Longshore Union Quits the AFL-CIO


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 line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> 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.”

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>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 line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>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— line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>.

Despite the militancy, the EGT contract loosened work rules and staffing standards compared to the master grain contract.

The solo agreement with TEMCO mirrored some of these concessions. But the employer holdouts are banking that they can spread more of the concessions EGT got, such as regular 12-hour shifts, bypassing seniority, and greater flexibility to use supervisors for bargaining unit work.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Solidarity Divided

ILWU members see the turf battles with rival unions as an additional, unwelcome hurdle to surmount, in an already difficult employer battle.

Attempts to bridge the divisions using the machinery of the AFL-CIO have sputtered, according to Cager Clabaugh, president of ILWU Local 4. One particularly galling example for Clabaugh, a former state fed vice president, was a move to scuttle discussion of the conflicts at the Washington state AFL-CIO convention in July.

“We’re at the state labor convention for three days, a half-mile from the picket line of my membership where we’ve been locked out for five months, and nobody’s even brought up our lockout, not once,” Clabaugh said. “Our resolution gets shot down, not even considered. We can’t even talk about labor inside the house of labor, and that’s wrong.

“It made me sick watching these big unions play politics instead of figure out a way to support solidarity.” Clabaugh said. “If only as much focus and effort was put on trying to figure out a way to let their members do the right thing, or even educate members on why we don’t cross picket lines, why it’s important.”

For Clabaugh, the state AFL-CIO’s focus on decorum rather than the needs of its members helps explain why many ILWU members are frustrated enough to support disaffiliation.

“When I go down to the picket line, my members are asking me, what good is being in the central labor council, or state labor council, or national labor council, if we’re gonna watch union members walk in hand in hand with strikebreakers?"

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Unity-Disunity

On the national stage, the ILWU pullout casts a shadow over the AFL-CIO’s efforts to reassemble the House of Labor.

In 2005, seven unions—spearheaded by SEIU and the newly-merged UNITE HERE—formed a rival federation, Change to Win. The new alliance pledged to spend 75 percent of its resources organizing the unorganized.

But the fanfare was short-lived. A bitter internal struggle gripped SEIU in 2008, leading to a trusteeship of its third-largest local, and the union subsequently went to war with its long-time ally UNITE HERE.

The 250,000-member UNITE HERE left Change to Win and rejoined the AFL-CIO in 2009. They were followed by the 575,000-member Laborers union (LIUNA) in 2010.

And this summer the 1.3 million-member Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) followed suit.

The disaffiliation highlights tensions, simmering just below the AFL-CIO’s surface, over the federation’s relationship to the Obama administration despite its spotty workers’ rights record. The news creates at least the opening for a discussion of these tensions at next week’s convention.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Winning Strategy?

But whether or not the ILWU’s exit gooses convention delegates to cross-examine, rather than cheerlead, 150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
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mark@labornotes.org 

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