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Longshore Workers Solidarity Strike Settlement Raises Questions For Future Union Actions

A Bay Area union with a long history of progressive action settles a lawsuit over its Wisconsin solidarity action this April, but some of the workers question the agreement.
 
 
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Four months ago, longshore workers shut down the ports of San Francisco and Oakland in solidarity with workers in Wisconsin and across the country whose collective bargaining rights have come under attack.  The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which is made up of longshore employers, responded with a federal court lawsuit against the workers’ union, International Longshore and Warehouse Workers Union (ILWU) Local 10.  In an interview yesterday, Local 10’s president publicly acknowledged for the first time that PMA and Local 10 have agreed to a settlement.  Workers will be discussing it at a membership meeting tonight – and some will be questioning whether the union gave away too much, and why they didn’t get to vote on it.

A Powerful Action

When the AFL-CIO called for a national day of solidarity actions on April 4, union members in some cities held demonstrations, while others did informational leafleting to the public.  But Bay Area longshore workers were the only ones to shut down their workplaces by refusing to come to work.  

PMA charges that Local 10’s leadership instigated the work stoppage, in violation of the union contract.  Union members and officers say that workers decided on the action at a union meeting without prodding from union officers.  Local 10 Executive Board member Marcus Holder says workers took the action because “they really felt like the times demanded it, and they had a responsibility to do it as longshoremen and workers, following in the tradition of our union.”

Two arbitrators issued decisions finding that Local 10 leadership had instigated a work stoppage in violation of the contract.  Had the case not been settled, either side could have appealed the most recent arbitration decision.

Local 10 members have a long and unparalleled history of industrial solidarity actions, including refusal to handle boycotted grapes or ship weapons to Pinochet’s Chilean dictatorship, and shutdowns of the ports in protest of apartheid, the WTO, and police brutality.

Trent Willis, a seventeen-year crane operator, says well over 90% of workers participated in the April 4 action, including most new workers as well as old-timers.  He says workers took part, even though some were scared of retaliation, because they understand that what’s happening to public sector workers “is what our employers are trying to do to us.”  Anthony Leviege, who took part in the action, says it was “hard for [union officials] to discourage it because the membership felt so strongly about it, it took on a life of its own…People decided on their own not to go to work.”

Reached by phone in May, Ken Riley, President of Local 1422 of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) in South Carolina, praised ILWU Local 10’s action as a national example for the labor movement.  “No one took concrete action as far as work stoppage or anything other than Local 10,” he said.  Riley called for the rest of the labor movement to follow Local 10’s example.

Riley’s local is one of many organizations and individuals who came out in support of the workers’ action and against PMA’s lawsuit, including the South Central Federation of Labor in Wisconsin, the World Federation of Trade Unions, and former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich.  Within weeks after PMA initiated its lawsuit, hundreds of people demonstrated outside its headquarters in the rain in protest.  In mid-May, (as I first reported at In These Times) workers said they were told at their monthly membership meeting that the PMA had verbally suggested a settlement.

A Controversial Settlement

At its June meeting, the local’s executive board voted 11-9 in favor of a settlement proposal (with 15 board members absent).  Following the executive board vote, a vote on the settlement was put on the agenda for the next week’s membership meeting.  But Local 10 President Richard Mead says that “We didn’t get to it” at June’s membership meeting because of a packed agenda, and that nothing could be done at the July meeting for lack of a quorum.  Asked yesterday about reports that he had told executive board members at their August 9 meeting that he was proceeding with the settlement, Mead acknowledged that he had told the union’s lawyers last month to sign off on an agreement.

Once it became clear that there was no quorum at the July meeting, Mead says, the union’s attorney asked him what to do.  “And I just turned to her and said, ‘Pursue a settlement.’”  He says he received word last week that the settlement had been completed.  Asked what would have happened if there had been a membership vote in June or July to reject the settlement, Mead responded, “We would’ve done whatever the membership said.”

There’s nothing unusual about a union settling a lawsuit without a membership referendum. But moving forward with this settlement violates the expectations of some members – and the previously stated intentions of union leadership.

In a phone interview August 4 – two weeks after Mead says he had told the lawyers to sign a settlement -- Local 10 Secretary-Treasurer Farless Daily said that there would be a vote on the proposal at the August membership meeting. Daily said then that he was reserving judgment about it pending more information from lawyers.  But he expressed concern that PMA could be attempting “to tie our hands so that we can’t do another job action in the future.”  Echoing others, Daily said that the current PMA offer was worse than what PMA attorneys had verbally suggested earlier.  “We were ready to settle the lawsuit before they added this language” he said.  Daily said that the membership’s vote would be “binding.”

Reached on his office phone August 16 and asked about reports that there would be no membership vote, Daily said that he was heading out of state to move his daughter into college and had no time to comment this week.

Willis, a former Local 10 President and current Executive Board member, says he’s troubled that “the group didn’t get an opportunity to make a decision.”  He says that the executive board’s “purpose is to set legislation for the membership to vote on,” and so when there was no membership vote on the settlement in July, he assumed there would be one in August.  Echoing others, Willis says members take pride in their local being “one of, if not the most, democratic unions in America.”

Leviege, another member of the Executive Board, charges that Mead “took it upon himself to strike a deal with PMA.”  Leviege and others expressed concern that a settlement validating an arbitrator’s ruling that the union instigated an illegal work stoppage would make it easier for PMA to secure legal injunctions against future work actions.  “Like everything with PMA,” said Leviege, “once they’ve got something in writing, they’ll use that the next time.”

Leviege, who attended the July membership meeting, says he believes that the necessary 150 members were present, and that ILWU leadership intentionally called for quorum while some people were out of the room as “a set-up” to prevent members from vote down the settlement.  Mead says the officers waited over 90 minutes for a quorum but no more than 120 people were there.

Leviege said that too much of the current ILWU leadership sees industrial action as “the old way of fighting” that’s been replaced by political action and demonstrations, and worries too much about legal liability.  “If that’s the case,” he asked, “how are we ever going to be able to do anything?  Because all the laws are against workers, so how are we ever going to be able to protect ourselves?”

Jack Heyman, a Local 10 retiree and a leader of the Committee to Defend Local 10, which was gathering pledges to support the local against the lawsuit, charges that Mead moved to “usurp” the “authority of the rank and file.”

Nine ILWU Local 10 members, including Willis and Leviege, signed a letter released last month which called for members to reject the proposed settlement and accused the officers of the ILWU International of downplaying the lawsuit and pressing Local 10 to make a deal.

Mead denies that the international union exerted any pressure on the local to settle the case.  Rather, he says, the local’s motivation was avoiding “the risk of court,” where a judge could have issued an injunction barring future work stoppages.  Mead describes it as a “simple settlement,” “in line with” settlements the union has agreed to in past disputes.  He says it “states that the arbitrations are confirmed and enforced by the courts.”  “I would really like to see Local 10 put its energies and resources into recalling” Scott Walker, Mead adds.  “Instead of putting money and time and energy and having people rally around Local 10, let’s rally around Wisconsin, because that’s where the fight is.”

Mead says that his hand was forced by a deadline to tell the court whether or not the union was reaching a settlement.  Leviege responds that Mead should have insisted on more time “to bring it to the highest power in the union,” the membership.

Neither ILWU International nor the PMA responded to requests for comment.  Two other executive board members declined to discuss the settlement prior to tonight’s membership meeting.  Leviege and Willis both said they intend to speak up at the meeting about the lack of a vote.

Future Fights

“There’s got to be way more action taken to protect our jobs and our security,” says Leviege, to stop management from “slowly but surely taking our jurisdiction at every angle.”  The flyer he and others signed warns that PMA and other longshore employers throughout the region are maneuvering to deny ILWU members their work.  It highlights the example of Columbia River in Washington State.  There the employer, EGT Grain, tried to move a trainload of grain without ILWU members, and workers responded by blockading railroad tracks.  

“Unless we begin to fight back using job actions – like the Longview action – our longshore jurisdiction on the waterfront will be gone before this contract expires,” the flyer warns.  “There’s no difference between what’s happening to our brothers in Longview and what’s happening to workers in Wisconsin,” says Willis, because in both places workers are forced to fight to defend a principle: “When it’s our jurisdiction, you have to negotiate with us.”

Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. He worked as a union organizer for five years. Check out his blog or follow him on Twitter.
 
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