On Tuesday, March 31, a meeting in San Francisco was held with longshore workers and others to discuss and explain the failings of the recent tentative agreement over a new contract between the ILWU and the employers. All unionists should be concerned about this contract and, even more important, what can be done about it.
The maritime industry on the US West Coast is just about the only major industry in the country that is still strictly union.
That is why Corporate America as a whole must have been eying this industry, determined to break the union’s grip. The results of the tentative agreement between the union (the ILWU) and the employers goes a way towards achieving the employers’ goal. (See graphic at right for a summary.)
There’s hardly a union contract around nowadays that doesn’t include major concessions. The key question is what to do about it? Unfortunately, not much was said directly about this beyond just rejecting this proposed contract. However, one speaker, Dan Coffman, former president of ILWU Local 21 in Longview WA, provided some of the answer, although he did so unintentionally. As president of his local, Coffman had led a major battle against the grain shipping companies back in 2011. This included open defiance of the police by blocking the trains with mass pickets at one point, an action for which Coffman (and others) were arrested.
Despite this, though, Coffman ended up signing a terrible contract at that time. It’s true he was directed to by the International, but he could have refused, and last night, when he spoke at the SF meeting (via Skype), he said he regretted having signed the contract. But it wasn’t only that. When he spoke, he explained that he’d been called away from the battle in Longview and to San Francisco by the International at a crucial time. According to him, he was called to S.F. to keep him away from Longview because had he stayed there he would have been able to implement a strategy that might have blocked the ship coming in. He also explained that “my International had a gag order on me where I couldn’t speak to the press.” What must be asked, though, is why if his presence was so crucial in Longview at that time did he agree to come to San Francisco, and why did he obey the “gag order”?
The only way to answer this is to look at the balance of forces. Coffman may have had the moral backing of his local members and some in Local 10 (San Francisco), but that was all; the support wasn’t organized to fight the International. That would have had to include internal organization beyond their one local. Whether he wanted to or not, Coffman alone could not take on the entire ILWU International. It’s like one individual trying to stand up to a tsunami. It’s a rule of war, including the war within the unions, that if one side is organized and the other isn’t the former will win.
What does being organized mean for the rank and file?
It means understanding not only “who” you are opposing, but also why – what are their policies, who their allies are, what is the alternative program and strategy and who your potential allies are. In this regard, there are a few points.
As our article last year on the longshore (largely fanciful but completely accurate) made clear, the main issue is the “team concept” or “partnership” that every single union leadership operates by. On the job, they think they have to keep the bosses happy and help them make profits, and the only way to do that is to give ground on wages, working conditions and union power on the job. Politically, the same concept is applied through their total dependence on the corporate controlled Democratic Party.
The Mood inside the unions
Several speakers at Tuesday’s meeting referred to the lack of willingness of many members to really fight. As one speaker commented, “The power we have on the water front is not being exercised…. A lot of our brothers and sisters just don’t get it.” Well, of course not. The union leadership has had over 75 years of trying to repress the fighting traditions of the union struggle, including the 1934 San Francisco general strike. Because that power that the speaker referred to has not been called upon by the leadership, like an unused muscle the power has atrophied. Not only that, but the union leadership has done everything in its power to isolate, intimidate and even if necessary run out of the industry any members who still hold to and advance those fighting traditions.
Ferguson and a Break in the Mood
In every single union, those who want to see a real fight report how isolated they feel, how the rest of the membership “just doesn’t care”. In other words, the 75 year campaign waged by both Corporate America and the union leadership has had a huge effect within the union membership. So where will a break in the mood come from?
Despite the fact that this was a meeting called to discuss this particular union contract, several of the ILWU speakers themselves referred to something that on the surface seems completely unconnected: Ferguson. This shows that what’s happening there, and related events around the country, has deeply penetrated the consciousness of many workers – especially black and Latino workers. The battles that are being fought around that issue are immensely important for all union members.
That’s why one UAW worker in Ferguson reported to this writer last August that his own local union leader had told him “this is not our battle.” The reality is that the leadership is terrified of how this struggle will affect “their” members.
One speaker at Tuesday’s meeting urged the membership to “speak up, ask questions” about the contract. He was right, of course, but we have to go beyond that; we have to organize opposition caucuses within the unions. Organize within the unions for:
- Oppose the “team concept” – the idea that the bosses and the workers are on the same team; this only adds to the race to the bottom.
- Instead, unite all workers in any industry, regardless of what union they are in, or if they are in no union, and also regardless of what country they work in.
- Link up with the community struggles, including the struggle against racism and police brutality and the community-based struggles against destruction of our environment (especially fracking. (See this interview, for example)
- For a return to the traditions of the 1930s – open defiance of the police and the courts, mass picket lines, work place occupations, etc.
That is the outline, the beginnings of a program that can start to unite those inside the unions see the need to change their unions and build a real workers’ movement to reverse the bosses’ offensive.