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Fighting for Union Democracy / East Coast Vs. West Coast Longshore Workers

Bennett Baumer Apr 7, 2007

Longshoremen2Longshoremen on the docks in Bayonne, NJ. Photo: Antrim Caskey

UNION DEMOCRACY

The Longshore Workers Coalition (LWC) is an upstart faction vying for union democracy in the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA.) The LWC originated as a group of dissident longshore workers challenging faulty election practices employed by union officials during the 2004 ratification of the ILA’s master contract – a labor agreement the workers labeled a “sellout.”During the June 2004 election, workers alleged vote tampering and coercion were used to get the contract. Newark Local 1235 longshoreman Diego Martinez testified he was coerced to vote for an inadequate contract by a union trustee. “After he saw I voted no, he put the paper to the side and said, ‘You don’t understand, you have to vote yes.’”

Teaming with the Association for Union Democracy, who provided legal representation, dissidents from the 15,000-member ILA fought the master contract, which covers wages and benefits for every East Coast port, in federal court.

A federal court judge eventually ruled against the union dissidents – saying that they had not established voter coercion.

EAST COAST VS. WEST COAST LONGSHORE WORKERS

The wages, benefits and political orientation of the East Coast and West Coast longshore worker unions are starkly different. Though each union has a modest membership, their critical role in the ports gives each the potential to bring the nation’s economy to a halt. However, the ILA makes little effort to organize new workers and has not had a coordinated union-wide job action of any significance in decades. New hires on ILA-represented ports earn as much as six dollars less than their West Coast counterparts and garner generally inferior benefits.

At one time members of the same union, West Coast longshore workers broke with the ILA in 1937 over industrial union organizing and the ILA’s stance against the West Coast longshore strike of 1934. The progressive International longshore and Warehouse Union struck against stevedore companies in 2002 over the loss of jobs and benefits, shutting down 29 West Coast ports.

The 2002 strike ended as a defensive victory for port workers, though President Bush threatened military intervention and evoked Taft- Hartley laws to break the West Coast union.

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