Chance for ILWU leadership to turn the tide for Labor slipping away
Relying on failed strategies Union leaders place ILWU victory in jeopardy
A statement from Labor's Militant Voice Magazine
"For the first time in many years the ILWU really is in negotiations...it's not like previous years where they make a demand and there's a full surrender. We're not sure everybody at the union gets it."
Robin Lanier, Executive Director of the West Coast Waterfront Coalition.
The West Coast Waterfront Coalition is an employers' trade group representing importers and exporters that will be adversely effected if the ILWU, representing West Coast port workers goes on strike. Some 4 million jobs are directly or indirectly linked to the 0 bn in trade that passes through West Coast ports according to the San Francisco Chronicle (Port workers back in contract talks 9-5-02). Children's toys, clothes, and automobile parts travel through the West Coast ports daily and the ability of the ILWU to hurt U.S. capitalism cannot be understated. The bosses are acutely aware of this and Mr. Lanier's comments should not be taken lightly.
The Pacific Maritime Association representing the shipping bosses are determined to eliminate jobs and weaken the power of the ILWU on the West Coast. They have taken an aggressive posture throughout negotiations despite major concessions being offered by the ILWU negotiators. Added pressure has come from the Bush administration which,
according to reports, has threatened to use troops as strikebreakers as well as introducing legislation that will force the ILWU to negotiate port by port as opposed to coast wide.
A defeat for the ILWU will mean a major setback for organized labor. Many trade union activists and ILWU supporters recognize this. Like the crushing of PATCO by Reagan a defeat for the ILWU will give U.S. capitalism the green light to increase their offensive against organized labor and the working class in general.
In the ILWU's September 2nd bulletin the Union reports that "The AFL-CIO has made the ILWU contract negotiations a top priority for the labor movement..." This is not the first time we have heard this brothers ands sisters. PATCO, Hormel, Eastern Airlines, Greyhound, Detroit Newspaper, Staley, Pittston, Caterpillar; all these struggles were a "top priority" for the AFL-CIO and they were all defeated strikes. In each of these struggles the rank and file exhibited great heroism. Workers lost their homes and their livelihoods during these struggles. So why were they defeated and how can the ILWU avoid the same fate?
At the September 5th Portworkers Solidarity Committee meeting held at the ILWU Local 10 hall in San Francisco there was a limited discussion on the subject of strategy and two distinct approaches emerged. The discussion was limited as most of the committee members are opposed to doing anything but support work regardless of the strategy the ILWU or AFL-CIO adopts.
The vast majority of the Solidarity Committee uncritically supported the approach being taken by the ILWU leadership. This approach which is also the approach of the AFL-CIO is to leaflet some of the retail stores such as Wal-Mart, Payless Shoe Source and others, encouraging workers not to shop there and to sign postcards calling for justice for the port workers. These postcards are then sent to the retailers' customer services department. In other words, the approach is to ask workers to boycott stores that belong to the West Coast Waterfront Coalition. This is line with the ILWU's corporate campaign.
Along with this strategy, Jesse Jackson is being called upon to inspire workers with fine speeches alongside labor leaders like Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO and John Bowers, President of the ILA, who reportedly said that the "ILWU fight is the ILA fight" and "we'll do whatever we have to do to win" (honk if you've heard that before) So far this includes leafleting and relying on elected officials as the ILWU bulletin of Sept. 5th explains "Scores of elected officials, from U.S. senators and congressional representatives, to governors, state legislators and port city mayors, have joined the ILWU in calling for the Bush administration to get out of the negotiating process and to not send the military to the ports.".
This strategy is the same strategy that has led to defeat after to defeat for labor, some examples of which are above. This was pointed out to brothers and sisters on the committee including ILWU Local 10 President, brother Richard Mead who was present and a member of the committee. Jack Heyman, another ILWU official who was present also voiced no disagreement with this strategy. He did report that the idea of 30 hours work for 40 hours pay had been raised in a caucus and that the AFL-CIO should call a general strike if the government brings in the troops. But he has not openly campaigned among the rank and file for this strategy and counterposed it to that of the leadership. It's clear that for such an action to be successful the atmosphere for it has to be created among union members and the public, something that the Union's present strategy supported by the Solidarity Committee, cannot do.
In contrast to this approach a minority of the committee explained that the ILWU is in a position to reverse the sting of defeats that labor has been suffered. But in order to do this the above strategy of the AFL-CIO has to be abandoned. The passive approach and the reliance on Democratic Party politicians and the likes of Jesse Jackson must be abandoned. The refusal to mobilize the members and workers in the community to act in our own behalf must be abandoned. The AFL-CIO will not call a general strike under any circumstances unless absolutely forced to do so. The leadership of the ILWU representing such a potentially powerful force is in a position to initiate this process. A minority proposal presented by supporters of Labor's Militant Voice, was voted down by the majority of the committee. It read as follows:
# The ILWU should withdraw all the concessions on jobs etc. that they have agreed to so far in negotiations.
# The ILWU should put the issue of a shorter working week with no loss in pay and the hiring of more workers at the center of their struggle.
# The ILWU should withdraw from all negotiations until the government withdraws its threat to use the troops to do their jobs.
# The ILWU should call a one day general strike and day of action around their demands and the demand that the government and the employers lift their threats.
# The day of action component would involve sending the ILWU membership to other workplaces to speak to the workers there and explain their case and to call on them to attend the ILWU rallies later in the day. Part of this should also be asking these workers to set up solidarity committees in their workplaces and neighborhoods and to raise within their own unions if they have one, and in their workplace if they have not, that full support must be given to the ILWU.
# The AFL-CIO call meetings of all their local organizations, especially their 40,000 locals, to in turn organize meetings in every workplace to explain the situation with the ILWU, to explain the failures of the policies of the past two decades and to prepare these workers for a general strike the moment the troops are sent in and for this strike to last until the troops would be pulled out.
Some of us in the minority on the Portworkers Solidarity Committee believe that by taking these steps it is possible that another serious defeat for labor can be avoided and genuine support can be built. If the Solidarity Committee continues to function simply by carrying out the present ILWU and AFL-CIO strategy, letter campaigns, appeals to shoppers to boycott stores etc., the committee will be a participant in yet another defeat for labor or what labor officials describe in this era as a "defensive victory".
Many on the Solidarity Committee consider themselves to be opposed to capitalism as well as opposed to the union bureaucracy. More importantly, there is the role of Brother Jack Heyman, an elected full time official in the ILWU. Brother Heyman has a long history of opposition to capitalism and to business unionism. Now, however, is the crucial test. Now is the time for him and the committee that he played a key role in helping to build to step
forward and seriously start to build an opposition to the failed policies and tactics of the union officialdom. Should they refuse, then they will have to bear some of the blame for any resulting defeats.
We appeal also to other members of the ILWU. A desire for "unity" in the face of such attacks is understandable. However, if the "unity" is based on policies that are bound to fail, then it is necessary to start to speak up. At the meeting of the Solidarity Committee, a rank and file member of the ILWU asked "what are we going to do?" He did not realize that what was being proposed (leafleting department stores) was basically the answer. He and other rank and file ILWU members left the meeting shortly after this. We would like to work with any ILWU members who are interested in organizing to get their Union, as well as the rest of organized labor, to break from the failed methods of the past.
Attend the Solidarity Committee meetings, get involved in this struggle, and help build a movement for the leadership of the ILWU and the AFL-CIO to take up the sort of approach outlined here.