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Longshore Workers Union Quits the AFL-CIO

Breakup offers the Longshore workers a chance to stand for principles over bureaucratic decorum.

In a surprise move, the 40,000-member International Longshore and Warehouse Union announced its disaffiliation from the AFL-CIO yesterday. The news comes just a week before the federation is set to hold its national convention in Los Angeles, the nation’s biggest port and an ILWU stronghold.

The ILWU, known for its militant traditions and progressive politics, has been drawn into turf wars with other unions in recent years—particularly in the grain export terminals of the Pacific Northwest, where longshore workers have been locked in a high-stakes battle over master contract standards since 2011.

In an  August 29 letter to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, ILWU President Robert McEllrath cited these ongoing juristictional battles as part of the union’s decision to disaffiliate. The skirmishes hit close to home: McEllrath comes out of Vancouver, Washington’s Local 4, where members of rival unions are crossing ILWU picket lines, and debate over the disputes was squelched at this summer’s state labor convention.

The letter also cited the federation’s compromised positions on health care and immigration reform. Invoking the union’s radical and independent history, McEllrath noted the ILWU did not join the AFL-CIO until 1988—after being kicked out of the CIO during the McCarthy era for being “too red.”

Lockstep with Obama

“[The AFL-CIO] wants to organize these big conventions, and rally to pat themselves on the back, doing nothing to promote the working-class,” said ILWU Coast Committeeman, Leal Sundet, who supported the union’s decision to disaffiliate.

The ILWU supports a national single-payer health care system, while the AFL-CIO is “in lockstep with Obama,” Sundet said. He criticized the federation for being unwilling to discuss the shortcomings of the Affordable Care Act, which  discriminates against union Taft-Hartley benefit plans and will impose a so-called “Cadillac tax” on generous benefit plans.

Sundet also chided the federation’s position on immigration reform. The AFL-CIO is backing a bill that he contends  will only make things harder for working-class immigrants, because it is “designed to give [only] highly-paid workers a real path to citizenship.”

It’s clear, however, that the overriding factor in the break is fallout from the ILWU’s ongoing struggle to maintain its longstanding contract standards—and jurisdiction—for 3,000 longshore workers who handle grain along the Puget Sound and Columbia River. Sundet is in the middle of the storm, heading up grain negotiations for the union.

Grain Strain

Longshore workers in the region move nearly 30 percent of all U.S. grain exports, including half the nation’s wheat shipments.

After talks broke down in December between the ILWU and the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, two of the four employers—United Grain and Columbia Grain— imposed their “last, best, and final offer,” in hopes of provoking a strike. Meanwhile the union hammered out a separate deal with TEMCO, a joint venture between global agribusiness companies CHS and Cargill.

In February,  United Grain locked out ILWU Local 4 members in Vancouver, Washington. In May, Columbia Grain did likewise with ILWU Local 8 members in Portland, Oregon.

In both cases ILWU members have been rankled by Electrical Workers (IBEW) and other union members crossing their picket lines, escorted in by the company’s private security forces. Adding insult to injury, the IBEW has initiated internal AFL-CIO procedures to contest ILWU jurisdiction over maintenance and repair work in multiple ports in the region.

The lockouts follow on the heels of a pitched battle over 25 jobs in Longview, Washington, in 2011. ILWU members squared off with grain giant EGT after the company announced it would operate its new state-of-the-art terminal with the more compliant Operating Engineers (IUOE) union. After  months of picketing and direct action—including occupation of the grain terminal, a blockaded train shipment, and scores of arrests—the ILWU  finally reached an agreement.

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