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GUEST COMMENTARY

ILWU convention denies voices of Black members

Published Jun 26, 2006 10:51 PM

Clarence Thomas
Photo: Delores Thomas

June 26—The 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 Caucus.

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.

Paul 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 locals.

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 longshore workers.

Segregation and white supremacy in the Longshore Division

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 image.

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 Caucus floor.

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 local.

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 the AALC

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 types.”

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!

While 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.

Local 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 numbers.”

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

On 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 Chester.”

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 Leadership Conference.

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 income.”

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. CBTU.

Anti-apartheid boycotts and opposing war on Iraq

In the 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 African cargo.

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.

In 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 occupation.

Million Worker March Mobilization

ILWU dock 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.

Hurricane Katrina

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 Coast.

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.

Pro-rata withheld

Members 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 issues.

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.

In summary

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.

Saladin Muhammad, 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.”

“The 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 issues”.

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 aalcdebby@aol.com.