ILWU convention denies voices of Black members
Published Jun 26, 2006 10:51 PM
Photo: Delores Thomas
International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) held its 33rd International
Convention May 13-20, 2006, in Vancouver, Canada. The International Convention
has the authority to adopt resolutions and statements of policy on political,
economic and other issues, and amend the Constitution. The highest governing
body of the entire ILWU is the International Convention made up of delegates
elected by direct rank- and-file vote in each local or affiliate of the union.
During the convention, a very important resolution regarding the African
American Longshore Coalition (AALC) was put forward by ILWU Local 10. The AALC,
a rank-and-file organization, has been recognized by the International union for
its contributions to remedy racism within the ILWU since March 1992. However,
the resolution recognizing AALC was defeated at the Convention and the Longshore
This paper is written to discuss how rejecting the resolution is
absolutely ironic when reviewing the progressive history of the ILWU. It must
also be noted that international unions such as the International Brotherhood of
Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union, United Auto Workers and
the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees to name a few,
recognize the formation of Black Caucuses within their respective unions because
they recognize that discrimination does exist.
ILWU Local 10, the local of
the legendary 20th century labor leader, Harry Bridges and William
“Bill” Chester, the first African American to serve as an
international officer, submitted a resolution calling for the AALC to have a
‘voice but no vote’, at the convention and Longshore Caucus. The
resolution didn’t make it out of the Constitution Committee at the
convention and was rejected a week later at the Longshore Caucus. The intent of
the resolution was to provide the AALC with the same status as the ILWU
Pensioners and Women Auxiliaries with ‘voice but no vote’. Passing
the resolution would not have cost the union any money at all.
Robeson, Jr. and Danny Glover Address ILWU convention
Paul Robeson Jr.
and Danny Glover were invited to address the delegates at the convention by
Willie Adams, ILWU International Secretary-Treasurer.
Robeson is a
cultural critic, lecturer, and author, besides being the son of the great
artist, activist, and freedom fighter, the late Paul Robeson, Sr. Robeson has
been an active participant in the civil rights movement since 1940 and served as
his father’s aide for more than twenty years. He currently works as a
freelance journalist and translator, in addition to lecturing on American and
Russian History. Robeson draws on his own personal experiences with his father,
including intimate conversations and excerpts from the diaries and letters of
Paul and Eslanda Robeson.
Danny Glover, acclaimed actor, activist and
humanitarian, comes from a union family in San Francisco. In 1968, while
students at San Francisco State College, Glover and this writer were apart of
the leadership of the Black Student Union that led one of the longest student
strikes in U.S. history to establish a Black Studies Department and School of
Ethnic Studies which still exists today.
In 2004, Glover was one of the
early endorsers of the Million Worker March (MWM). The MWM was conceived by
Trent Willis, while a Local 10 business agent, and it was initiated by his local
and the Longshore Caucus. Glover spoke at the MWM Kick-off Rally at Local 10
following the May 2004 ILWU Caucus in San Francisco. He was one of the keynote
speakers at the Oct. 17, 2004, rally in Washington, DC along with former U.S.
Attorney General Ramsey Clark, comedian/activist Dick Gregory and Chris Silvera,
Chair, Teamster National Black Caucus.
Danny Glover was commissioned by
the ILWU to do the narration for “Eye of the Storm”, the documentary
of the ILWU contract negotiations in 2002.
While the ILWU was honoring the
memory and achievements of Robeson, Sr., they were in another room denying
African American members a voice in the union by refusing to let the AALC
resolution reach the convention floor. This is so ironic because Robeson, Sr.,
among the best known and widely respected Black Americans of the 20th century,
is remembered as a civil rights activist and advocate of progressive causes. His
association with organized labor was almost as long and consistent as his
association with the concert stage. Robeson worked tirelessly so that the voice
of Blacks could be heard in organized labor.
In 1943, at the ILWU
International Convention, Robeson was made an honorary member of the ILWU.
Segregated locals in the Pacific Northwest backed this action of making Robeson
an honorary member of the ILWU, but yet no Blacks were members of their
It is important to note that the Portland delegation at the recent
Longshore Caucus voted in favor of the AALC resolution. Jerry Lawrence,
Executive Chairperson of the AALC and Debbie Stringfellow, Executive Secretary
of the AALC, are both members of Portland Local 8 and second-generation
Segregation and white supremacy in the Longshore
The roots of segregation and white supremacy in the Longshore
Division are very deep. It is the Port of San Francisco where the world-renowned
progressive and workers solidarity history was established, not the Pacific
Northwest where problems regarding racism, sexism and all forms of
discrimination are pervasive today.
The ILWU Story: Six Decades of
Militant Unions, a book which provides the history of the union from its origins
to the present, describes in detail the internal contradictions of racism,
within the ILWU. The ILWU Story explains how during the civil rights movement:
“…there were longshore locals that steadfastly refused to integrate
their membership. As an indication of the paradoxes of prejudice, these locals -
mainly in the Northwest, but also early on in Southern California - agreed with
the International policies supporting the civil rights movement and affirmative
action programs, and contributed generously to early ILWU support for sit-in
demonstrations and marches for equality in the Southern United States beginning
in 1955. Yet an unofficial color line held fast in these locals, despite
constant efforts by the International leadership and other longshore locals,
notably Local 10 in San Francisco …”
The message being,
‘integration in the South is fine but not in my local’. It would not
be a stretch to conclude that these segregated locals in the ILWU wanted to give
the appearance they were progressive on the race question for purposes of public
The ILWU Story once again clearly outlines how Blacks were
integrated in the Pacific Northwest. In 1964, for example, Local 8 in Portland
registered its first 50 African American workers as part of a larger group of
300 new registrants. This came about by a court mandate issued by the Honorable
Judge Gus J. Solomon.
Currently, Local 8 has ten African American males
fully registered; two African American females fully registered; thirteen
African American male limited registrants; and one African American female
limited registrant—almost 50 percent fewer African American registrants
than in 1964. There are seven African American male non-union casual workers and
no African American female casual workers.
For the convention to reject
the resolution and for it not even to reach the floor is indicative of where the
consciousness of ILWU members is on the issues of diversity and democracy. And,
it clearly shows that the ILWU is not in line with other international unions
that have long recognized the importance and necessity of Black caucuses within
their respective unions. Further, the convention rejecting recognition of the
AALC is an embarrassment and a slap in the face of the convention’s two
progressive African American speakers.
AALC resolution rejected again
at Longshore Caucus
The Longshore Division representing dockworkers,
who supply the labor at 29 ports on the West Coast, held their Longshore, Clerks
and Walking Boss Caucus, one week following the convention. The resolution for
the AALC to have a ‘voice but no vote’ at no cost to the union was
rejected once again. This time the resolution was debated on the Longshore
None of the Longshore Division leadership, including the
International Secretary-Treasurer Willie Adams, the highest ranking and only
African American at the ILWU International, spoke on the resolution. This
posture taken by Brother Adams, a longshoreman from Tacoma, compelled AALC
members attending the Longshore Caucus as rank-and-file members to compare
Brother Adams’ role in the leadership of the ILWU to that of former
Secretary of State Colin Powell in the Bush administration. Brother Adams has
never been active in the AALC despite the well-documented history of
discrimination in the Pacific Northwest, in particular Local 23, his
Other than Local 10, which submitted the AALC resolution, the only
other local delegation to support the resolution was Local 8 of Portland. All of
their delegates except one were reported to have supported this resolution.
The reasons put forward in rejecting the recognition of the AALC by
delegates at the Longshore Caucus, are in this writer’s opinion
disingenuous. In this writer’s opinion, the real reason is that delegates
are in denial of racism and discrimination in all its forms within the ILWU.
The history of the AALC
The AALC was formed in March 1992 to
address the racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination of the Longshore
Division up and down the West Coast for the purpose of resolving such problems
internally. Its predecessor was the United Coalition of Black and Minority
Longshoremen organized in the late 1960s to address the discrimination in Local
8 in Portland, Oregon. The organization developed chapters in Seattle and Tacoma
to confront discrimination in those locals.
In the February 1992 issue of
the ILWU Dispatcher, past ILWU International President David Arian wrote in his
column, “For the ILWU in particular, Black History Month also means that
we must take a close look at ourselves. We must examine whether we are holding
true to the democratic principles upon which this union was founded. We must
eliminate any and all barriers that divide us. We must eradicate discrimination
wherever and whenever it exists”.
At the 1994 Longshore, Clerk and
Walking Boss Caucus, the report of the AALC minutes includes Brother Leo
Robinson, retired Local 10 member and a founder of the AALC, speaking regarding
the pervasive discrimination in the Pacific Northwest. Robinson said, “I
wrote a very simple resolution that has in the history its genesis that goes
back some years when Local 10 refused to pay part of the lawsuit that Local 8
had lost which was a discrimination case. It is the position that I take
now…that as a person of color, that this organization (ILWU) founded on
the principles of democracy and fairness for all should not have to bear the
burden of those who choose to step outside of that framework for asserting some
illusionary superiority over their fellow workers, and then when they’re
taken to task for that, they turn around and say to me, ‘I want you to pay
for my privilege’. The brothers and sisters of this union, whether they be
of color or of the majority population of this society, have one thing in
common, a threat to one from our enemy which is a class enemy, is a threat to us
all and we will respond accordingly”.
With this said in 1992 and
1994, here it is 2006 and the AALC still does not have a ‘voice and no
vote’ at the Convention or Longshore Caucus.
The ILWU endorses
On Jan. 19, 1994, Arian wrote the following to Local 8 Vice
President Lynell Hill regarding the relationship between the AALC and the ILWU:
“The International Executive Board and the International officers support
the activities of the AALC as long as it stays within the confines of the
democratic procedures of the Constitution of the ILWU”.
In a letter
dated Feb. 14, 2006, addressed to all Longshore, Clerk, and Walking Boss Locals,
acknowledgment of the important contributions of the AALC was noted by
International President James Spinosa and members of the Coast Committee Labor
Relations Committee. The letter addressed the problems of racism,
discrimination, sexism in all of its forms, which are more prevalent amongst the
Longshore Division in the Pacific Northwest.
The letter reads in part,
“At the last Longshore Division Caucus held in April 2005, the African
American Longshore Coalition (AALC) presented concerns regarding racial and
diversity issues in certain parts of the Longshore Division, including the
Pacific Northwest. The Coast Committee along with local officers pledged our
commitment to address these problems effectively. To this end, we have had
several meetings and discussions with the AALC and other concerned Union
members. We are pleased to say that considerable progress has been made in
working to correct several individual cases raised by the AALC. However, we also
recognize that much more needs to be done to improve solidarity among all ILWU
members across racial and gender lines. The ILWU remains committed to its long
standing policies against discrimination, harassment and retaliation of all
The recognition by President James Spinosa of the efforts
of the AALC to remedy racism in the ILWU begs the question of why he was silent
on the resolution recognizing the AALC at the Longshore Caucus!
certainly not documented in any precise matter of record, the AALC has been
responsible for saving the union potentially millions of dollars in lawsuits
involving racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. The impact of the
work of the AALC has not been limited to just Blacks and other workers of color.
White males and females have been beneficiaries as well. One such example is
AALC’s efforts to end the “shape-up” which was a part of the
antiquated dispatch rules that were in place in Tacoma at Local 23 during the
1990s. These old antiquated, undemocratic practices were a hold over from the
early days of the longshore industry before the union was actually organized as
the ILWU. The role of the AALC was to inform the members of Local 23 of the
union’s grievance procedures and their rights and responsibilities under
this longshore contract according to AALC organizer, Leo Robinson.
10 has been referred to on more than one occasion as the “conscience of
ILWU”. Arian, during the historic Longshore Caucus of April 20, 1994, in
the Report of the AALC, paid tribute to the leading role of Local 10 in setting
up the agenda for the whole question of discrimination, democracy, and fairness
in the ILWU. Arian said, “I think it is testimony to the fact and to the
democracy that exists within Local 10 and their struggle for social equality
that has been a conscience to this entire union.”
Harry Bridges was
in the vanguard of all North American trade union leaders of his generation on
the question of race. Brother Bridges said, “Discrimination is a tool of
the bosses.” He wrote in the ILWU Dispatcher on Feb. 15, 1938, which
featured a series of articles on The Economics of
Prejudice:…,”prejudice means profit for the boss … for the
worker, Black and White, it means lower living standards, humiliations,
violence, and often death.”
Local 10 in the forefront of ILWU
social justice struggles
ILWU Local 10 is the most racially diverse of
all longshore locals on the West Coast. It is the only local that has a
predominantly African American membership. Whites, Latin@s and Asians are all
represented in Local 10.
At the Longshore Caucus in 1994 in the Report of
the AALC, on the question of African American representation in the Longshore
locals, Brother Leo Robinson is quoted saying the following: “On the
question of registration, it is obvious that our registration process differs
from that of the other locals. And it’s historic in terms of how it was
done and why it was done. It was at the insistence of our first International
president, the late Harry Bridges that Blacks came into Local 10 in
Thomas C. Fleming writes in his Reflections on Black
History, 12-16-98, The Great Strike of 1934: “In 1934… blacks could
only work on two piers in San Francisco; the Panama Pacific and the Luckenbach
Line. If you went to another pier down there, you might get beaten up by the
hoodlums. Before this time, I clung to the view that the trade union movement
was first formed to continue racial discrimination. But Bridges… felt that
by keeping unions lily-white there would be a steady reserve of black potential
strike breakers whenever strikes were called, which would weaken the unions when
negotiations broke down.”
“Bridges went to black churches on
both sides of the San Francisco Bay and asked the ministers if he could say a
few words during the Sunday Services. He begged the congregations to join the
strikers on the picket line, and promised that when the strike ended, blacks
would work on every dock on the west coast.”
Local 10 is recognized
nationally and internationally as one of the most progressive labor
organizations in the world. The following is a short list of Local 10’s
progressive activities over the years.
Dr. King speaks
Sept. 21, 1967, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at a Local 10
membership meeting. The ILWU Dispatcher reported: “Dr. King Martin Luther
King delivers stirring appeal for unity between the labor movement and the Negro
freedom movement after being introduced by regional director William
The occasion of Dr. King’s appearance before Local
10 was a kick-off of a seven-city concert tour by singer, activist and
humanitarian Harry Belafonte, to raise money for the Southern Christian
Dr. King said, “I don’t feel like a
stranger in the midst of the ILWU. We have been strengthened and energized by
the support you have given to our struggles. We are going to organize the
unorganized. Poverty, after all is not only among the unemployed. Most of the
poverty stricken are people who are working every day. We will organize to make
clear that everyone in this country has a right to a living
After a standing ovation, it was moved and seconded from
the floor that Dr. King be made an honorary lifetime member of Local 10.
During the early 1980s, Leo Robinson and Dave Steward, Local 10 rank and
filers and members of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), brought a
resolution passed at the CBTU convention calling for all international unions to
include in their union contracts making Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday
a paid holiday. Local 10 adopted it as a contract caucus demand for the
Longshore Caucus. The Longshore Division gained Dr. King’s birthday as a
paid holiday. This is an example of the power of a Black caucus i.e.
Anti-apartheid boycotts and opposing war on Iraq
November 2004 issue of the Dispatcher concerning Local 10 commemorating the
anti-apartheid boycott, the following was written: “Local 10’s
struggle against apartheid began in 1958 with Bill Chester, later International
vice-president, and at that time Regional Director. Chester was the first
African American elected to International office. Bill Chester was a Local 10
member that served as Vice President of the National Negro Labor Congress and a
founding member of the Congress”.
In 1977, Brother Leo Robinson, in
conjunction with community activists, organized a picket line around Pier 27 in
San Francisco on an Easter Sunday to protest the arrival of the Ned Lloyd
Kimberly, a South African cargo ship. Five thousand people formed a picket line
that longshore workers did not cross.
That action was duplicated in 1984,
this time at Pier 80 in San Francisco, and the picket line was in place for ten
days. Since the corporate press would not give coverage of the events, then
Congressman Ron Dellums made his office available for daily news briefings
regarding the action taken by Local 10. In 1989, when Dellums arranged for
Nelson Mandela to speak to thousands at the Oakland/Alameda Coliseum, Mandela
thanked Dellums for sponsoring sanction legislation against apartheid of South
Africa and the ILWU for its solidarity action by refusing to handle South
Local 10 was one of the first ILWU locals to adopt
resolutions to end the war in Iraq. It opposed the illegal invasion of that
country before it even occurred. Local 10 was one of the founding members of
U.S. Labor Against the War, a national labor anti-war organization.
October of 2003, Local 10 sent this writer to Baghdad as part of a five-member
international trade union delegation to meet with Iraqi trade unionists. This
writer was one of the first African American trade unionists to meet with Iraqi
workers and trade union leaders after the U.S. invasion and
Million Worker March Mobilization
workers and thousands of trade unionists, workers, and anti-war and social
justice activists from across the country, along with others from Haiti, Japan
and South Africa, gathered at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Oct. 17,
2004, at the Million Worker March. This mobilization was initiated by Local 10
and endorsed by the Longshore Caucus. Thousands stood at the foot of the
memorial demanding universal health care, protection of social security and
pensions, an end to the war in Iraq, and immigrant rights.
In September 2005, Local 10 was the first ILWU local to
respond to the magnitude and human suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s office sought the assistance of Local 10 to
get containers so that hurricane relief could be provided for the Gulf Coast.
Past Local 10 President Trent Willis and this writer contacted employers
such as Matson, American President Lines and Maersk - Sea Land and secured ten
forty-foot containers. Besides what the local community provided, Local 10 was
able to fill several containers with donations from its membership and ten fully
loaded containers were sent to the people and communities of the Gulf
In the Pacific Northwest, Gabriel Prawl, Local 19 Executive Board
Member and Executive Vice-Chair of AALC, and Michael Hoard of Local 52 and
Seattle area Co-chair of the AALC, who are both members of MWMM and the Puget
Sound Katrina Relief Reconstruction Committee, have spearheaded a construction
supplies relief program involving a coalition of labor/community, interfaith,
and student organizations to provide construction supplies to Katrina survivors
who want to rebuild in New Orleans.
of AALC in the Pacific Northwest appeared before Local 10 reporting pervasive
discrimination regarding issues of racism, sexism, nepotism and favoritism in
Pacific Northwest locals. In support of the AALC, Local 10 passed a motion
directing its officers to withhold the longshore pro-rata until these issues
were addressed. The purpose of the action was not to penalize the Longshore
Division leadership but to have them understand the urgency in addressing the
In the Feb. 14, 2006, letter written by President Spinosa
addressed to all Longshore, Clerk, and Walking Boss Locals, he said in the third
paragraph: “Having an open discussion within the Union on issues of race,
gender and diversity is key to overcoming these problems and building union
solidarity. In order to improve the lines of communication, we ask that each
local establish a Diversity Committee that includes rank-and-file union members,
including AALC members, to work on issues of diversity, tolerance and solidarity
across racial and gender lines, and to make recommendations to the local
officers, executive board and membership.”
Actions initiated by
Local 10 have created greater attention by the Longshore Division but the issues
are still out there and much work is still to be done.
The action taken by the ILWU regarding the AALC must be viewed
in the national context of the political disenfranchisement of African Americans
in Florida and throughout the country and the refusal by the Democratic Party to
put forward at least one of its 47 senators to co-sponsor the Congressional
Black Caucus’ challenge to the certification of the 2000 Election on the
grounds of disenfranchising African Americans voters.
The treatment of
African Americans and the role of race and class in the treatment of Katrina
survivors must also be considered in the overall context of the rejection of the
AALC resolution at the Longshore Caucus and Convention of giving ‘voice
but no vote’ to a Black Caucus within the ILWU.
Chair of Black Workers for Justice and Co-Convener of the Million Worker March
Movement Southern Region, writes in the document, Hurricane Katrina: The Black
Nations 911: “The racist economic, social and political policies and
practices of the US government and capitalist system shape society’s
attitude about the reasons for the historical oppression of African Americans.
It seeks to isolate, criminalize and scapegoat African Americans as social
pariahs holding back the progress of society.”
characterization of the Black working class in this way is part of a continuous
ideological shaping of white supremacy that gives white workers a sense of being
part of another working class, different from the Black working class. This
often leads many white workers to act against their class interests discouraging
them from uniting with the Black working class in struggling to seek common,
equal and socially transforming resolutions to their class
The racial make-up of the Longshore Division is such that
if it were not for Local 10 there would be no Black delegates at the Longshore
Caucus or Convention. Consequently, African Americans in the Longshore Division
have historically looked toward Local 10 to represent their interests at the
caucus and convention.
The rejection of Local 10’s resolution
recognizing the AALC to have a ‘voice but no vote’ was a betrayal to
African Americans and other progressive ILWU members, past and present, who have
been in the forefront contributing to the progressive history of the union. If
Harry Bridges, Bill Chester, Paul Robeson or Dr. King, were alive today, this
writer is certain that they would support the AALC having a voice in the ILWU.
This doesn’t take much conjecture based upon their commitment to the
struggle to end racism and their fight for social justice. These warriors for
peace and justice took an uncompromising position regarding democracy for all
and not just for the privileged few.
The Longshore leadership has been
addressing individual cases involving discrimination prompted by the efforts of
the AALC and Local 10. But institutional racism and other forms of
discrimination within the ILWU will require institutional change. Blacks, people
of color, women, and other oppressed workers must be empowered from the bottom
as well as the top to eradicate racism, sexism, and all the other forms of
discrimination. The recognition of the AALC initially with ‘voice but no
vote’ will be an important step in bringing about that change. After all,
this is about democracy and fairness for all of the rank and file of the ILWU.
It is for these reasons that the resolution recognizing the AACL was put forward
by Local 10.
The writer is past Secretary-Treasurer, ILWU Local 10;
National Co-chair, Million Worker March Movement; and member of African American
Longshore Coalition and Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. Email comments in
care of the writer to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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