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Making Waves: Baltimore Longshoremen Fight for Democracy Within Union

Kari Lydersen

The Baltimore waterfront, historically a labor battleground, is a stronghold of the Longshore Workers' Coalition progressive caucus.

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BALTIMORE — Veteran longshoreman John Blom sits in a Chinese restaurant in Fells Point, Baltimore, just a stone’s throw from the former port where Frederick Douglass and labor leader Isaac Myers once worked in shipyards and founded the country’s first African American-owned shipbuilding company. Also the site of a massive seamen’s strike in the 1930s, the Baltimore waterfront has hardly ceased being a scene of labor struggles since Irish and German immigrants battled African-American freemen and slaves for jobs a century and a half ago.

Blom is a member of the Longshore Workers’ Coalition (LWC), a democratic caucus within the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), which represents 65,000 longshoremen along the east and Gulf coasts and the Great Lakes. The LWC was formed in the wake of the Charleston Five” battle in 2000, where five ILA longshoremen faced serious felony charges resulting from a battle to prevent a Danish ship from hiring non-union longshoremen.

LWC members in Baltimore and elsewhere are pushing to reform the powerful international union which they see as autocratic, ineffective and allied with the shipping and stevedoring industry, not to mention a long-standing reputation of organized crime involvement. Baltimore’s always been a maverick port,” noted Blom, a long-time political activist who has worked at the port for 34 years.

In December elections Blom will likely be among a slate of LWC-affiliated candidates hoping to take control of ILA Local 333, by far the largest of Baltimore’s four ILA Locals. Local leadership determines who will represent the Local at the conventions every four years where ILA international officers are chosen.

As things currently stand, the ILA international officers at these conventions choose the international vice presidents representing each port who negotiate national master contracts with the stevedoring companies that hire longshoremen to unload ships and otherwise keep the port running. Rank-and-file workers have very little influence on who is elected to international office, and hence little influence on the master contracts. Local union leaders negotiate issues not covered in the master contract, but their power is also greatly limited by the international leadership.

In this highly undemocratic process,” in Blom’s words, an ILA international vice president may be chosen who is unanimously opposed by all the Local leadership and rank and file members in the port he represents. Blom says the international vice president currently representing Baltimore’s port couldn’t be elected dog catcher” by the rank and file.

Blom and other LWC members blame the ILA international leadership for failing to protect rank and file interests nationwide. LWC members hope that eventually by winning leadership in enough Locals, they will be able to win international positions and eventually transform the international union into a democratic institution that represents rank and file interests. This is especially critical given new technology coming down the line will likely mean increasing automation – and hence less longshoremen’s work – at ports nationwide.

Blom notes that fully automated ports – with only a few workers running the whole thing” – are already operating in foreign cities including Rotterdam. The port of Virginia, one of Baltimore’s main competitors for shipping business, has been largely automated — meaning cheaper shipping costs that make it harder for Baltimore to compete. A new berth, likely highly automated, is being constructed in Baltimore’s port (which is now some miles from the historic Fells Point location).

In the 1970s, when automation first meant major changes in port operations, the ILA won safeguards from industry including a fund that would ensure longshoremen were paid for at least 35 hours worth of work per week, even when automation meant not as many men were needed. That fund no longer exists, but Blom thinks coming developments will mean some such insurance against shrinking labor demand is crucial.

He and his allies are also seeking to roll back concessions to industry made by international leadership when Local 333 was in trusteeship from 2005-2006 because of a scandal over misuse of funds. International leadership agreed to a change wherein when available jobs are posted in the hiring hall, the actual type of work is not specified. Longshoremen typically wait in a hiring hall to find out what work is needed, and take the jobs based on seniority. (“Longshore work is really glorified day labor,” Blom says.)

In the past people would know what the work entailed before taking the job. Now, someone whose health conditions, height or other issues make them unable to do certain jobs wouldn’t know until they are at the work site that they will have to abandon the job or risk the health and safety of themselves and others by struggling to do something they shouldn’t. Recently a longshoreman with a pacemaker and heart condition had to turn down work he had already signed on for in such a situation, Blom noted.

The ILA leadership also allowed stevedoring companies to institute earlier bid times for jobs with the same start times; in other words, now they have to show up at 7 a.m. instead of 7:15 to get a job starting at 8. The extra time is uncompensated, and adds up day after day, one of many little indignities” to which the workers are subject, Blom says. For him, the earlier start time means he no longer can squeeze in a workout at the gym with his wife in the morning.

In July 2011 the ILA will hold its next convention, where international officers including the vice presidents who represent each port are chosen every four years. Typically Locals get to send one delegate to the convention for every 100 members. But the conventions often stretch over two weeks in Florida or other locations, meaning hotel and travel is quite an expense for a small Local. When Locals don’t send their allotted delegates, existing ILA officers vote in their place. This system has allowed the same clique of politically complacent, well-paid ILA bureaucrats to hold on to power for years, even decades, as Blom describes it.

There are no issues in the national election, because it’s the same people elected over and over again, all they have to do is keep the other officers happy,” he said, noting that July may be the first time in decades that more than one candidate will run for international president – for a job that pays $400,000 a year to be uncontested for so many years, that’s got to be a warning bell.”

There would be pressure on them to actually do something if they had to stand for direct election,” he said.

If a progressive slate wins the Local 333 elections in December, they will be able to send delegates to the July convention, helping to further a change that is slowly taking hold within the international union, Blom said, with the LWC currently controlling about half a dozen major Locals nationwide.

A growing movement for international solidarity among port workers could also push reforms within the ILA. The International Transport Workers Union, the International Dockworkers Union and other global longshoremen’s unions have much power to influence battles in U.S. ports, since they can refuse to service ships from a given company or coming from a given port. Such tactics were used to support the Charleston Five and, more recently, California miners, who are members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) that represents port and other workers on the west coast.

Like the issue that sparked the Charleston Five saga, shipping companies frequently seek to hire non-union longshoremen to unload their ships. Starting October 1, Del Monte ships unloading in the port of Philadelphia are slated to switch to a dock with non-union longshoremen, provoking union protesters to dump pineapples in the Delaware River on Labor Day.

Blom noted this is exactly the type of situation that could spark international solidarity.

With the support of people who load and unload ships in South America and Europe, we have a lot more power,” he said. They’re poised to help us around Del Monte. But the ILA’s got to do something too.”

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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%.

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