ILWU quits AFL-CIO over scabbing
Longshore union pulls out of national AFL-CIO, citing attacks at Northwest grain terminals
by Richard Read
The West Coast longshore union is pulling out of the national AFL-CIO, citing "attacks" in which the umbrella organization's members blatantly cross picket lines at Northwest grain terminals.
Robert "Big Bob" McEllrath, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, broke the news in a letter obtained by The Oregonian Friday. In the three-page letter sent Thursday, McEllrath told AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka the ILWU would sever its 25-year affiliation with the federation, cutting formal ties because organization members sabotaged dock workers.
The defection exposes a major schism in organized labor as well as the increasingly embattled status of the dockworkers' union, a financially pressed organization threatened by automation that shrinks its base of almost 60,000 dues-paying members. Northwest conflicts, such as a 2011 challenge by an AFL-CIO affiliate that tried to displace longshoremen at a new grain terminal in Longview, Wash., are central to the historic fallout.
McEllrath sent the letter a day after a federal administrative law judge issued a withering decision directing the San Francisco-based longshore union to stop disrupting Port of Portland operations and to quit seeking work that the judge said belonged to another AFL-CIO affiliate, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. McEllrath didn't mention the decision, but he cited numerous other perceived offenses as well as disenchantment with the AFL-CIO on policy issues ranging from taxes to immigration.
"We will not let other affiliates jeopardize our survival and block our future as the primary waterfront workforce," McEllrath wrote.
The ILWU pullout portends more turmoil on the West Coast waterfront and resulting disruptions in international trade. The bitter Portland standoff tied up freight for months last year and caused international cargo vessels to bypass the city.
National AFL-CIO officers could not be reached late Friday. But Tom Chamberlain, Oregon AFL-CIO president said he felt the ILWU defection was related partly to the Port of Portland dispute -- ostensibly over the equivalent of a couple of jobs, but involving broader turf battles.
Chamberlain called the longshore pullout discouraging. "We'll continue to support our brothers and sisters in the ILWU," he said. "They've been a good affiliate of ours."
As an affiliate since 1988, the ILWU passed on a portion of its dues receipts to the AFL-CIO, a national federation of unions with more than 12 million members.
McEllrath, an elected president who rose from a Vancouver local, found just one positive thing to say to Trumka, thanking him for helping in 2002 longshore contract negotiations. The rest of the letter lambasted the AFL-CIO and its chapters, saying that since 2008, "we have seen a growing surge of attacks from various affiliates."
A "particularly outrageous raid occurred in 2011," McEllrath wrote, "when one affiliate slipped in to fill longshore jobs at the new EGT grain facility in the port of Longview, Wash., and then walked through ILWU picket lines for six months until we were able to secure this critical longshore jurisdiction."
"Your office added insult to injury by issuing a directive to the Oregon State Federation to rescind its support of the ILWU fight at EGT," he wrote, "which threatened to be the first marine terminal on the West Coast to go non-ILWU."
McEllrath cited offenses by other affiliates in Los Angeles, Oakland, Tacoma and Seattle.
"Throughout the Pacific Northwest," he wrote, "we are daily seeing still other affiliates blatantly cross the picket lines of ILWU members who have been locked out for months by the regional grain industry."
In that dispute, terminal owners in Portland and Vancouver have shut out dockworkers, trying to make the ILWU accept contract terms closer to those the union was forced to accept in Longview. Conditions on the picket lines have turned nasty. Washington Agriculture Department officials said this week they would stop inspecting grain at United Grain Corp. in Vancouver if security did not improve.
Longshore union leaders feel particular pressure as they prepare for West Coast labor negotiations with the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents cargo carriers, terminal operators and stevedores.
"We see this situation only getting worse as the ILWU is about to start West Coast longshore negotiations and face the challenge of the ports soon being run by robotics and computer-operated machinery over the next five to 10 years," McEllrath wrote. "The survival of the ILWU and the job security of our members depend on our having these remaining jobs."
The ILWU defection comes at an embarrassing time for the AFL-CIO, as the federation prepares to kick off a national conference Sept. 9 in Los Angeles that occurs every four years. A major theme of the convention is expanding membership and inclusion.
Chamberlain, of the Oregon AFL-CIO, said the ILWU pullout flies in the face of a recent trend in which estranged affiliates have returned to the fold. Trumka, the national president, worked hard to bring back laborers and hotel and food workers numbering in the millions, he said.
"Trumka's got a track record of mending fences and bringing people back," Chamberlain said. "Hopefully he can use some of that talent with the ILWU to find out what the true issues are and bring them back."
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