A California Unionist’s View: Uneasy Solidarity

Against the Current, No. 101, November/December 2002

Michael Rubin

EARLIER THIS SUMMER the ILWU was talking tough, and taking positive actions to build labor and community support.

The Alameda County Central Labor Council had helped the situation by pulling together a mutual support committee of unions who were in contract negotiations. The national AFL-CIO sent a staff person to Oakland to organize labor support.

At a meeting (early in August) held by the Central Labor Council, everyone, including the national staffperson, explicitly acknowledged that the labor movement could not afford another PATCO; the ILWU must not lose.

At the beginning of Reagan’s presidency, in 1981, Air Traffic Controllers struck and were fired. Many of us in the labor left felt that was an emergency requiring widespread sympathy strikes. The labor bureaucracy was unwilling, PATCO was crushed, and the anti-labor offensive by business and government continues to this day.

The August 12 rally in Oakland had about 1000 people — momentum was building.

But there were problems too. At the California Federation of Labor State Convention, support for the ILWU came up. Several unions, including the IAM (machinists) and Operating Engineers, took the opportunity to bring up old jurisdictional issues.

In a short-sighted act of anti-solidarity, some unions declined to participate in the pre-arranged demonstration of support for the ILWU. Currently, the AFL-CIO is quietly trying to mediate these disputes.

The bosses are more confident about their side — the federal government — than the ILWU is about our side. For example, if there’s a strike and the military is brought to the ports to scab, will there be sympathy strikes? Sadly, the ILWU is not sure.

The ILWU is concerned about being blamed for a worsening economic situation. The general political climate, in which dissenters and strikers are considered “un-American,” plays a role in the ILWU’s calculations. But the really big question is will labor respond if the ILWU is attacked — in deeds, not words.

ATC 101, November-December 2002