Caucus of Longshore Workers Seeks Greater Union Democracy and Militancy
Union activists across the country know about the Charleston 5—the African American dockworkers charged with rioting by the state of South Carolina. Under the leadership of President Ken Riley, International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422 has organized national and international solidarity in support of their brothers, raising $300,000 for legal defense and organizing a rally of 5,000.
Many believe that the charges against Local 1422 members are payback for the union’s support of organizing drives, prominent role in social justice coalitions in South Carolina, and militant stand towards shippers.
But Ken Riley, his brother Leonard, and dozens of other ILA members and officers around the country are also battling on another front. The Rileys are founders and leaders of the Workers Coalition, an internal caucus that is seeking greater democracy and militancy in the ILA.
The ILA’s international leadership, like the powers that be in South Carolina, has responded with a heavy hand. Several Workers Coalition members have been brought up on questionable internal charges that appear to be retaliatory and an attempt to decapitate its leadership. A few have been removed from office, one barred from running, and another suspended for three years.
Leonard Riley says the group was founded in 1998 out of frustration with the lackluster leadership of international officers, which, he says, derives from their lack of accountability to the membership. Unlike almost every other maritime union, the ILA chooses top officers not by direct member vote but at conventions.
Most of the ILA’s contracts are negotiated by the international, and while the locals elect delegates to a negotiating committee and members ratify agreements in the locals, international officers largely dictate the terms of the proposed agreements. Riley says that some recent agreements have included concessions.
The ILA has a checkered past. In 1986 it was named by a Senate Committee as one of the nation’s most mobbed-up unions. Some locals were placed under government supervision. Recent years have seen only scattered charges and indictments for corruption, but the ILA still shows signs of a bloated bureaucracy.
With less than 60,000 members, several top officers make over $300,000 per year. In 2000, General Organizer Lonardo Frank topped the list at $372,101, but Secretary Treasurer Robert Gleason raked in $404,116 when reimbursements for official business were included.
Workers Coalition members would rather see much of that money go to organizing. Leonard Riley says longshore workers are suffering a dangerous "erosion of jurisdiction" due to the proliferation of shipping companies using nonunion labor. Indeed, the ILA members who were roughed up by South Carolina state troopers had been picketing Nordana, a Danish shipping company that had dumped its ILA contract so that it could employ nonunion workers at a fraction of the ILA rate.
Riley says he has not seen any effort by the international to organize new members or even to hold onto existing ones. Nordana, incidentally, was forced to resume the use of ILA members after Spanish dockworkers refused to unload ships that had been loaded by Charleston scabs—solidarity that was more the result of direct overtures from local ILA leadership and the WC than of any effort by ILA officials.
The international, according to Riley, did not even make an effort to coordinate informational picketing at other east coast ports, where ILA members continued to work Nordana ships that had been loaded and unloaded by scabs in Charleston.
Members of the Workers Coalition also criticize the ILA’s poor record of coordination and solidarity with its militant West Coast counterpart, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Indeed, ILWU locals contributed more money than the ILA to the Dockworkers Defense Fund set up by Local 1422.
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According to Jack Heyman, an ILWU local officer in California who has organized support for the Charleston 5, ILA President John Bowers did not make a public statement in support of the 5 until March 2001, over a year after the initial incident. Riley says that support from the AFL-CIO, the ILWU, and dockworkers unions in other countries shamed the ILA into the support it has given.
In a letter that appeared in the ILA newsletter Bowers responded to such criticism. He noted his efforts to settle the Nordana dispute and the creation of a fund controlled by the international to publicize the plight of the 5. He then went on to denounce the Workers Coalition as a "union within a union" and suggested--falsely, says Riley--that the caucus was seeking to exploit the Charleston 5 to raise money for itself.
ILA spokesperson Jim McNamara said the union would offer no comment on internal actions against the Workers Coalition other than Bowers’s letter.
In the same letter, he announced that the International Executive Council and a regional body had unanimously passed a resolution condemning the Workers Coalition.
A number of Workers Coalition activists have found themselves the target of bureaucratic and disciplinary maneuvers. After Leonard Riley was elected trustee of Local 1422, the International determined that he holds a supervisory position on the docks and declared him ineligible to hold office, even though, says Riley, ILA members who hold the same or similar positions in other locals have been permitted to run for and hold office.
Coalition activists in Wilmington, Delaware were brought up on charges for unauthorized use of the union’s logo or "ILA" acronym. According to Michael Goldberg, an attorney affiliated with the Association for Union Democracy who is representing the Workers Coalition, the ILA constitution’s restriction on the use of "ILA" is almost certainly illegal, and the logo restriction probably is too. Goldberg notes that members’ due process rights were blatantly violated in one of the disciplinary procedures.
LEARN FROM EXPERIENCE
Unlike some fledgling reform groups, WC members have a pragmatic and sophisticated understanding of the obstacles to reform. For example, making the change from elections by convention delegates to direct membership vote will require that the caucus elect, or win over, a majority of those same delegates—a long, daunting task, but one that is understood as such by caucus leaders.
Leonard Riley says the group is trying to learn from the experience of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a caucus with more than 20 years of organizing at the local and national level. Since its founding two years ago, the Workers Coalition has held meetings in several regions. It has plans to support local candidates who share its goals, publish a newsletter, and establish a web site.
Riley says his group’s agitation is already starting to pay off in minor victories. In response to harsh Coalition criticism, the ILA, says Riley, is making modest steps toward increased coordination with the ILWU and dockworkers’ unions internationally. Riley predicts that with Coalition encouragement and support, more members will get active, challenging lethargic incumbents at the local level.
The connection between the Workers Coalition and the dynamic leaders and members of Local 1422 is a reminder of the connection between union democracy and an effective struggle for workplace and social justice. When you scratch the surface of battles like the one to defend the Charleston 5, or the Teamsters strike at UPS, or the IAM Boeing strike in 1995, or countless local battles, you often find that the courageous leaders who stand up for workers rights’ in the workplace are also fighting the battle for democracy in the union.
Carl Biers is the Executive Director of the Association for Union Democracy.