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ILWU Alums Tackle Labor Power And Strategy Questions

Above photo: ILWU Local 10 marching against police terror on May Day 2015, Oakland, California.

Workers in the logistics industry often make headlines when their handling of goods is disrupted by pandemic conditions or labor conflicts. Thanks to global supply chains, many consumer products are now manufactured in one country, shipped by sea, rail, or air to another country, unloaded and trucked to huge distribution centers (aka “warehouses”), and then delivered to retail store chains or directly to customers at home by on-line retailers like Amazon. When workers in any one link in this supply chain have a fight with their boss—on the docks, at a trucking company or railroad, or even in a single newly organized warehouse—their chances of winning are greater if they occupy a strategic “choke point” or can enlist labor allies, at home or abroad, who do.

The obstacles to developing such union leverage are well illustrated in two new books by former SF-based staff members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).  From its founding, after the San Francisco general strike of 1934, to the present day, this union has displayed great workplace militancy and affinity for progressive causes, at home and abroad. In 2016, for example, the Longshore Union became one of only seven national labor organizations (three of them based in California) to support Bernie Sanders’ first presidential campaign. In 2020, ILWU members walked off the job in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protests. Unfortunately, like much bigger blue-collar unions, the ILWU’s core membership has aged and shrunk due to technological change, industry restructuring, and job elimination through attrition.

For most of the last twenty years, it has remained below 40,000, half of which consists of dockworkers in 29 west coast ports covered by a master agreement with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA). That contract expired last July 1, which has led some shippers to shift cargo to East and Gulf Coast ports, where the workforce is represented by the International Longshoremen’s Association, a more conservative union affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

The co-authors of Labor Under Siege: The ILWU’s Fight for Organized Labor in an Anti-Union Era (University of Washington Press) are the late labor historian Ronald Magden and Harvey Schwartz, curator of the ILWU’s Oral History collection who has done two previous books on the union or its members. Labor Under Siege  recounts, in highly laudatory fashion, the colorful career of Robert (“Big Bob”) McEllrath, a six foot four second-generation longshoreman and former boxer who served as national union president between 2006 and 2018.

In Labor Power and Strategy (PM Press), former ILWU Organizing Director Peter Olney has collaborated with Harvard University Professor John Womack and labor researcher Glenn Perusek on a more wide-ranging book. It explores how unions can fight back “in industries as disparate as manufacturing, construction, or education,” with a particular focus on “strategic action by the working class” in logistics.”

“Sustainabiity” or “Self-Satisfied Sectionalism”?

The strength of Labor Under Siege lies in what the author calls an oral history-based “view of how decisions were taken and policy carried out to ensure the ILWU’s sustainability during a challenging time for all of labor.” Olney and Perusek hail their fellow contributors as “some of the best organic intellectuals of the working class.” But none of these labor academics, journalists, or union organizers ever held elected union office above the local level. And, for better or worse, in the U.S. labor movement, major decisions about organizing, bargaining, and strike strategy are generally not made by “intellectuals” with the best analysis or biggest ideas, as helpful as they may be.

Instead, in the ILWU and other unions far less internally democratic, union policy is shaped by elected officers like “Big Bob” who come up from the ranks. They remain within the same organization for their entire career and build the membership following necessary to win elections at the local, regional, and then national level. Assessing McEllrath’s nearly 40-year career in multiple roles, Schwartz and Magden give him high marks for making sure “the union persevered,” in the face of “grave threats from corporate employers, government officials, law enforcement agents, legal challenges and even other unions.”

They acknowledge that the ILWU “did not always achieve unqualified success in every strike or lock-out,” and gains made in its on-going struggle with the PMA over waterfront automation were “useful but limited.”  Nevertheless, they believe that McEllrath helped the union “retain much of its earlier cohesion and vibrancy, especially in its core dockside jurisdiction.”

The past ILWU activists, who contributed to Labor Power and Strategy are more critical of their former employer, while greatly admiring its ability to “bring a marine terminal to a halt and threaten the delivery of millions of dollars of merchandise” with a single picket line. Despite longshore labor’s “powerful present and historical position on the docks,” Olney left the ILWU in 2013 disappointed that, as organizing director, he was not able to “motivate or inspire the union to once again ‘march inland’ as it had done in the 1930s and 1940s, consolidating its strategic flanks by organizing warehousing and some manufacturing, all related to the flow of goods in and out of the ports.”

Supply Chain Challenges

One model initiative, inspired by that history, was a five-year unionization effort among 500 Rite Aid workers at the company’s Southwest Distribution Center in Lancaster, CA (a campaign also recounted in Labor Under Siege). The ILWU won a first contract there but failed to take up “the supply chain challenge” elsewhere due to what Olney calls its “self-satisfied sectionalism.”

In his contribution to Labor Power and Strategy, Carey Dall, who spent 15 years as an ILWU Local 10 activist and later full-time organizer, finds similar fault with “the last of the truly left-wing unions” (but one now displaying a “reflexive progressivism without any strategic foundation”). According to Dall, the PMA “has perfected the art of ensnarling the ILWU in defensive fights over jurisdiction and contract violations, removing resources that could be used for organizing and research in any strategic vision of maritime cargo supply chains.” He believes that the union leadership’s resulting “singular focus on the waterfront terminal” has kept Longshore Division members from shaking “off the limitations of craft unionism in order to wield their great economic power to transform conditions for workers further down the supply chain in trucking, warehousing and retail.”

Like Dall, Womack and other contributors to the book offer their own strategies for going on the offensive and deploying union resources differently. A labor historian, Womack believes that the “greatest move forward for US labor” to build “nationally strategic industrial power” would be a mega-merger between the ILWU, the ILA, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the International Association of Machinists, and the United Transportation Union, creating a single “Transport and General Workers Union,” of the sort which exists in the U.K. and other countries.  The formation of one big union in transportation, warehousing, and logistics seems unlikely, given the amount of inter-union conflict chronicled, at length, in Labor Under Siege.

Obstacles to Consolidation

Despite past rank-and-file networking and solidarity, the east and west coast longshore unions are unlikely partners, due to their very different union culture. The IAM has yet to consolidate, even with other manufacturing unions like the Steel Workers and Auto Workers. The UTU has been more marriage minded, having succeeded in uniting four smaller and separate railroad craft unions before joining forces with the Sheet Metal Workers in an amalgamation that has yet to include other railroad workers or other national unions representing more mass transit workers. As for the Teamsters, they have been an historical nemesis of the ILWU, luring warehouse workers away from it via the periodic “raiding” described by Schwartz and Magden.

The ILWU is not even currently affiliated with the national AFL-CIO, having quit in 2013 for multiple reasons, including its failure to discourage picket-line crossing by fellow affiliates like the Operating Engineers.  As reported in Labor Under Siege, a waterfront employer in Longview, Washington got critical help from that building trades union in a jurisdictional fight that the authors call “the most important battle of McEllrath’s career as ILWU president because of its length and bitterness.” Several years later, after an Oregon show-down with a global company called International Container Terminal Services, Inc. (ICTSI), the ILWU and its Portland local was hit with a huge damage suit, which resulted in a jury award of $94 million, later reduced to $19 million. Because the ICTSI litigation “threatened the union’s solvency,” it remained “a serious challenge that continued beyond Bob’s presidency” while the case is under appeal.

In the absence of top-down consolidation–between unions facing more routine threats to their financial survival (like not having enough dues payers to pay the bills any longer)–Womack suggests a Plan B. That consists of “joint internal organizing” that links insurgent workers in the same industry who have long been divided along craft lines. The best working example of that approach lately is the cross-union caucus known as Railroad Workers United (RWU), which recruits among 12 different rail industry labor organizations.

RWU has gained greater traction lately amid a threatened national strike, rank-and-file resistance to a federally imposed settlement lacking sufficient paid sick days and now growing public concern about rail safety due to the disastrous derailment of Norfolk Southern “bomb trains” in East Palestine, Ohio (which created a temporary “choke point” for sure). The strength of RWU lies not in its embrace of any “Big Bobs” in the rail labor leadership or reliance on “organic labor intellectuals” (although the group contains more than a few). Instead, it has spent many years building strong ties between workers who would otherwise have remained isolated, divided, and “represented” solely by fragmented and often dysfunctional union bureaucracies. That’s a still a long way from the “one big union” in the rail industry that Eugene Victor Debs helped to create at a meeting in Chicago 130 years ago this winter. But the spirit of industrial union solidarity behind that strategic innovation—the sadly short-lived American Railway Union– continues to animate the work of the RWU today.

SteveEarlyis a former International Union representative for the Communications Workers of America, a member of the NewsGuild/CWA, and the author of five-books about labor and politics. He can be reached at

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