Coast Education Project

The hiring hall -- the heart and muscle of the ILWU

The hiring hall is the heart of the ILWU's brand of democratic  unionism. Since 1934, when thousands of longshoremen shut down the Pacific Coast in the great strike that led to the formation of the ILWU, the principles embodied in the ILWU hiring hall have bound together workers who have sought equal opportunity to work under safe conditions at a fair wage, The hiring hall has always been more than a place where jobs are dispatched. It is where earnings and work opportunity are equalized, and jobs are distributed in a fair and democratic system untarnished by prejudice or favoritism, 

The ILWU hiring hall which at times was also put in place in the warehouse division includes the union's cherished principle of fighting against persecution and discrimination based on a person's race, religion or politics, Just as importantly, the hall has also been the center of the Union's internal communication and discipline. On, a daily basis the hall has also been a social and political center of the ILWU longshore community. Weakening the hall and diminishing control over dispatching increases employers' control over work and the workers. In 1934 men died in the struggle to abolish the abuses of the old "shape-up" system. 

The shape-up system lent itself to the kinds of abuses where longshoremen had to pay bribes to the employers, shipowners and stevedoring companies who were willing to go to any length to maintain complete control over hiring and to drive pro-union workers out of the industry In 1934 a union-controlled hiring hall was the demand without which the other demands would be almost impossible to enforce and protect. When it was clear that longshoremen and their seafaring allies were not going to give up their struggle for justice on the waterfront, the employers decided to open the struck piers with guns, goons, tear gas and assorted police agencies including the National Guard. 

They provoked pitched battles from San Pedro to Seattle. Hundreds of strikers and bystanders were arrested and injured on July 5, 1934, known ever after as Bloody Thursday. Rather than break the strike, these terrible events galvanized public support and prompted organized labor in San Francisco to declare a brief but historic General Strike to support the longshore and maritime workers and to protest police violence, In the end, after binding arbitration by the federal National Longshore Board, the union's hiring hall was born. 

Today, as the ILWU's Longshore Division prepares for coast contract negotiations in 1999, the employers are again mobilizing to reassert control over hiring, over who works where, and again seek to divide and weaken the membership through favoritism fed by so-called wage incentives. The arbitration award settling the 1934 strike created jointly operated hiring halls in which union- elected dispatchers distributed the work. Workers eligible for dispatch were on a joint 'registration list." Yet the employers retained their right to have "steady gangs" whose members chosen directly by the employer,- did not get their jobs through the hall, but each day reported to work wherever the employer directed. 

After a succession of union grievances the steady gangs were eliminated by an arbitrator's award in 1939. This award by Wayne Morse opened the way for a new era of union and worker control of the workplace and strengthened the ILWU's steadfast view that democratic unionism required equalization of earnings among its members through equal access to work under a hiring hall system that rotated work opportunity fairly among all the members. According to the 1934 arbitration award, employers could participate  in setting the rules by which the hall was run. They could also process any defined grievance procedure. 

But they could not by-pass the hall and the hiring of union members. Nor the could they interfere with the day-to day operations carried out by the dispatchers, who were union members elected by the rank and file. The coastwise longshore contract governing the Pacific Coast hiring the hall gave union members preference work in hiring. In 1947 the waterfront employers made an all-out assault on the hiring hall using the provisions of the new anti-union Taft-Hartley law. Trying to exploit anti-labor and anti-radical sentiments of the time, the employers sought to dismantle the the hall and throw out Harry Bridges the as ILWU President. 

A bitter strike was waged in 1948, and the union's solidarity and international support compelled the employers to back off and the hiring hall was preserved. a Experience has shown that where and when the hiring hall is weakened the union is weakened. The hiring system determines relationships on the job, between workers as well as between worker and employer.  When the basic work unit was the gang, which included gang boss, winch driver, lift driver, dock men, and hold men, all members belonged to the union and were closely tied to the local union's steward system. 

Veteran union members, such as winch drivers and gang bosses, all trained new workers in both how to of work and how to be good union members. In this setup the union was the basis of internal discipline on the job and in union meetings,  This union-based "team" began to break apart in the 1970s, when new in methods of work permitted the of employers to virtually eliminate the rig traditional gang system. The employers attempt to gain more control over the workforce shifted from an attack on the hiring hall to a new provision in the contract allowing them new skilled steady utility men (Section 9.43). 

The employers' ability to hire by name and number as well as offer individual incentives had weakened the union's control of the work force. At the same time, the union was able to win modification of the steady man system, --on a port by port basis -- to come closer to equalizing earnings between hall and steady men, and to have the steady men rotate back through the hall on a regular basis. The 1996 contract attempted to eliminate employer 'incentives" and put control back in the hands of the union. Almost lost in every discussion of the hiring hall is the fact that the employers have benefited enormously from the hiring hall system. 

Centralized hiring provides skilled and competent workers on an as- needed basis throughout the peaks and valleys of maritime schedules without the cost of maintaining a steady workforce, makes possible the orderly allocation of the workforce within and between ports and allows for the rational promotion of members according to seniority after equitable recruitment and training. 

Today, the refrain from the PMA is to "regain control of their work force" Fifty years ago, when the employers set out to smash the ILWU, to displace its democratically elected leadership, and to dismantle the hiring hall, they said they "only want to control hiring." The employers have the same objective today In 1999 longshore negotiations the ILWU will have to be prepared to wage the same fight with the same solidarity and unity of purpose that in 1934 laid the cornerstone of our unmatched wages and conditions: the hiring hall.


This article from the "Dispatcher" is the first in a series about central issues in upcoming longshore contract negotiations under preparation by the members of the Longshore Education Committee:

Joe Wenzl (19), Art Almeida (13), retired), David Arian (13), Dennis Brueckner (54), Kevin Clark (40), John Bush (200), and Coast Committeeman Ray Ortiz. Research and editorial assistance provided by Steve Stallone, Dispatcher Editor and Gene Vrana, Associate Director of Education and ILWU librarian,

 





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