What’s At Stake in the Longshore Workers’ Battle

by Joe Burns

Joe Burns

Joe Burns

The disputes that led to one of the nation’s most militant and progressive unions, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) abandoning the AFL-CIO are not, as some may argue mere jurisdictional squabbles, but rather touche on central issues facing trade unionism today. The question at stake is whether one of labor’s most militant and effective unions will be able to defend its traditional jurisdiction and in doing so maintain strong working standards for tens of thousands of long shore workers.

On August 29, ILWU President Robert McEllrath sent a letter to  AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka notifying him of the ILWU decision to disaffiliate from the AFL-CIO. The letter zeroed in on the failure of the national AFL-CIO to offer support to the ILWU in fending off multiple raids on long shore work. Since the letter lays out the multiple challenges faced by the ILWU, it will be quoted at length.

“..we have seen a growing surge of attacks from various affiliates. A particularly outrageous raid occurred in 2011, when one affiliate slipped in to longshore jobs at the new EGT grain facility in the Port of Longview, Washington, and then walked through ILWU picket lines for six months until we were able to secure this critical longshore jurisdiction. Your office added insult to injury by issuing a directive to the Oregon State Federation to rescind its support of the ILWU fight at EGT, which threatened to be the first marine terminal on the West Coast to go non-ILWU.

The attacks by affiliates against the ILWU have only increased. One affiliate has filed a string of ULP charges as well as an Article XX charge that not only interfere with ILWU contractual rights at specific ports; the ULP charges also are attempting to dismantle core jurisdictional provisions in our Longshore Contract for the entire West Coast. In Los Angeles and Oakland, another affiliate is imposing internal union fines against dual union members for the “crime” of taking a job as a longshoreman — the stated purpose of the fines being to prevent the ILWU from filling new waterfront jobs that replace traditional longshore work due to new technologies. In Oakland and Tacoma, another affiliate is trying to use a recent NLRB ruling against one of our employers to take over ILWU jobs with some of our other employers. Throughout the Pacific Northwest, we are daily seeing still other affiliates blatantly cross the picket lines of ILWU members who have been locked out for months by the regional grain industry. And just this week, some of the Building Trades affiliates have displaced ILWU workers in the loading of barges at Terminal 46 in Seattle where longshoremen have done this work for generations. They also had the gall to file several ULP charges against us for picketing at our own marine terminal. These multi-state attacks against the ILWU are being coordinated in large part by a law firm with close ties to the Federation.”

Not only has the national AFL-CIO done nothing to stop these attacks, they prevented state labor councils from supporting the ILWU and as

Labor Notes reports,

national AFL-CIO officials responded to the ILWU’s pullout by forbidding local affiliates from issuing solidarity charters to the ILWU, which would allow for continued affiliation at the local level.

It would be a mistake to reduce these disputes to fights over particular jobs. At stake is something far greater—the future of unionism in one of the strategic sectors of the economy. Some employers, with the support of the National Labor Relations Board and the collaboration of certain unions, are attempting to use labor laws to strip the ILWU of coast wide control of long shore work which is essential to retaining unionism in this sector. As will be discussed below, in that regard they are attempting to use the same tools of de-unionization used in most other sectors of the economy.

An August 28 decision by a National Labor Relations Board administrative law judge (ALJ) illustrates the tremendous challenges the ILWU faces.

In a truly horrible decision in which the ALJ barely contained his contempt to the ILWU’s brand of unionism, the ALJ ordered the ILWU to quit taking actions (both on the job slowdowns and arbitration/court procedures) to pressure their own employer to honor the ILWU coast-wide collective bargaining agreement and fill positions monitoring refridgerized containers with members of the Longshore Union. Without going into the legal complexities here, the decision basically attempts to prevent the ILWU from enforcing its’ own coast-wide agreement.

This really hits at the crux of the matter in this dispute and why it is so important for organized labor. This is not an isolated jurisdictional dispute over a handful of jobs. The ILWU was organized during the 1930s on a very traditional union principle—to maintain wages on the ports, the union needs to organize and maintain contract standards coast-wide. Individual employers and ports could not be allowed to undercut standards because that would threaten the very survival of the union. Maintaining jurisdiction is not just about maintaining the jobs but the very vehicle necessary for maintaining hard-won union standards in the industry.

Indeed, this used to be one of the key tenants of unionism—maintaining standards across industries. It’s how unions raised wages from the 1930s through the 1970s in industries such as trucking, steal, construction and mining. In all of those industries union standards were allowed to erode and unionism declined. Now the ILWU is fighting the same battle. (And indeed, East Coast International Longshoremen’s Association members in the Philadelphia ports faced similar challenges in 2010 from a sweatheart union contract at Del Monte.)

In industry after industry, effective unionism has been destroyed, in large part, because employers were allowed to use corporate fictions to defeat unionism. Tactics like subcontracting, runaway shops, closing down and re-opening non-union, opening non-union subsidiaries (double breasting), privatization in the public sector, classifying work as independent contractors, etc were critical tools in busting unionism. These are not apolitical legal decisions but rather central parts of what I call the” system of labor control” in this country. Only where unions ignore these corporate fictions such as SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaigns or in reality the city-wide restaurant strikes can we truly make headway in confronting corporate power.

Here is a chance for the AFL-CIO to get behind a militant union in its efforts to defend effective, traditional trade unionism. Yet, sadly that is not going to happen which probably says more about union decline than any pronouncements coming out of Los Angeles in the next week. One thing we can be sure, when the labor movement does revive it will likely look a lot more like the struggle being waged on the docks of the West Coast.

Joe Burns, a former local union president active in strike solidarity, is a labor negotiator and attorney. He is the author of Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America (IG Publishing, 2011), which was reviewed on Talking Union by Carl Finamore.

2 Responses

  1. […] That’s why it is disappointing that the battle of West Coast long shore workers gets so little attention even in progressive labor circles. While many are rightfully excited about efforts to organize restaurant workers and to pull new forces into the labor movement, the long shore workers struggle hits at key issues facing unionism. […]

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