Houston Thinking about various strategies to rebuild the labor movement is a painful pastime for many organizers, but talking to Peter Olney, the organizing director for the International Longshoremen & Warehouse Union, the fabled 60,000 West Coast dockworkers’ powerhouse, on my weekly radio show recently was a good primer on the basics for holding your own and moving forward.
Another painful footnote of labor’s troubles was inescapable in the run-up to the AFL-CIO’s convention in Los Angeles with the release of an impassioned and sharp tongued letter from the President of the ILWU to Rich Trumka, the federation’s president, disaffiliating the ILWU from the body after 25 years of membership. The issue for the ILWU was essentially the lack of solidarity.
Solidarity is so rare in the modern dog-eat-dog, struggle for survival, last-man-standing labor environment that it almost felt nostalgic to hear Olney express so clearly this essential, but too often forgotten, fundamental principal of labor. The old adage of “an injury to one is an injury to all,” like the fight for an 8-hour day, harkens to an earlier day for labor it seems, where storied unions like the ILWU could talk with some credibility of how a “general strike,” like the great effort they led in San Francisco is still possible. Part of the ILWU’s last toss of a brick through the window of the house of labor spoke to a series of disputes that they had experienced with other unions, most notably the Operating Engineers, where they felt the toothlessness of the AFL-CIO had isolated their members to fight on their own to protect their work and classic jurisdiction. In a labor movement torn asunder by the defections to the Change to Win alternative federation, the SEIU and HERE disputes within C2W and in northern California and with their own local union, and a host of other discouraging debacles, a simple plea for more solidarity from a union that has often led the way in showing the huge strength of solidarity in supporting the efforts of farmworkers to organize, South Africans to end apartheid, and a score of other efforts, has a surprising amount of power and resonates as a potential source of strength.
In talking about organizing, Peter and I could easily agree on the critical need to focus on distribution plants in organizing Walmart, despite the fact it is hard work with fewer headlines. In looking at the organizing strategy for ILWU, Peter was clear that he starts his strategic analysis from an obvious, but often forgotten cornerstone, by looking at where his union has power that they can leverage to organize additional workers. Certainly, this was the key to the ILWU’s historic drive inland from the strength on the docks to the warehouses where their loads were taken from the ship hulls. Now moving from their pocket of power on the docks, they are looking to organize hazardous materials workers who clean the ships and surrounding areas. Makes sense doesn’t it, but it’s surprising how often even the best organizers forget the fundamentals in trying to look at future targets. We found ourselves talking about the plight of independent truckers that are servicing the major ports and the efforts to organize them by the Teamsters and others that has now been stalled by court action. Peter is too much the diplomatic ambassador of labor solidarity for me to have asked him the obvious question about whether or not the ILWU power on the Pacific docks might not be the critical factor along with community support in any successful, future organizing effort by these abused drivers.
Solidarity may be an increasingly distant dream, but moving forward from even the shrinking islands of strength that we have in the growing ocean of the unorganized are lessons from Peter Olney worth remembering for all organizers.