingly. More significantly, there was a 20,000-strong mass workers rally at the California capitol to protest Governor Schwartzenegger’s attack against union pensions and cuts in schools and hospitals. Leading the organized labor movement were teachers, nurses and firefighters who are bearing the brunt of these attacks.

Mobilizing the labor movement is a first step in this struggle. The ILWU participated in the founding conference of a labor party in Cleveland, Ohio nearly 10 years ago. The direction for the survival of unions must be to build a militant workers’ party to defend workers’ interests in the struggle for a workers’ government. If we are going to make headway on the political front, we need to change direction and get back on track.

—June 14, 2005

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