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“Fifteen guys on the docks with a lot of money and power and no union.”
That’s how Tony Perlstein of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local 1588 in Newark, N.J., described the future of the notoriously conservative east coast union during the Labor Notes conference in Detroit last weekend. Perlstein was among a reform slate that won leadership of the local in 2007 after it had been in federal trusteeship to route out mob corruption.
With a focus on international solidarity and a burgeoning workers’ network within the shipping and logistics industries, Labor Notes provided a forum for ILA members to air their frustration with their union and build support for their progressive reform caucus – the Longshore Workers’ Coalition (LWC).
Perlstein was referring to the trend wherein fewer and fewer workers are needed on the docks because of automation and new technology…and companies essentially buy off union members with high salaries to dissuade them from organizing new members and fighting to protect jobs. As in many industries, automation has changed the face of longshoremen’s work, meaning fewer jobs and sometimes more grueling and dangerous working conditions.
“You know the employers are out there with their knives sharpened, increasing automation, making the industry even smaller,” said Perlstein. “But our leadership is not in a place where they’re serious about putting resources into organizing. So for me it’s a matter of reforming within our own union.”
By contrast, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) on the west coast is known for addressing automation head on and winning contracts that protect as many jobs as possible and secure other concessions to mitigate the effects of automation.
The most widely known longshoremen’s struggle in modern times is that of the “Charleston 5,” five South Carolina longshoremen who faced prison time for a confrontation on the docks in 2000 sparked by a Danish shipping company’s plans to use non-union workers to unload ships. State police attacked a picket line with tear gas, fists and racial epithets, and five African American union members who were beaten ended up facing felony riot charges.
The Charleston 5 garnered international solidarity for their bold stand against union-busting in the nation’s fourth-largest port…but got little support from their own union, known as conservative, defensive and largely unwilling to organize, fight for its existing members or take a stand against industry changes like automation.
The Longshore Workers Coalition (LWC) will hold their 10th anniversary convention in Savannah, Ga., June 10-12.
We are crane operators and car drivers, checkers and baggage handlers, lashers, mechanics, hustler drivers, break bulk handlers, tugboat operators and warehouse workers. We are black and white workers, women and men, immigrants and native born. We have members in ports up and down the East and Gulf Coasts: Hampton Roads, NY/NJ, Charleston, Savannah, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Jacksonville, Mobile, Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, Lake Charles, Houston, Canada, Puerto Rico and more.
This is how the LWC website describes the group. It says their guiding principles include justice, democracy, safety (“we work to live, not to die”), organizing, solidarity and an end to discrimination by employers and within the union:
For years the maritime industry has divided us by age, race, gender, language and nationality, making us compete with one another. We must stop injustice and fight to end discrimination on the job and in our union.
Perlstein said a big part of the battle is just teaching ILA members what they should expect – and demand – from a union. He said many ILA members gained this insight when they were invited to an ILWU convention.
“You mean it’s possible to not get pistol-whipped when you go to the mic at a meeting?” he said. “And you could even get a handshake from your union brother?”
At Labor Notes, longshoremen from both unions decried the trend of ports competing with each other for business – by among other things cutting labor costs. “That’s just wrong, it’s all about a race to the bottom,” said Georgia ILA member Eddie McBride.
ILWU international organizing director Peter Olney noted that even with the ILWU’s power and progressive politics, west coast longshoremen aren’t immune to that pressure.
“On the west coast there’s a lot of fear being generated by employers talking about the Panama Canal (expansion), saying, ‘We’re going to run our ships through there and up the east coast,’” to thwart the ILWU. Olney warned members against letting such threats spark competition between workers and ports and hence undermine the union.
“Any democratic organization if not utilized to its full potential can slide back,” he said.
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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.