Response from Paul Bigman
Dear Jenny and Al,
I think you’ve probably seen the “open letter” from Jack Heyman to me and Labor Notes regarding the article that I wrote about the ILWU grain contract. Although Jack’s letter was posted on the ILWU list, it was clearly aimed at a non-ILWU audience more than at ILWU members, so I assume it will be circulated other places. In case anyone contacts Labor Notes with questions about the issues that Jack raised, I wanted to give you some context. Please feel free to share this with others if it seems appropriate.
I want to start by stressing that Jack and I know each other from when I worked for the ILWU. I like and respect Jack, although I often question his tactics in putting forward his views.
First, Jack seems to imply some kind of collaboration among Craig Merrilees (ILWU Communications Director), Labor Notes and me, presumably to put forward the views of the International. Although I’ve spoken with Craig a few times, and I think I met him once, I don’t really know him. I haven’t spoken with Craig or anyone else representing the International about the contract or what led up to it – not because I question the value of his input, but because I wanted to put forward the views of the rank-and-file longshore workers affected by the agreement. Certainly nobody from the International had any input into the article.
Obviously, you can respond to implications about Labor Notes. I’m pretty certain that neither of you, as the co-editors, are in any kind of regular touch with Craig – again, not that there would be anything wrong if you were. But I have a long history with Labor Notes, going back to 1986 when started writing articles for LN. I’ve always found Labor Notes to be quite open, and willing to print articles with which the staff didn’t necessarily agree. I’m skeptical about the implications of bias. In fact, the biggest issue that I’ve had with Labor Notes over the years is that the magazine seems willing to print articles attacking elected leadership of unions – and particularly of Internationals – without seeking input from those being criticized, or verifying the accuracy of the criticism.
I took on writing the article in part because of an attack of that sort printed in Jacobin. It was written by an academic who, disturbingly, had a copy of the proposed agreement before the members had voted on it, and was commenting on the agreement while voting was going on. I view that as inexcusable interference with the democratic process of the ILWU, and think that whoever gave him the proposed agreement would find no support within the rank-and-file for exposing that process to outside intervention.
But the real point that I want to make is that - as with other articles I've written for Labor Notes - I didn't put my own view of the grain contract into the article. On the contrary, I stressed to Labor Notes that, unlike the author of the Jacobin article trashing the ILWU and the settlement, I wanted to give voice to the longshore workers working under the contract. Jack is, of course, absolutely right in noting that I was an organizer for the ILWU, not a working longshore worker. As when I was on staff, I don't put forward my views on internal matters for the ILWU - that's for the members to do. There's a reason, I think, that the very first of the basic ILWU principles is:
"A Union is built on its members. The strength, understanding and unity of the membership can determine the union’s course and its advancements. The members who work, who make up the union and pay its dues can best determine their own destiny. If the facts are honestly presented to the members in the ranks, they will best judge what should be done and how it should be done. In brief, it is the membership of the union which is the best judge of its own welfare; not the officers, not the employers, not the politicians and the fair weather friends of labor. Above all, this approach is based on the conviction that given the truth and an opportunity to determine their own course of action, the rank and file in 99 cases out of 100 will take the right path in their own interests and in the interests of all the people."
In writing the article I spoke with quite a number of longshore workers in the Pacific Northwest, both those I quoted and other rank-and-file activists. None agreed with the perspective in the Jacobin article or Jack’s letter regarding the grain contract. In fact, most were angry about the Jacobin article because they felt that it badly mischaracterized the content of the agreement. The points that they cited as being in error are substantially repeated by Jack. What I wrote wasn't based on my own view of the contract or the struggle that led to the contract; it was based on the views of rank and file longshore workers and their comrades who they elected to lead the union.
When I was the ILWU organizer for the Puget Sound, there were times when I personally sympathized with viewpoints that Jack expressed. But I also recognized that a large majority of the members thought he was completely off-base. His attacks on the elected leadership of the ILWU and the policies which the members endorse suggest that either he doesn’t believe that the rank and file have the facts about their contract or their leadership, or he rejects the first basic principle of the ILWU, and thinks that the rank and file are not capable of taking the right path in their own interests.
I think it’s fair to note that Jack’s viewpoint on issues within the ILWU have often been those of a very, very small minority of the membership. When Jack has held elected positions within the ILWU, he quite appropriately would point to his position as an indication that he spoke for Local 10 members. It’s discouraging that he nonetheless implies that the elected representatives of the International and of the Locals in the Northwest aren’t due the same respect.