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From the August/September issue of UDR, #137:

Spotlight on ILA Longshoremen

by Carl Biers

In January last year, when 500 South Carolina state troopers and police marched into Charleston to intimidate 150 members of International Longshoremen Local 1422 who were peacefully picketing a shipping company, Ken Riley, president of this almost entirely African-American local, got the message. The grossly disproportionate show of force, the altercation it provoked, and the draconian felony charges against five ILA members delivered the warning: Stay in your place. Under Riley's leadership, the local had become too much of a threat to the state's anti-union forces, too active in organizing, too much a player in progressive politics. In sum, too aggressive in the workplace and too much an actor on broad issues of social justice.

It is Riley's organizing ability that has turned the cause of the Charleston Five into a national issue for union activists. Under his leadership, local members take inspiration from the civil rights battle in this heart of the Confederacy. They have rallied national and international support for the victims, raised $300,000 for legal defense, exposed an anti-union crackdown reminiscent of an earlier era. On June 6, more than 5,000 union supporters, including John Sweeney and Jesse Jackson, demonstrated at the statehouse to protest the felony charges. Under Riley's leadership, Local 1422 serves as an actual model in the labor movement for what Sweeney only hopes for: dynamic, militant, inspiring minorities, organizing, forming community coalitions. But there is more to this story than a battle to defend a union. Ken Riley and his brother Leonard, and dozens of other ILA members are engaged on another front, virtually unknown even to the activists who are supporting the Charleston Five. The Rileys are leaders of the Workers Coalition, an internal union caucus that seeks greater democracy and militancy in the ILA. The ILA leadership has responded with a heavy hand to this challenge. And so, while the leaders of Local 1422 must defend their members from repression by state officials, they are also forced to defend their rights within their international union.

Some background: The ILA has a checkered past. In the 1950's, after widespread revelations of heavy mob infiltration of the union and major companies, a Waterfront Commission took over control of the industry. In 1986, one Senate Committee listed the ILA as one the four most racketeer infested unions. Over the years, there were indictments and convictions of union officials on corruption charges.

Even now, the ILA shows signs of a bloated bureaucracy. With fewer than 60,000 longshore members, several officers each make over $300,000 a year. General Organizer Leonard Frank topped the salary list with $372,101. With salary and expenses, Secretary Treasurer Robert Gleason raked in $404,116.

The Workers Coalition criticism of the ILA international administration has a familiar ring. The group, founded in 1988, charges that the ILA international lacks accountability to the membership, that it negotiates concessionary contracts, that its failure to organize has led to an "erosion of jurisdiction" and a proliferation of shipping companies using nonunion labor. The coalition calls for the direct election of international officers by the membership to replace the present system of election by delegates at conventions. Direct elections, they contend, will force the leadership to be more responsive and bring back better contracts.

However, it was the events in Charleston that exacerbated the conflict between the international and the officers of Local 1422, who are also leaders of the Workers Coalition.

The Charleston longshoremen were picketing Nordana, a Danish shipping company, that had dumped the ILA so that it could employ nonunion workers at a fraction of the union rate. Leonard Riley charges that the international made no effort to organize informational picketing at other east coast ports where ILA members continued to work Nordana ships that had been loaded by scabs in Charleston. Nordana was forced to rehire ILA longshoremen only when dockworkers in Spain refused to work its ships. It was the Local 1422 leaders who reached out for the international support.

According to Jack Heyman, a local officer of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union---the ILA's west coast counterpart---who has been organizing support for the Charleston Five, ILA International President John Bowers waited until March 2001, over a year after the event, to make a public statement in support of the Five. Riley says the support from the AFL-CIO, the ILWU, and dockworkers in other countries finally shamed the ILA to take its belated action. The ILA has not contributed to the legal defense fund set up by Local 1422. Bowers answered criticism in a letter that appeared in the ILA newsletter. He replied that the ILA made efforts to settle the dispute with Nordana. The international, he said, has established its own defense fund for the Five and refused to contribute to the Local 1422 fund, becaue, he says, the union's attorneys advised that it would be improper for the International to do so. (ILA spokesperson James McNamara would offer no comment on the Workers Coalition other than Bowers's letter.)

Meanwhile, the ILA administration has opened war against the Workers Coalition. The ILA international executive committee and one regional body have unanimously passed a resolution condemning the Coalition. Bowers also implied in his letter that the Workers Coalition was exploiting the plight of the Charleston Five to raise money for itself, an accusation which they deny. The administration, however, has more than the power of words at its disposal. After Leonard Riley was elected trustee of Local 1422 he was declared ineligible as a supervisor; but, he protests, ILA members in a similar positions have been allowed to run and hold office. Other coalition supporters Wilmington, Delaware face charges for using the union's "ILA" acronym in their literature without the international's permission. Michael Goldberg, their attorney, says this restriction, written in the ILA constitution, is almost certainly illegal. One coalition supporter has been removed from local office, suspended for three years. The charges are an assortment of trivia and alleged minor offenses. In combination, they reveal a concerted effort to crush an opposition movement.

Stripped of its complexity, the longhoremen's experience reminds us of the link between workplace rights, social justice, and union democracy.

from the UDR (Union Democracy Review), published by the AUD
(Association for Union Democracy)
500 State Street Brooklyn NY 11217, 718-855-6650,,

"Union Democracy--For a Strong Labor Movement"

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