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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.

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.

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