On being elected president of the International Longshoremen’s Association, basked in the applause of union delegates to the strains of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” over the loudspeakers. I wonder if ILA leadership was aware of the song’s provenance?
According to Rolling Stone Magazine, the song reflected Cooke’s internal turmoil over racism. While Cooke was moved that Bob Dylan, a white man, could so poignantly address discrimination in “Blowin’ in the Wind,” his fears of losing his predominantly white fan base prevented him from moving beyond his pop music base. Cooke ultimately wrote and recorded the song before his death in 1964. It went on to become an anthem of the civil rights movement, although a 40-year dispute made the actual recoding unavailable.
In many ways, the history of the longshore labor organization runs parallel to American civil rights. According to Bruce Nelson’s labor history, “Divided We Stand,” the Irish-led ILA refused to admit black members until the union’s concerns about possible strike-breaking exceeded its racist preferences. Ironically, the ILA’s “separate but equal” black and white locals ultimately prevented jurisdictional intrusion by the more egalitarian International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
Although industrialized society has significantly changed since 1964, one wouldn’t know it from Daggett’s remarks. Perhaps a better musical choice would have been from the Marx Brother’s 1932 film Horsefeathers: “I don’t know what they have to say; it makes no difference anyway; whatever it is, I’m against it!”
Daggett may not have been channeling Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, at least intentionally. However, he listed a litany of items that he pledged to fight: automated terminals, overweight containers, chassis pools outsourcing repairs, and nonunion Caribbean transshipment ports.
To many, Daggett’s remarks seemed a direct response to a more moderate speech given earlier by James Capo, chairman and CEO of United States Maritime Alliance, the ILA’s management counterpart. Both sides are clearly preparing for negotiations toward a new contract to replace the agreement that expires next year. Capo’s position was to note that competition wasn’t the traditional management-labor model. Rather, the East and Gulf Coast ports compete against other geographies and modes.
Daggett is clearly devoted to his members. His saber rattling may or may not translate into actual disruptions. It also bears watching to see if the ILA and ILWU start coordinating on issues of common interest.
The role of labor unions in our society is under great scrutiny. Two years ago, corporate America raged against the potential for “card check” elections that would greatly increase union membership. With that initiative dead, the NLRB Boeing decision has created a new target for management outrage. Yet many would argue that organized labor’s position is much more tenuous. Public sector unions are under attack throughout the country, from Republicans and Democrats alike.
This may prove to be a tipping point in U.S. labor history, because reasonable people may rationalize that they aren’t opposed to unions, just “the wrong” ones. History has shown that, ultimately, public and private unions aren’t necessarily viewed differently.
Georgetown Professor Joseph A. McCartin recently analyzed how President Reagan’s confrontation with the Professional Air Traffic Controllers changed the modern workplace. But despite Republican revisionist history, Reagan wasn’t anti-labor. He was a union president himself, and participated in several Screen Actors Guild strikes. Despite the Socialist tint of labor unions, his support of Lech Walesa’s Solidarity union constituted an essential anti-Soviet strategy.
Thirty years ago this summer, President Reagan (who supported the right of government workers to organize) fired PATCO workers engaged in an illegal work stoppage. McCartin notes Reagan’s “unprecedented dismissal of skilled strikers encouraged private employers to do likewise.” After PATCO, labor unions were loath to rely on the strike as a tool, and, lacking that leverage, many unions have been unable to keep wages linked to productivity.
In fact, in many sectors of the transportation industry, unions have almost disappeared in the past 30 years. Although marine terminals and railroads remain heavily unionized, the truckload and warehouse industries have become almost largely devoid of unions. Deregulation hastened that demise, as labor costs could no longer simply be passed through to customers.
Some industries — airlines, for example — saw unions turn on each other as they all sought to preserve their share of the shrinking “pie.” Union-against-union conflict may become an increasingly frequent event. This was common 100 years ago as workers and craftsmen sought to find common ground.
Leaders such as Daggett and Capo may well be at the forefront of this new movement.
Ted Prince is principal, T. Prince & Associates. Contact him at email@example.com.