The ILWU Story

Human Rights, Minorities and Women

The ILWU's legacy on human rights is long and distinguished, It has taken many turns, and has often been at odds with public opinion, but it has always represented the will of the membership, who demanded a principled defense of civil rights and civil liberties for all workers, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or political point of view. Led by the longshoremen and warehouse workers in San Francisco in 1934, the new union was racially integrated from the beginning. 

As active as the ILWU has been in support of social justice and racial equality, and as central as these principles have been in building the foundation of the union, there has also been the recognition that the union itself is not entirely free from prejudice and intolerance. African Americans began working on the waterfronts of America in the Southeast and Gulf coasts, first as slaves, then as part of early segregated unions, including the ILA. 

Things were different on the West Coast where African Americans were excluded by waterfront unions, and employers imported African Americans as strikebreakers in 1901, 1916, and 1919. The Riggers & Stevedores, for example, could not respond quickly enough to internal pressure to desegregate, and their 1919 strike was broken because of it when African Americans were brought in to do the work. Attitudes and opportunities changed during the 1933 reorganization of the ILA on the West Coast, and African Americans participated in the 1934 strike and in several other strikes for union recognition, most notably among barge workers.

African Americans

African Americans were soon part of local union leadership in the maritime strikes of 1936-37, and were elected to executive boards and other offices in longshore locals in San Francisco and in Seattle. In the CIO era ILWU organizing broke down barriers built on race, and welcomed thousands of African Americans who migrated west during WWII to work in war industries. African Americans were part of the March Inland, and were elected officers of the warehouse locals in New Orleans and Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

At the same time, however, there were longshore locals that steadfastly refused to integrate their membership. As an indication of the paradoxes of prejudice, these locals-mainly in the Northwest, but also early on in Southern California - agreed with International policies supporting the civil rights movement and affirmative action programs, and contributed generously to early ILWU support for sit-in demonstrations and marches for equality in the southern United States beginning in 1955. They had also, in 1943, backed Convention action making Paul Robeson (the famed African American singer and advocate of progressive causes) in honorary member of the ILWU. 

Yet an unofficial color line held fast in these locals, despite constant efforts by the International leadership and other longshore locals, notably Local 10 in San Francisco and Local 19 in Seattle, to help tackle the issue.
Significant changes finally began in the 1960s. In 1964, for example, Portland's Local 8 registered its first 50 African American workers as part of a larger group of 300 new registrants. In response, International President Harry Bridges told the local leadership, "I want to express the thanks and congratulations from both the International officers and the Coast Committee for the job done in registering the 300 new B men without discrimination. 

I feel sure that Local 8 and all the locals in the international union are glad to see this situation behind us and hope it stays that way for all time in the future." The record is far from perfect, but the effort to deal with it internally continues. Most recently, the formation of the African American Leadership Conference and the African American Longshore Coalition in 1993 are indicative of rank and file efforts to help the entire union recognize and remedy racism in the ILWU. The AALC, for example, sponsored a 1993 conference to educate minority members about grievance procedures and member rights and responsibilities under the longshore contract, to more effectively deal with internal discrimination without having to go outside the union for assistance.

 

Asian Americans

Shortly after the 1941 attack upon Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II, the commanding Army general on the Pacific Coast ordered the wholesale roundup and evacuation away from the coast of all persons of Japanese ancestry. Citizens and aliens alike were uprooted from their homes and packed off to concentration camps with little or no protection of their civil liberties. Without investigation or hearing, American citizens were made suspect and branded as potential spies and saboteurs simply because of their national origin.

Most people remained silent about this mutilation of the Bill of Rights with one outstanding exception. The California Industrial Union Council sent its secretary-treasurer, ILWU Local 6 activist Louis Goldblatt - later elected secretary-treasurer of the ILWU - to lodge a protest before a hearing of the House Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration held in San Francisco.

Pleading that the rights of the evacuated people should be protected, and that they should not be mistreated or subjected to forced labor, Goldblatt told the committee on February 23, 1942, "This entire episode of hysteria and mob chant against the native-born Japanese will form a dark page of American history."

By 1945, near the end of World War II, the ILWU was working with the federal government to help secure work for Japanese Americans returning from the internment camps. The union found that members of one of its warehouse units in Stockton, California, had threatened to strike when Japanese American workers were dispatched to jobs. This violated the ILWU's principles and International Constitution, so the local and international officers called a meeting of the unit to demand that its members sign pledge cards condemning this kind of discrimination.

The unit's members refused to comply, triggering its suspension and the appointment of a union administrator. After an educational campaign, all but five of the unit members pledged not to indulge in discrimination because of race or national origin. The remaining five were placed on trial by the local union. Two were expelled and the other three suspended from membership for six months. The convictions were upheld by a membership vote of the whole local, which helped bring the unit back into good standing. Over the years, the ILWU continuously advocated that Japanese Americans should receive reparations from the United States government for the unjust treatment they received during the war. These were finally awarded in the 1980s.

In 1992 ILWU members played a key role in the historic founding convention of Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance. And in 1996 the ILWU reaffirmed its unequivocal support of affirmative action programs just as state authorities and ballot propositions sought to undercut their intent and implementation.

Women

Women have always been part of the ILWU, but they have not always had equal access to all occupations within the union's jurisdiction. And except for wartime production requirements in the 1940s, few women worked on the waterfront-or as equipment operators until the 1970s. But women have long been a part of the union in the Warehouse Division and in Hawaii, and have been an essential part of the union's organizing drives and political action programs through the Auxiliaries.

Women began entering the longshore industry in the 1970s under a contractual rule that allowed the surviving son (now also daughter) of a deceased active longshoreman to take their father's place in the industry. In Northern California and the Pacific Northwest women also gained work opportunity and union membership through traditional means, such as working qualifying hours by taking extra or "casual" jobs on busy days in their ports.

In other areas under the ILWU's jurisdiction, such as Southern California, women trying to gain equal access to longshore work and union membership met with resistance. In response to lawsuits by women workers the courts have intervened to help women win their rightful place in the industry. By 1993 540 women were working longshore on the Pacific Coast, about seven- percent of the total workforce. In 1993 Terri Mast, a former officer of Region 37, was elected the first woman national officer of the IBU. Today, several longshore women serve their union as elected local officers, caucus and convention delegates, and members of their local union executive board, Neither these women nor the ILWU believe the issue of equal opportunity for women has been fully resolved, but progress is being made.

In 1990, as the labor movement joined the national debate on abortion rights, the lLWU became one of the first unions to go on record opposing "any restrictions on the right to privacy and access to public health care. We affirm a woman's right to make private decisions regarding reproduction."

Women relatives of II.WU members continue to be a dynamic force, within the ILWU through the Auxiliaries, which were founded during the reorganization of the ILA in 1933 by wives of longshoremen who wanted to support the new union on the picket lines, in the soup kitchens, in legal defense committees, and mobilizing community support for the union's activities.

Since then, political action has been the hallmark of Auxiliary activities, including voter registration drives, lobbying for pro-worker legislation, and participating in the campaigns of selected candidates for public office. The political agenda of the Federated Auxiliaries has long focused on world peace and the importance of issues relevant to the health and welfare of all family members. Since the 1960s the auxiliaries have also sponsored scholarships for the children and grandchildren of ILWU members.

More than 40 Auxiliary charters have been granted since 1934. In 1940 the Federated Auxiliaries were chartered as an umbrella organization for all local chapters. In accordance with the ILWU Constitution, membership in the auxiliaries is open to women relatives of active and retired ILWU members.

Civil Rights and Liberties

The ILWU initiated another notable civil rights fight within the labor movement that grew out of the CIO's purge of unions refusing to accept the political dictates of the CIO's leaders after 1948.

The national CIO officialdom insisted that major political endorsements, decisions about associations with trade unions overseas, and positions on US foreign policy were to be made by the national CIO and accepted without question by all affiliates. The ILWU became frustrated with the CIO leadership, but still fought to remain part of the organization. 

Until the end the ILWU insisted that there should be room within the CIO for disagreement, and that, in keeping with the principle of autonomy, the policies and programs of CIO affiliates should be those endorsed by their rank and file-not those imposed from the top by national CIO leaders. The CIO did not agree and the ILWU was redbaited and then expelled in 1950, along with several other progressive unions, on the premise that the union was under "Communist domination."

Concurrent with the anti-Communist hysteria during the Korean War, the CIO leadership sought to wreck or weaken the dissident unions and take over their jurisdictions. To this end they collaborated with the Departments of Labor and Commerce and certain AFL maritime unions to set up a so-called security program on the waterfront which called for Coast Guard screening of all ship and shore workers.

The ILWU had not opposed a genuine security program. But it did protest the executive order creating this particular program because it meant dumping trade union agreements and the wholesale expulsion from the industry of workers guilty of nothing more dangerous than criticism of the top leadership of the CIO or AFL unions or of government policy. The waterfront locals of the ILWU, in a caucus held in August 1950, did not refuse to comply with the executive order, but they warned that if any members of ILWU were screened from commercial work there would be work stoppages in protest. 

This left the union complying with the executive order only on Army and Navy cargoes. Two years later, the courts caught up with the unconstitutionality of the screening program and ordered it abolished, but not in time to help the hundreds of screened unionists - mainly seamen and East Coast longshoremen-who had already lost their livelihood after they had been designated as security risks because of their political views, illegal affiliations, or national origin.

Another byproduct of the anti-Communist hysteria of tile early 1950s was the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act of 1952. The act made naturalized foreign-born citizens subject to deportation if authorities learned they had committed some offense against the law, no matter flow far back it dated. It was used to harass foreign-born progressive trade unionists and community activists, including ILWU members of Philippine origin, and to restrict their right to travel outside the United States.

The ILWU mobilized its political and legal resources to defend the rights of its members under attack - primarily in Hawaii and in the salmon canning industry in Alaska - and to repeal the law.


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