Workers Vanguard No. 1133
4 May 2018
For Union Control of Hiring!
Waterfront Commission, NJ State Troopers: Hands Off the ILA!
On his final day in office on January 15, New Jersey’s Republican governor Chris Christie signed a bill to end the state’s support for the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, a government agency that polices union members of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) on the New York and New Jersey docks and controls hiring and job allocation. The law, which is being challenged in court by the Waterfront Commission (and will very likely not be put into effect), directs the governor to turn over responsibilities for policing New Jersey’s docks—as well as the vast bulk of the commission’s $13 million annual funding—to the New Jersey State Police. Outrageously, the ILA tops joined the bosses’ New York Shipping Association in endorsing Christie’s measure. The ILA bureaucrats are promoting the lie that the racist New Jersey troopers will be more favorable to longshore workers than the Commission.
Government policing of the waterfront, whether done by the state police, the Waterfront Commission or directly by the Feds, is counter to the interests of longshore workers. Under federal law, all port workers, including longshoremen and port truckers, have to submit to extensive criminal background and immigration checks in order to receive a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC card), which is mandatory for work. This process has been used by the government to deny tens of thousands of port workers their jobs. In a country where prisons are overflowing with young black and Latino men and women, many of them rounded up for drug offenses, this screening has a viciously racist thrust, while also being directed against immigrants.
While the federal government’s TWIC screening is bad enough, workers in the New York/New Jersey harbor are subject to even more onerous targeting by the Waterfront Commission. All applicants are interrogated and then must be approved by the Commission before getting hired. If the Commission revokes a longshore worker’s ID pass, he or she is banned from working on the docks. The Commission can pull a worker’s ID pass if they fail to report any arrest, including a DUI off the job, and could still decide to take away the job even if the worker does report the arrest! Longshore workers can have their passes revoked if they are not available to work 15 days each month without an “acceptable” reason.
But the Waterfront Commission does not only threaten the livelihoods of longshore workers. A Commission investigation can lead—and has led—to criminal charges being brought against workers. Moreover, the Commission effectively has the power to decide who works, irrespective of the contract. For example, the ILA and shipping bosses negotiated a “second chance” program under which longshore workers who test positive for marijuana can reclaim their jobs after going through a rehabilitation program. However, the Commission can still stop the worker from returning to work.
1953: ILA Against
Regardless of the mechanism, the purpose of government policing of the ILA has nothing to do with fighting corruption or discrimination and everything to do with trying to undermine a powerful union with considerable social weight. This is proved by the entire history of the Waterfront Commission.
When announcing their support to the law to effectively eliminate the Waterfront Commission, the ILA tops recycled the myth that the Commission once served a useful purpose but then became “outdated and counterproductive” (ILA statement, January 15). In truth, the Commission was established in 1953 in order to cripple the union in the wake of militant longshore strikes, many of them wildcats. As World War II drew to a close, New York’s longshoremen began to rebel against the dictatorial rule of ILA president “King Joe” Ryan, who worked directly with the bosses for years to suppress strikes, purge Communists and other militants from the union and ensure sweetheart deals for the shipping companies.
In 1945, longshoremen held a port-wide strike against a sellout contract agreed to by Ryan and the shipping bosses. Strikes broke out again in 1947, 1948 and 1951. According to historian Howard Kimeldorf, author of Reds or Rackets? The Making of Radical and Conservative Unions on the Waterfront (1988), there were 18 recorded work stoppages between 1945 and 1951, accounting for more than a half million workdays lost on the New York/New Jersey docks.
These strikes prompted New York governor Thomas E. Dewey to establish a waterfront Crime Commission, memorialized in the 1954 anti-union film On the Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando. For decades, the employers and politicians hadn’t raised a peep of protest about the mob corruption, the racial discrimination or the degrading “shape-up” system that required longshoremen to pay bribes to get work. After all, the employers were the main beneficiaries of the miserable working conditions. But when Ryan could no longer control his membership, the government suddenly viewed him as a crook who needed to be driven from office. Ryan was accused of siphoning off money, which the shipping bosses had paid for “fighting communism,” for his personal use. In November 1953, after Ryan’s indictment for “misusing” union funds, a special ILA convention forced him to resign from office.
Longshore workers fought back when the government and the leadership of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) under George Meany tried to replace the ILA, which had been expelled from the AFL, with an AFL affiliate on the docks. They understood that this was an attack on their union and refused to believe the lie that the government just wanted to stop corruption. In 1954, ILA members in New York staged a massive 29-day strike. Despite the imposition of a Taft-Hartley injunction and heavy state intervention, the workers prevailed and won back recognition of the ILA (see “How Longshoremen Stopped the Finks,” WV No. 414, 24 October 1986).
The Crime Commission directed at the ILA became the model for a major campaign by the federal government to use “corruption” and “racketeering” to spearhead attacks on the unions. These attacks were principally directed at the Teamsters and ILA, which have the power to shut down economically vital areas like trade and transportation. A Senate select committee was set up on a resolution by anti-Communist witchhunter Joe McCarthy. Under chairman John McClellan and staff counsel Robert F. Kennedy, this committee set up the conviction of Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa, whose first-ever master freight contract raised the specter of a nationwide truckers strike.
The Crime Commission hearings also led to establishing the Waterfront Commission. One of its first acts in the 1950s was to purge 5,000 union longshoremen from the docks. William J. Mello’s book New York Longshoremen: Class and Power on the Docks (2010) describes the Commission’s long, dirty history of blacklisting communists and other trade-union militants.
Anti-Union Policing Today
Today, the Waterfront Commission spearheads investigations and prosecutions against elected ILA officials as well as members of the union. Insofar as there is corruption in the ILA, this is a matter to be dealt with by the union membership, not the capitalist government. Labor must clean its own house!
In 2005, ILA officials Harold Daggett and Arthur Coffey were hauled into court on fraud and conspiracy charges based on testimony by known mob informants. They were acquitted by a federal jury. As noted by reporter Tom Robbins, “Part of the government’s problem was that the defendants were not accused of violent crimes, while its own witnesses had murder and mayhem on their résumés” (Village Voice, 15 November 2005).
On 29 January 2016, thousands of ILA members walked off the job for several hours in what ILA spokesman Jim McNamara reported was a wildcat strike against the Waterfront Commission’s interference in the hiring process and induction of new union members. Immediately afterward, the Commission subpoenaed ILA members and officials in retaliation for what it called “an illegal walkout.”
Then in September 2016, the Waterfront Commission stripped ILA member Mario Gutierrez of his Waterfront registration (i.e., his job) because he refused to be a rat when called to testify about the January 29 walkout. (See “Special Craft Longshoreman Revoked for Refusing to Cooperate with the Commission’s Investigation of the January 29, 2016 Illegal Walkout,” 13 September 2016, wcnyh.org/newspage232.html.) Reinstate Mario Gutierrez!
For Trade-Union Independence from the Capitalist State!
That the shipping bosses favor government policing of the ILA is hardly surprising given that this benefits their attempts to curb and ultimately break the union. That the ILA misleaders have joined with the shipping association in trying to impose oversight by the NJ state cops speaks volumes about their own commitment to collaboration with the racist capitalist order. In addition to breaking strikes, New Jersey state troopers are notorious for their vicious racism, which gave birth to the term “Driving While Black.” In one infamous example, state cops in 1998 pulled over a van with four black and Latino men, shooting and wounding three of them. The state eventually agreed to pay the men nearly $13 million to settle a lawsuit.
The fundamental division in society is between the capitalist class, which owns the means of production, and the working class, which is forced to sell its labor power to the capitalists in order to survive. The capitalist class uses its state—i.e., the police, courts, military and prisons—to maintain its rule over the working class. It is necessary to fight for the class independence of the trade unions from the capitalist state.
The pro-capitalist misleaders of the ILA and other unions act to subordinate the labor movement to the employers and their government, courts and police. This is politically expressed in their allegiance to the Democratic Party. Accepting the capitalist profit system, they promote the illusion that the government acts—or can be pressured to act—in the interests of the working class. But history proves the opposite. The federal government, under Democratic and Republican presidents alike, has imposed strikebreaking Taft-Hartley injunctions on this powerful and hard-nosed union numerous times. A wide array of laws continues to treat the ILA and other unions as though they were, in effect, “criminal conspiracies.”
As part of defending itself and its members, the union—not the Waterfront Commission—must control hiring. Job allocation should be done through one union hiring hall. On the West Coast, longshore workers won the hiring hall through the 1934 strike, which smashed the old “shape-up” system. West Coast longshore workers, who were then organized in the ILA, repeatedly defied the attempts of Joe Ryan to throttle the strike. Key to this strike’s success was that it was led by reds—i.e., militants who at the time were committed to a program of class struggle. They did not buy into illusions in “labor friendly” government bodies and understood that the only possible road to victory lay in the workers mobilizing their power as a class against all the parties and agencies of the capitalist class enemy. (For more, see our pamphlet Then and Now.)
But over the years, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) hiring hall has been increasingly eroded by concessions made by the West Coast union bureaucrats. These include the division of ILWU members into “A men,” who have first choice of available work, and lower tiers (who are not union members). The introduction of “steady men,” consisting of higher paid skilled longshore workers who are not dispatched by the union but work directly for individual stevedoring companies, further undermined the hiring hall. However, despite its erosion, the ILWU hiring hall remains a thorn in the side of the bosses.
We are for a union hiring hall in the New York/New Jersey ports that would dispatch all jobs equitably on a rotating basis. Access to skills training and job promotion should be based on seniority. We are for the elimination of company lists, under which individual employers generate a roster of workers who get first preference at jobs. The aim of these lists, which tie longshoremen to the bosses, is to create a more docile workforce.
A union hiring hall makes it more difficult for employers to victimize or blackball workers for refusing to work under unsafe conditions. It would also help undercut the ability of the boss to discriminate against workers on the basis of political views or union activity. There is a long history of racist discrimination on the New York/New Jersey docks that the ILA bureaucrats have accommodated over the years, thereby playing into the bosses’ schemes to divide and rule their wage slaves. A hiring hall would help undercut discrimination on the basis of racial and ethnic origin.
Workers need a union leadership that understands that the interests of the workers and the employers are directly counterposed, and will mobilize the power of the unions accordingly, on the basis that the government and police forces exist only to serve the interests of the bosses. There will be no end to attacks on labor so long as the capitalist system exists. It is necessary to build a workers party to fight for workers revolution to end the whole system of wage slavery.