Labor Briefing

ILWU Asks, What’s Next After Seattle?

Longshoreman’s Union (ILWU) President Brian McWilliams writes in the union’s paper, The Dispatcher (December 1999), that “the labor movement did itself proud in Seattle, demonstrating its resurgence as a progressive social force in the U.S.”

Then he asks, “Where does this burgeoning movement go from here? … What should be the response and program of a progressive union movement in dealing with corporate globalism?”

McWilliams’ answer is that labor, environmentalists, and social justice activists “can only deal with attacks by international capital if workers organize internationally.” He states that the ILWU is an active member of a number of international workers’ organizations.

“Through these organizations and the contacts we made in Seattle, we can continue development and active advocacy of international labor standards.”

However, “we must respect differences in social and cultural norms. For example, although we may want to prohibit child labor, in some countries the income children bring in is crucial to a family’s survival, so such prohibitions must include alternatives to make sure that the policy doesn’t become an enforcement of poverty.”

McWilliams doesn’t suggest what those alternatives might be, but he does stress that the fledgling movement “should also recognize the shortcomings of labor rights in the developed countries and move to improve them in such areas as prohibition against strikebreaking, obstacles to organizing and collective bargaining, the right to free health care, living wages, and protection for the rights of immigrants.”

McWilliams adds that U.S. unions’ international strategy should “address the significant gap in living standards between workers in developed and less developed countries” and take “a critical position toward U.S. economic and military policy that plays a role in enforcing that living standards gap.”

McWilliams’ proposals could well be part of a minimal guide for U.S. unions and the Seattle activists. But he doesn’t say how an authoritative program for the movement might be assembled-nor by whom.

Should organized labor call a convention, similar to an AFL-CIO convention, and formulate a program that hopefully would inspire a mobilization of unionists and others to defend and raise living standards?

Should the many organizations, including unions, that worked to build the Seattle demonstrations take the responsibility for formulating an action program that appeals to workers, environmentalists, and social justice activists?

McWilliams didn’t suggest that in light of the Seattle militancy the AFL-CIO immediately turn its attention to testing American workers’ readiness to take on the corporate elite.

It’s only a guess, but perhaps McWilliams views the chances of getting the U.S. labor officialdom to commit to building a fighting mass social justice movement are virtually nil. For McWilliams strongly objects to the weak-kneed compromise that AFL-CIO head John Sweeney has offered the U.S. financial and industrial elite:

“The official AFL-CIO position asks that labor have a seat at the WTO table when trade agreements are being drafted and that these agreements incorporate enforceable labor and environmental protections. … But expecting the corporate trade bureaucrats who run the WTO to enforce labor rights is a case of letting the fox guard the hen house.”

McWilliams doesn’t say so, but Sweeney’s fox-in-the-hen-house offer to the corporate bosses has a lot in common with labor-management committees and tripartite boards of bosses, politicians, and union bureaucrats. These days, business unionist, class-collaborationist schemes and traps are as popular with bureaucrats as their sky high salaries and gold-plated perks.

But if McWilliams is right, and of course he is, then the AFL-CIO, led by John Sweeney, is leading the movement into a demoralizing dead end with its demand to sit at the WTO table.

If that’s McWilliams’ understanding, then no wonder he skipped over the problem of how to organize and mobilize a mass force that could exact meaningful concessions from the ruling corporate powers.



First-Class Cabins but Second Class Wages

Luxury cruise ships treat their galley workers a lot like galley slaves. The New York Times (Dec. 24) reports that thousands of “dishwashers, assistant cooks, cabin cleaners and brass-rail polishers” toil as long as 18 hours a day, seven days a week for as little as $400-$450 a month.

“Most are from third-world countries, working for months without a day off, living in shared quarters … and told to speak to passengers only if spoken to first.”

“The Carnival Corporation, with 45 ships the world’s largest cruise company, is averaging $2.8 million a day, almost all tax free because the company, which is based in Miami, is registered in Panama.”

Though “most lines have their headquarters in the United States, the companies escape American minimum wage requirements and other labor laws the same way they avoid corporate income tax and many criminal and environmental laws.” They register the ships where “laws are lax and enforcement is weak.”

Some workers are victims of a vicious partnership between the lines and the Norwegian Seaman’s Union. One cabin cleaner caught the Royal Caribbean chiseling her over sick pay. She was told that the line had a contract with the union that allowed the company to avoid the maritime law that “says seafarers are entitled to sick pay equal to full pay.”

After the worker filed a suit, she learned that “Royal Caribbean paid $300,000 a year in dues directly to the union, rather than deduct them from paychecks.” The worker’s lawyers charge that “the non-Norwegian workers, who make up the majority covered by the agreement, did not have union cards, never attended union meetings, or voted for officers, and did not approve the contract terms … most workers did not even know they were in a union.”



Some Unions Grow

Despite decades-old anti-labor laws put on the books by both Democrats and Republicans, labor unions in 1999 organized 600,000 new members.

After subtracting losses due to downsizing and the like, the AFL-CIO wound up with a gain of 265,000, bettering its 1998 increase of 100,000. The two-year increases come after 20 years of decline.

Unions had three outstanding organizing successes: SEIU gained 74,000 Los Angeles home health aides, AFT and the UAW signed up 65,000 members in Puerto Rico, and UNITE unionized 5200 Fieldcrest Cannon textile workers in North Carolina (it took 25 years, and five elections).

Membership increased by 112,493 in the private sector, while unions gained 152,788 public workers. The AFL-CIO now has 16.5 million members, or 13.9 percent of the workforce.

The numbers could be higher still, but some international unions and many local unions spend little, if anything, on organizing. That’s a crime because “some 40 million employees,” reports Business Week Online (Jan. 19), “say they would vote to unionize if an election were held at their employer.” The periodical says that many workers are pissed-off because bosses “aren’t sharing the robust economy’s fruits enough with their employees.”

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