In a letter with the subject line entitled, “ILWU Disaffiliation,” the union’s president Robert McEllrath expressed “regret but resolve” when he told Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, that the ILWU had “to cut formal ties with the AFL-CIO.”
McEllrath, who before the disaffiliation was an AFL-CIO vice-president, said that the ILWU was withdrawing from the AFL-CIO because the labor federation’s national leadership had done little to stop other affiliated unions from sabotaging the ILWU bargaining strength. McEllrath also said that Trumka and the AFL-CIO leadership were too quick to seek political compromises that undermined working class power.
McEllrath said that AFL-CIO unions have crossed picket lines established by the ILWU during lockouts and strikes, and accused some unions of mounting a coordinated effort to take away jobs that historically have been done by ILWU members.
In a report to ILWU members, McEllrath cited some specific examples.
Members of IBEW Local 48 and AFSCME Council 28 in Vancouver, Washington continue to cross picket lines at grain elevators owned by Mitsui-United Grain, which since February has locked out ILWU members.
The unions that cross the ILWU picket lines in Vancouver justify their actions by saying that they both had contracts that barred them from respecting picket lines.
But McEllrath notes that if labor is to get and keep the leverage it needs to win fair pay and good working conditions, labor solidarity must stand above else including the sanctity of the contact, and he cited Guiding Principle Number 4 of the ILWU’s Ten Guiding Principles adopted by the union in 1953, which says,
“To help any worker in distress” must be a daily guide in the life of every trade union and its individual members. Labor solidarity means just that. Unions have to accept the fact that the solidarity of labor stands above all else, including even the so-called sanctity of the contract. We cannot adopt for ourselves the policies of union leaders who insist that because they have a contract, their members are compelled to perform work even behind a picket line. Every picket line must be respected as though it were our own.
McEllrath said that the ILWU has for 60 years resisted attempts by its employers to get the union to drop contract language that protects ILWU members’ right to honor other unions’ picket lines.
In addition to crossing the Vancouver picket line, other AFL-CIO unions have tried to take work that the ILWU says should be ILWU work. While the number of jobs affected by this jurisdictional dispute is small, the consequence could be huge in the future as more of the work on the docks is mechanized, and job descriptions of longshore work change.
In his letter to Trumka, McEllrath also expressed exasperation at the AFL-CIO eagerness to compromise with the Obama Administration on issues of vital interest to the working class.
He cited the AFL-CIO’s acceptance of President Obama’s compromise on immigration issues.
The AFL-CIO and the ILWU have historically supported comprehensive immigration reform with a clear path to citizenship that protects undocumented workers from firings, deportations, and the denial of their rights. However, the immigration bill you recently asked us to support imposes extremely long waiting periods on the path to citizenship and favors workers with higher education and profitability to corporations, as opposed to the undocumented workers such as janitors and farm workers who would greatly benefit from the protections granted by legalization.
McEllrath also said that the ILWU has “become increasingly frustrated with the federation’s moderate, overly compromising policy positions on such important matters as labor law reform, health care reform, and international labor issues.”
He expressed disappointment that the AFL-CIO had urged member unions to support the Affordable Healthcare Act after a tax on union health care plans was inserted into it. When running for election in 2008, President Obama had told unions that he would oppose such a tax.
Despite the withdrawal, McEllrath said that the ILWU will continue “to provide whatever aid and support we can for our fellow trade unionists and workers everywhere. We are committed to working in solidarity with all unions and labor groups, including the federation and its affiliates, for the advancement of workers, worker rights, and progressive issues everywhere.”