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By Dick Meister

The AFL-CIO's drive to revitalize the labor movement is looking a lot stronger thanks in part to the San Francisco-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

The ILWU -- long one of the nation's most progressive, innovative and influential unions -- has joined with the New York-based International Longshoremen's Association and the Teamsters Union in a campaign to organize some 50,000 highly exploited workers at western, eastern and Gulf Coast ports.

The workers, many of them immigrants, are the port truck drivers who haul the containers of goods unloaded at the ports by longshoremen to warehouses and terminals inland for transit by Teamster drivers and others to their ultimate destinations.

Their pay and working conditions are among the country's very worst. They're paid less than $8 an hour, far less than Teamsters, warehousemen and longshoremen, and rarely have health insurance, pension rights or any other benefits. They must cover their own expenses, including fuel costs, and often are required to spend many unpaid hours waiting for loads or even cleaning shipping containers that sometimes are contaminated with unlabeled toxic materials.

Employers treat the workers as "independent contractors" with no rights but to accept whatever is demanded of them. If they complain, they risk being fired and blacklisted.

The joint campaign to organize them is one of the largest undertaken by AFL-CIO affiliates since the labor federation set out in 1995 to reverse the steady decline in the percentage of U.S. workers who belong to unions. It's aimed at winning Teamster Union contracts for all the port truck drivers -- to "bring justice to these workers," as Teamster President James P. Hoffa says, "and make our ports 100 percent union ... wall-to-wall union."

The campaign is also part of a movement to bring the ILWU, its eastern counterpart and the Teamsters into closer alliance. In setting up the campaign, the three unions -- often in conflict in the past over how to divide dock work among them -- pledged "mutual support for each others' jurisdictions in the face of continuing onslaughts from the employers," notes ILWU President James Spinosa.

"This is the time when transportation unions have to stick together to protect our place on the docks," Spinosa adds. "We are responding with the strongest weapon workers have -- solidarity."

It might seem unlikely that the politically left-wing and highly democratic ILWU would join forces with the generally conservative and once highly undemocratic and corrupt Teamsters and International Longshoremen's Association. But both those unions, while still hardly models of union purity, have cleaned up their operations considerably.

Other matters, in any case, have usually counted more in the ILWU's relations with other unions. "Solidarity Forever" is more than a song to the ILWU, which generally has held that whatever their faults, unions should join together to deal with their common adversaries, be they anti-labor employers or anti-labor representatives of government.

ILWU and Teamster locals that both represent northern California warehousemen, for example, have bargained jointly with employers since the 1950s, using their combined strength to win superior contracts and, as Spinosa says, keep employers "from whipsawing us against each other."

Even thg ILWU's legendary founding president, Harry Bridges, sought to merge the fiercely independent and proudly uncorrupt union into a federation with the Teamsters and East Coast longshoremen at a time when those unions were wallowing in corruption.

Bridges was hoping to strengthen his and other unions. And now the unions are taking important steps toward not only adding to their own strength but also providing thousands of non-union workers the strength of unionization that's essential if they are to have the decent working lives we all deserve.

Copyright c 2002 Dick Meister, a freelance columnist in San Francisco who has covered labor issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator.

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