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Originally published in Real Change
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Longshoremen's Lessons
Oral History and Photos Highlight ILWU Triumphs

The ILWU Story: Six Decades of Militant Unionism
Published by International Longshoremen's &
Warehousemen's Union, $5.00


Review by Anitra Freeman

At the opening night of the Labor Teach-In over Memorial Day Weekend, the hall at the Hec-Ed Pavilion out by the UW Stadium was lined with tables full of handouts and information. One of the items I picked up there was a book hot off the presses - a large, 8 1/2" by 11" glossy booklet, 90 pages with 80 black-and-white photos (including back cover).

This is a history of the ILWU - the International Longshoremen's & Warehousemen's Union - and, being composed by the ILWU itself, it has some of the enthusiastic boosterism of corporate history booklets.

It is, however, much more interesting than any corporate history I have ever read, and I gladly overlooked the rah-rah in return for historic photos of the 1934 strikes, pictures of the life of the boats like "container operations in Seattle, 1984," compared with "break bulk operations, circa 1958," and more - as I said, there are 80 of them. And Oral History inserts, quotes from men and women who lived this history, eyewitness accounts of life on the waterfront from before 1934 to the present.

My grandfather did some waterfront work in his early days in the Northwest, but I never thought to ask him for details about it until long after he was gone. So I was doubly interested to read a history that extended from 1902 to the present, with a focus on the Pacific Coast.

Besides historical interest, I found the book to have relevance today. It is easy, in light of many improvements in most working conditions, and some union abuses, to forget the terrible conditions that unions came into being to oppose. It is easy to forget how much we all owe, in occupational health and safety, pensions, unemployment insurance, and much more, to union action.

It is easy to forget how strong the force of short-sighted human greed is, and how fast gains can be lost when the counter-balance to corporate power is weakened. And it is easy to forget the lessons that the early unions had to learn, over and over, about what could weaken them - like racial or other discrimination, allowing the corporation to pit workers against workers.

I am personally convinced that unions, grassroots activism, cooperative worker-owned businesses, the growth of interactive theater and other arts that engage the viewer in personal creativity, the whole concept of "empowerment" - overused as the word gets - are related. That the rise in personal responsibility and political control is the next step in democracy. I was reading the last page of the booklet, a listing of The Ten Guiding Principles of the ILWU, and relating them to activism:

1) A union is built on its members. The strength, understanding and unity of the membership can determine the union's course and its advancements. The members who work, who make up the union and pay its dues can best determine their own destiny.

Arion Court, in which the tenants participated in management from the very beginning, is in excellent shape compared to low-income housing projects designed and administered by middle-class bureaucrats and pointed to when they are falling down as examples that "low-income housing doesn't work."

2) Labor unity is at all times the key for a successful economic advancement. Anything that detracts from labor unity hurts all labor.

3) Workers are indivisible. There can be no discrimination because of race, color, creed, national origin, religious or political belief. Any division among the workers can help no one but the employer. Discrimination of worker against worker is suicide.

The early attempts at organizing were undercut by territorial loyalties, which employers were able to capitalize on by pitting local against local, like diverting cargo from a striking port to a non-striking port. They also imported African-Americans as strike-breakers against white unionists. When the longshoremen rebuilt their union in 1933, they stated as open policy that any discrimination weakens a union organization.

Activists have been learning the same lesson - "An injury to one is an injury to all!" And for society as a whole, an inclusiveness that celebrates diversity is strong. We want no Sarajevos in Seattle - do we?

4) "To help any worker in distress" must be a daily guide in the life of every trade union and its individual members.

Have we begun to get the idea, in society, that no one's suffering really "doesn't have anything to do with us"? Ignoring child abuse and neglect raises a generation of difficulties that fall on our legal and welfare systems and impact all our lives. Our neglect of the mentally ill has begun to crowd our sidewalks - and fosters an atmosphere in which we are afraid to voice our own emotional difficulties for fear of being stigmatized.

5) Any union, if it is to fulfill its appointed task, must put aside all internal differences and issues to combine for the common cause of advancing the welfare of its membership. "Purpose equals patience," as I say about teaching computer skills. When you feel frustrated by a personal conflict, focus on the goal.

6) The days are long-gone when a union can consider dealing with single employers. The powerful financial interests of the country are bound together in every conceivable type of united organization to promote their own welfare and resist the demands of labor. And of private citizens and even of public government. The corporations are out of control. A pile of money can be counter-balanced, but only by a pile of people.

7) Just as water flows to its lowest level, so do wages if the bulk of the workers are left unorganized. The unions have come to understand that for one person to enjoy good wages and benefits, she must ensure them for all - "raise the wage floor." It is time for all of us to realize that increasing the welfare of the marginalized does not take away from our own, but increases it - and makes it a lot more stable.

8) The basic aspirations and desires of the workers throughout the world are the same. Corporations have gone multi-national. The globalization of capital threatens cultural diversity, ecology, and human values all over the world. Big business is not automatically evil - but it can be, without checks and balances. Again, to balance the dollars we need a pile of people - across all nations.

9) A new type of unionism is called for which does not confine its ambitions and demands only to wages.

We also need to start working into our profit-and-loss analyses things like effect on the environment and on society. The "union of consumers" can affect businesses that abuse social and environmental values by "dollar strikes" - boycotts.

10) Jurisdictional warfare and jurisdictional raiding must be outlawed by labor itself.

Most activist organizations that I know in Seattle deal with each other amicably, with a couple of history-making exceptions. I would dearly like never to see that sort of history made again.

Repeatedly, over Memorial Day weekend, we were told that the unions were allying with the poor, immigrants, minorities, and all the marginalized. I certainly hope so.

We need such an alliance - it is only in the strength of numbers that we will overcome the very big money that is currently gaining control of political institutions around the world.

Let's make it happen.

Active Books Review