United States and World Politics

AFL-CIO: No Solidarity Charters for ILWU

By Paul Bigman

As the AFL-CIO prepares for a convention where leaders say the goal is unprecedented solidarity with organizations outside the labor movement, the federation is turning its back on some inside the house of labor. Leaders have ruled that locals of the West Coast Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) cannot seek “solidarity charters” and will be ousted from local and state labor councils. The ILWU international disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO last Friday, August 30, 2013.

The stance is a departure from the federation’s reactions to previous disaffiliations. After several large unions left the AFL-CIO to create Change to Win in 2005, the AFL-CIO eventually created a mechanism to allow locals to remain affiliated (after initial reluctance.) Locals of the departed internationals could take “solidarity charters” and remain part of their local and state labor movements. Later, similar charters were allowed for locals of the giant National Education Association.

That was then; this is now. Both those initiatives involved large unions. Now the AFL-CIO is faced with the disaffiliation of the much smaller ILWU. Its locals won’t have the option provided to larger, less militant unions, including the Service Employees, United Food and Commercial Workers (now rejoining the AFL-CIO,) Carpenters, and Teamsters. Some AFL-CIO leaders have always opposed the solidarity charters, and it appears there is little interest in providing them to ILWU locals.

The AFL-CIO has mandated that all ILWU affiliates be expelled from state and central labor bodies effective the date of ILWU’s national disaffiliation, August 30. Central labor councils and state federations have no choice. ILWU President Bob McEllrath urged members to remain actively involved in local and state labor movements.

The issue is raiding

ILWU locals have been battling other unions, including the 400,000-member Operating Engineers and other building trades unions, over what the ILWU claims as its traditional waterfront jurisdiction. In some instances members of those unions and others have crossed ILWU picket lines.

Most notably, members of an Operating Engineers local took traditional ILWU work during a bitter struggle at a new grain terminal in Longview, Washington. Although state federations in both Oregon and Washington supported the ILWU, the national AFL-CIO insisted it could not take sides, and has resolutely refused to support longshore workers as members from the larger and more politically powerful building trades have ignored ILWU picket lines in subsequent battles with shippers and others.

In more recent jurisdictional conflicts, both local and state labor councils in Oregon and Washington have unsuccessfully attempted to mediate. The ILWU has accused “a law firm with close ties to the federation” of coordinating “multi-state attacks” against it.

Some in the AFL-CIO may feel well rid of a militant affiliate.

Big role in West Coast labor

Despite having only 60,000 members (about 45,000 in the U.S.), the ILWU has played a huge role in West Coast labor.

Drawing on the principle that “an injury to one is an injury to all,” ILWU longshore and marine workers have used their port power to support the struggles of myriad other unions. In Tacoma, Washington, longshore workers refused to cross picket lines by Earth First! and the IWW in support of striking Steelworkers at Kaiser Aluminum. When Teamster Port of Seattle drivers faced loss of work to non-union drivers in Tacoma, ILWU longshore and warehouse workers in both ports honored Teamster pickets, resulting in return of the work to the union drivers after only one day.

Making use of its strong control of the docks, ILWU members in Seattle a few years back shut down a terminal in response to a picket line from Jobs with Justice, because one container held goods from a struck Teamster warehouse. The offending container was ordered off the dock.

The ILWU has also historically used its power for international solidarity. Before U.S. entry into World War II, longshore refused to load scrap iron for imperial Japan. More recently, ILWU workers have denied labor for goods from apartheid South Africa and the Salvadoran military regime. In 1980, when future South Korean President Kim Dae Jung was imprisoned and in fear for his life, action by the ILWU to raise the specter that South Korean ships would not be unloaded in West Coast ports was credited by Kim with his release.

More recently, dockers have shut West Coast ports to protest the World Trade Organization and the war against Iraq, as well as to celebrate International Workers Day, May 1.

And individual ILWU members play a prominent role in local West Coast labor movements. Two are vice-presidents of the Washington State Labor Council. ILWU members hold top leadership positions in several local labor councils, including the two largest in the state, Seattle and Tacoma.

In discussion this week among executive board members of the Martin Luther King, Jr. County Labor Council in Seattle, there was widespread support for offering solidarity charters to ILWU locals, even from some leaders whose locals have had jurisdiction disputes with the ILWU. Members argued for maintaining labor unity.

David Freiboth, executive secretary of Seattle’s labor council and a former national president of the ILWU’s marine division, the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific, stressed that “Seattle has a long history of solidarity.”

“We have had internal challenges to that solidarity in the past,” he said. “This latest stress in the house of labor is something we intend to approach from a principled position of maintaining solidarity on behalf of working people. The ‘solidarity charter’ program gives local labor movements the tools to work with to maintain our unity and our power.”

Paul Bigman is an executive board member of the Martin Luther King, Jr. County Labor Council (Seattle).

Labor Notes, September 5, 2013