On this beautiful September day set aside for the celebration of Labor Workers throughout America, the International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union (ILWU) is making waves by announcing that they are walking away from affiliation with the AFL-CIO. (Okay, they sent the letter Thursday, but the story is just now hitting.)
There are a handful of pieces out there each concentrating on one aspect of the story, but this passage from the three page letter the ILWU President Robert McIllrath to the AFL-CIO gives the complete reasoning for the split:
We feel the Federation has done a great disservice to the labor movement and all working people by going along to get along. The Federation has not stood its ground on issues that are most important to our members. President Obama ran on a platform that he would not tax medical plans and at the 2009 AFL-CIO Convention, you stated that you would not stand for a tax on our benefits. Yet the Federation later lobbied affiliates to support a bill that taxed our healthcare plans. Similarly, 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 undocumented workers such as janitors and farm workers who would greatly benefit from the protections granted by legalization.
Aside from the particularly leftist bent of Mr. McIllrath’s logic and that it seems the big, bad immigration bill doesn’t have the sort of blanket amnesty big labor is looking for, note that broken promises are being held not just against Barack Obama, but that AFL-CIO’s President Richard Trumka is being held against his word – one that he broke. On two different issues. (That the right disagrees with all parties in this discussion on all of the above is beside the point.)
Big Labor continues to not just eat its own, but the national leaders rubbing elbows at the power broker level are selling out their members. The rabble is not amused. In fact, they are willing to walk away from the protection the larger group provides in order to make the point.
The little people don’t like being betrayed.
(Note to the political right, no rubbing palms together with glee. It’s just ONE union walking away. When they all do, we can smirk a bit.)
In the beginning of the labor movement, when ships were unloaded by hand and conditions were dangerous on the docks, and workers were truly being used, there was a need to organize and force business owners and government officials to change the way things were done. Same with the Ironworkers Union and winning nets under the workers during construction projects, and any number of other situations that put people in danger. Thanks to the labor union movement, safety is now tantamount everywhere in the United States. Sometimes to the point of stymieing growth and efficiency, actually.
As the unions grew and power became an intoxicant to those elected to leadership, and the group(s) demanding more and more gouged everyone from the business owner to the worker to the consumer to the government official just trying to enforce the law. It wasn’t always on the up and up, as they say, and many times union bosses lived the high life while the workers struggled to put food on the table. There were fights to replace the dishonest among the leadership – and many times the little people fighting against corrupt union leadership died.
But, in the end, they always respected each other’s struggles and refused to cross picket lines – another tradition sacrificed by Trumka’s AFL-CIO, according to the letter referenced above. In the world of Big Labor, that is an unforgivable offense.
And, so, one major American union struggling to stay afloat as the jobs that used to fill the membership coffers are transitioned to automation and machinist-type positions, is walking away from the larger group because they feel betrayed.
There is no joy in the right being justified as we see the predictions of Barack Obama breaking campaign promises coming true. We just wish such foresight had been heeded five years ago.
Happy Labor Day.
BTW, when this story first came into my echo chamber, the very first thought went straight to Father Barry’s speech in one of the greatest American films ever made, On the Waterfront. Far from being a vehicle for Catholic thought, the director, producer, screenwriter – all Jews who testified during the McCarthy hearings in the early 50’s – supposedly used it as a way to symbolically speak out against blackballing. The material is based on a series of stories from the late 1940’s that outlined dangerous working conditions on the docks in New York.