Book by Harvey Schwartz; University of Washington Press, 2009, 347 pp.
Today only 12 percent of workers belong to unions and less in the private sector—the lowest level of organization since the years before the great longshore strike of 1934. And falling numbers aren’t the whole story. Some labor leaders now say that only huge deals at the top, far from the control of rank and file workers, can bring in new members on the scale we need. To make those deals attractive to employers, they argue, unions have to be willing to make deep concessions in wages and rights and in our political demands on everything from single-payer health care to immigration reform.
We need some better ideas about how unions should organize; to rethink even what a union actually is. That’s why Solidarity Stories by Harvey Schwartz is so important. Here, in the history of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, we can see some alternatives. Solidarity Stories is a remarkable achievement. Workers give gripping testimony about the conditions they hoped to change and explain how they did it. We hear how the union was organized and how it functioned from those who built it.
Harry Bridges, the West Coast’s most famous labor leader, begins with the story of the 1934 waterfront strike. While the history is familiar to many labor activists and ILWU members, what’s unique is Bridges’s voice. He doesn’t talk like a "labor statesman," although by the end of his life, when the interview took place, employers and politicians tried to treat him as one. But "in office," he says, "I always felt that the ones that direct everything is the rank and file. And I’m its spokesman, that’s all. The rank and file is the power of the union, see? They’re the ones that can shut things down."
Without the 1934 maritime strike, and the three days in San Francisco when nothing moved without the workers’ permission, the union would never have gained the power it needed to make radical changes. And that was the goal—not just any agreement or the ability to collect dues. Not just a list of workers who were members on paper, but who knew nothing about how to organize and use their power. Bridges describes those beginning demands. "We went to our rank and file convention that February," he recalls of the months before the strike. "We drew up a set of demands and came out with a program to set up committees, to negotiate, and, if necessary, to strike. Our demands were for a six-hour day, a wage increase, and union hiring halls. So, we come out with a program and we set up a negotiating committee."
Signing a card meant a worker made a commitment to the union and to a fight against employers. Workers decided what they wanted to fight for. When the head of their own union at the time, the ILA, tried to go over their heads, the workers refused to acknowledge any agreements they hadn’t made themselves. Then, as Sam Kagel, a union advisor who later became a powerful coastwide arbitrator, recalls, they made one other crucial demand. "Once the ’34 strike began," he remembers, "and the other maritime unions went out too, the longshoremen expanded their original demands to include the requirement of a settlement for everyone." Without solidarity all along the waterfront, all along the coast, the strike would have been lost and the unions crushed.
These are not just past controversies, they are the crucial issues for labor’s future today. Some advocates for the top-down approach, for instance, say setting up committees of workers is unnecessary and slow. Further, they argue, workers in a single workplace can’t see the bigger picture and put their selfish interests above the larger interests of the union as a whole. But San Francisco’s strongest union today, hotel workers’ Unite Here Local 2, organizes like longshore workers did 60 years ago, setting up committees and battling owners for years. From 2004-2006, cooks and room cleaners endured a lockout. They went two years without a contract to win the right to negotiate in solidarity with unions in other cities and to organize freely in non-union hotels.
Longshore, transport, and warehousing have changed beyond recognition, but modern ILWU organizing campaigns are based on the same ideas—organize the workers on the job and build an organization they run themselves. Workers at RiteAid’s huge Lancaster warehouse, not staff organizers, decided when to hold (and win) their union election. In Solidarity Stories, Mary Winzig remembers the day ILWU delegates left their Portland convention to march and face down the cops when workers at Powells’ Bookstore needed their solidarity to win recognition.
The institutions born in 1934 made it possible to balance local with union-wide needs and democracy with centralized bargaining with all shipping employers on the coast. Today, longshore locals, even the smallest, elect delegates to the longshore caucus and pass resolutions on bargaining demands. These delegates hash out a program, elect the bargaining committee, and sit down with employers. Any agreement must be ratified by vote.
The ILWU pioneered other organizing ideas "rediscovered" by today’s organizers. In Hawaii, Frank Thompson, a former Wobbly, helped plantation workers set up a union organization right after signing up. When workers elected a chair of one nationality, he convinced them to include officers of other nationalities as well, to build interracial solidarity. Then, according to Lou Goldblatt, ILWU secretary-treasurer at the time, "[Thompson] would go to these plantations one by one and conduct a rehearsal election. He would put out a sample ballot, call a meeting, and say, ‘We are going to vote. Everyone gets a secret ballot’…. Well, the NLRB election results speak for themselves. We had entire plantations that voted unanimously."
But the elections were a prelude to the strike everyone knew was coming and the strike forged the union. "The ’46 strike brought all the groups together as a fighting force, where they won a major struggle for their life. We’d either get over the hump or that was it," Goldblatt recalls. "One thing winning the seventy-nine-day ’46 strike taught the sugar workers was that they could be damn self-sufficient and they could take a long beef if they had to. They could survive."
The lessons members learned in that and other strikes gave them the education they needed to reject the later red scares and Smith Act trials designed to frighten and divide them. The 1946 strike fundamentally changed the relationship between workers and Hawaii’s sugar and pineapple barons, laying the basis for the political machine that eventually won statehood.
Building solidarity among members was not an easy process and Solidarity Stories focuses on one of the biggest obstacles: racism. Black workers had to fight their way onto the waterfront, and into good jobs in warehouses. The union was their vehicle, but they had to fight for their rights in the union itself.
African Americans, for instance, came to the Los Angeles docks during WWII, but after the war the promise of continued employment was broken. The "500 unemployed" lost their jobs with the complicity of the conservative leadership in the new longshore local.
While they fought a long battle back onto the docks, one of their strongest allies was Warehouse Local 26, which helped them survive by dispatching them through its hiring hall. Some workers even sued the union, a very controversial decision. Their objective wasn’t a monetary settlement, but to become full and equal members. Change came because of the persistence of African American workers themselves. But the struggle for equality and democracy also made the ILWU stronger because white leaders like Bridges and "white progressives" in the membership supported them.
Cleophas Williams, who became president of the San Francisco longshore union, says, "Local 10 was the most democratic organization I’ve ever belonged to. If you wanted to go out there and face that membership and campaign and work with them and relate to them, that was your challenge, and you won and you lost…. This union was the greatest thing in my life, other than my family. In terms of economics and social growth, this union was a platform on which I made my stand and found a place in the sun."
Equality in the union helped the ILWU develop the power of workers where they lived and the community became more than just an ally. "We found that, in a sense, the union is the community," says Bill Chester, the ILWU’s first African American international officer. "We went into every aspect of community life…. We were pretty well established by the 1950s as a group of workers who didn’t just look at their own selfish points of view as far as what they had economically. We were willing to participate and spread the experience that we had learned in the trade union movement."
This took place during the worst political repression of the last century, yet the ILWU protected people like Paul Robeson and stopped the deportation of Latino organizers like Lucio Bernabe. While the red scare gripped the country, Chicano leaders like Bert Corona and Asian-American politicians in Hawaii got their start in ILWU Locals 26 and 142.
All along the coast, the ILWU had a close and complicated relationship with radicals, not just in big cities and the islands, but also in tiny coast towns like North Bend, Oregon. "Around 1950 some people started calling us ‘reds’ but that was something you kind of had to get used to," remembers Valerie Taylor, who organized the Women’s Auxiliary there. "The FBI knocked on your door every few months…. The name ‘left-winger’ stayed attached to me around this area, I think, because I was on all the picket lines. Whenever I’m around town, I still join ‘em…. Somebody has to do these things. I was certainly never by myself."
In this small mostly-white working-class town, "some of our members circulated a petition for Angela Davis, the famous American Communist Party activist who was tried around 1970…. I even worked with Henry Hansen of Local 12 on the petitions to get a community college here…. So we weren’t just out in left field all the time."
The union welcomed the participation of left-wing activists and the support of the Communist Party and other radical groups. In 1934, when the strike committee passed a resolution condemning communism to prove its political loyalty, Bridges warned the result would be just the opposite: "As soon as it was adopted, that was a good sign the cops would move in and beat the shit out of us again."
In Hawaii, Abba Ramos remembers his father’s response to a visit from the FBI at a time when the union’s leaders were on trial under the Smith Act. "’I don’t know what you talk about this Communist,’" Ramos’s father said. "’Me no go school. Me no understand that. But now I got better pay. I have insurance. Is this communist? Then give me some more.’"
Marvin Ricks shared the attitude of many members. "You have to have a radical," he asserts. "The rest of you may hate your conditions, but you go along, whereas you need some no-good so-and-so to stir it up and get you going. I think nearly all of our early top leadership was a little bit on the Wobbly side."
Radical ideas helped members become more committed and take more responsibility. Cleophas Williams attended the California Labor School, organized by the Communist Party and left wing activists. "The ILWU backed it, and many of its teachers were identified with the left," he recalls. "The first time, I went in order to get my union book. I was forced to go then. Later on, I chose to go. I took history, sociology and economics. These classes expanded my mind. This was the first time I’d gone to an integrated school. I was curious. I wanted to know. And what I wanted to know, the CLS taught." Today’s labor studies programs owe much to these pioneering efforts, although in many cases their curriculum has become much less radical.
During the red scare, shipowners got the cooperation of the Federal government in implementing a process to screen seamen, and later dockworkers, to eliminate Communists and "subversives." Left-wing activists then were called a threat to the country’s security. Likewise today the new Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) screening system calls prior criminal convictions and other non-job related criteria a threat to security in much the same way as the resultant blacklisting.
The union’s response in the 1950s was to fight. Don Watson, son of a blacklisted newspaperman, and a radical himself, was screened off a ship. "I got involved with the Committee Against Waterfront Screening," he recalls. "The big activity we had was a daily picket line at the Coast Guard headquarters. Every day I supplied the leaflets…. We kept up our daily picketing for months." When the screening hit longshore workers, some of them sued the government and after eight years the system was declared unconstitutional.
"In the beginning the Communists in the ILWU had been a part of the building of the union and they had been accepted," recalls Jack Olsen, who faced blacklisting even by ILWU employers. "They influenced people on the leadership and union-meeting level. Down through the years, too, the ILWU has been a refuge for radicals who were run out of every place else. As a result of the policy to protect everybody regardless of political affiliation, many were able to get work, stay, and influence the membership…. They set a tone, and they got a lot of support from the workers on the job. To me, that’s the key to why the ILWU was always a radical organization."
Harvey Schwartz’s oral histories about the left are loyal to the real history of the union, and courageous as well. The left still takes a bad rap in labor where unions often denigrate the need to educate workers about politics, and to inspire them with a vision of real social change. In many unions, the fear generated by the witch hunts is still alive, even half a century later. But we need the idea that another world is possible, along with the ideas of democracy and militancy that the left brought to the ILWU.
With a couple of exceptions, the book basically ends about 1980 and thus leaves important questions unanswered. Why did the political machine born out of the 1934 strike and early civil rights struggles in San Francisco become allied with conservative Democrats and an opponent of many of the city’s progressive activists? How can the union revive the solidarity and organizing energy of its famous March Inland?
But this is no detraction as no book like this can be complete. Instead, it challenges the union to make greater efforts to preserve the history of its own members. The ILWU does much more than most. If we don’t preserve, learn from, and pass on our own history, we are denying it to our own children, who must make its lessons relevant in a new era.
The ILWU doesn’t have all the answers and it makes mistakes. While no experience can be copied, Solidarity Stories tells us that democratic, anti-racist, left-wing, and militant trade unionism is possible. And it works better than the conservative alternatives. It is an important contribution to know that, as the farm workers say, "Si Se Puede!"