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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Whither the ILWU

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the ILWU, has a reputation as being one of the most militant and progressive unions in the United States. This was the union that was central to the San Francisco General Strike of 1934. It was the ILWU that first organized farm workers in Hawaii, thirty years prior to the organizing successes of the United Farm Workers on the mainland.

The ILWU has a tradition of supporting stuggles for racial, and gender equality and for the rights of all workers. It was ILWU Longshoremen who refused to cross community picket lines to handle South African cargo, during the Apartheid period, or scab cargo on the ship the Neptune Jade, in solidarity with the striking dockers of Liverpool, England.

To expand the power of workers on the docks, the union began what was called The March Inland to organize warehouse workers, near the docks. This was later expanded to include manufacturing plants. It is because of the union's militant and progressive reputation that workers in non related fields, such as bicycle messengers and book store workers have sought membership in the ILWU.

The members of ILWU Local 21, Longview, WA in 2011 were engaged in a hard fought battle to preserve union jobs at the port of Longview.  Their pickets were attacked by police and several Longshoremen, including the International President Bob McEllrath, as well as the President of the local labor council were arrested.

It was during this time,  the Occupy movement arose. At the beginning Occupy received support from the leadership of the AFL-CIO and several unions. Among the campaigns of Occupy on the west coast, was a December 12 shutdown of several ports, including the ports of Portland, and Oakland, CA.

Occupy groups in Oakland, CA, Portland, OR and Seattle, WA made the defense of the Longview workers a top priority. To build support. solidarity meetings were held in Portland, January 5, 2012, and the next evening, January 6 in Seattle.

The Seattle meeting meeting was disrupted by union leaders and members of the Seattle and Tacoma locals as described in an article in  the January 9, 2012 edition of Socialist Worker:

ACTIVISTS IN Seattle had responded to a call from Jack Heyman and Clarence Thomas, ILWU Local 10 members from Oakland, Calif., to organize public solidarity meetings to help build the mobilization for Longview and support for Local 21's struggle.
The resulting January 6 event at the Seattle Labor Temple brought out 150 people to hear a panel of speakers, featuring a rank-and-file union member from Local 21, as well as Occupy Seattle activists, an Occupy Oakland activist, Heyman, Thomas, a rank-and-file ILWU member from Portland, a fundraising pitch and musical entertainment
Shortly after Jack Heyman, a retired Local 10 member and former Business Agent, began his remarks, about a dozen ILWU officials and members from Local 19, in Seattle and Local 23, in Tacoma began disrupting the meeting.
This attack on the Seattle meeting, may have been encouraged  by the International leadership. This was an attack on the Occupy movement, as well as the left.  Ironically,  one of the leaders of the disruption, Rich Austin, of Local 23,  is a self described "socialist."

This was not the first indication, that the ILWU was straying from it's once proud history.  In 2000,  International President Brian McWilliams, lost his bid for reelection to James Spinosa. Bob McEllrath, who was later to be elected to succeed Spinosa, was elected as International Vice President.

Prior to Spinosa, the four previous International Presidents, had been or at least considered themselves socialists, or at a minimum social democrats. This changed with Spinosa, who could probably at best, be described as a centrist Democrat.

The first ominous warning that the union was changing occured in a conflict between the new International leadership and Local 6, of the Warehouse Division. When I lived in San Francisco, I was a member of Local 6, which covered the San Francisco Bay area, with the exception of the docks.

A new leadership team was elected in Local 6, in 2000. The leadership that had been defeated for reelection refused to accept the results of the election.  When the local appealed to the International, much to everyone's surprise Spinosa sided with the defeated candidates and refused to support the new officers, in violation of both the local and international constitutions. After a lengthy battle, which included mobilizing the membership, and endorsements from other locals, in different divisions, the democratically elected leadership was finally recognized, reluctantly so, by the International leadership.

A few years later Steve Stallone, the Communications Director of the union, and editor of the union newspaper The Dispatcher was dismissed. Stallone had written an op ed critical of a pro Israeli and anti Palestinian article written by the International Secretary-Treasurer.

In 2010 a settletment that ended a lockout against the Boron miners of ILWU Local 30 at the Rio Tinto mine was called a victory by the ILWU. It was a strange victory as described by retired Local 10 member Jack Heyman: "A 'victory' with scabs still in the mine, seniority shredded and defined pensions gone for new members."

The Longview struggle was settled with the intervention of the Democratic state Governor Chris Gregoire of Washington, in an attempt to head off a mass picket at the port. Occupy groups along the west coast had planned a massive mobilization of thousands at the port. This could have resulted in a conflict with the Coast Guard, which would have been embarrassing, for President Obama, prior to the 2012 Presidential election. The settlement that was hailed as a victory was anything but a victory. It was a concessionary conflict that allows management to bypass the union hiring hall, eliminated the clerks jobs, and refuses to recognize July 5, Bloody Tuesday as a holiday. On this day, to honor those killed during the organizing battles of 1934 Longshoreman of the ILWU take the day off. Not in Longview.

Once regarded as one of the last class struggle unions, the ILWU has sadly, adopted the "business union" model, that is representative of the US labor movement. The only thing to reverse this course, is for an engaged rank and file to get this once proud union back on course.


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