The ILA's next generation

The ILA's next generation

One speaker at last month's International Longshoremen's Association convention opened his talk with a joke about the advanced ages of the ILA officials around him. The wisecrack got a good laugh, because it was true.

Gray was the dominant color on the convention dais, and not just the worsted-wool suits of the ILA's assembled hierarchy. Many of the union's top officials have been on the waterfront since the 1950s, or even longer. Union President John Bowers, 80,has been an ILA member for 56 years.

Bowers said that after 16 years as ILA president, he would have retired this year if it weren't for a federal investigation that threatens to make the union the object of an anti-racketeering lawsuit.

Lawsuit or not, it's likely that Bowers' next term will be his last. The ILA is nearing a transition that will be its most significant since 1963. That was when the legendary Thomas W. "Teddy" Gleason succeeded William Bradley, a former tugboat captain who took over after "president for life" Joe Ryan was ousted in a corruption scandal.

Many ILA members believe Gleason represented the union's greatest generation. During the 1960s and 1970s, he shrewdly negotiated a series of contracts that cushioned the impact of containerization on waterfront jobs. Those programs included a guaranteed annual income for workers whose jobs were automated, and container royalties that still produce regular checks for ILA members.

When Gleason called it quits in 1987, Bowers was the clear successor. As executive vice president, he had been Gleason's top lieutenant and chief trouble-shooter throughout his boss's 24-year term.

As president, Bowers has succeeded in erasing the ILA's reputation as a union that struck at the end of almost every contract. He also has struggled with a dilemma that surfaced during Gleason's final term - how to balance members' contract demands with the need to compete with non-ILA stevedores, particularly in Gulf and South Atlantic ports.

In the ILA's Byzantine internal politics, no clear successor to Bowers has emerged. Names mentioned most often include Albert Cernadas, the union's executive vice president; Harold Daggett, assistant general organizer; and Benny Holland, general vice president and former head of the ILA's South Atlantic and Gulf district.

The selection of Bowers' successor, and the ILA's future direction, could hinge on how the current federal investigation plays out. If, as is widely expected, the ILA becomes the target of an anti-racketeering lawsuit, prosecutors could seek to put the union under trusteeship or force resignations of key officers. If that happens, the intra-union political fallout could get nasty.

At this point, the outcome of the investigation is impossible to predict. The union's history, which includes dozens of convictions of union officials over several decades, has created a presumption of guilt among prosecutors and much of the public. But a successful anti-racketeering suit against the ILA probably will require much more than the testimony of George Barone, a mob-connected former ILA vice president.

While allegations of corruption are an old story for the ILA, the emergence of a reform caucus within the union is new. The Longshore Workers Coalition, organized three years ago, has been agitating for union democracy, rank-and-file activism and closer ties with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and other labor organizations.

To say that the coalition and its efforts have not been well-received by top ILA officials is an understatement. Bowers has accused the coalition of seeking to be a "union within a union" and of undermining ILA solidarity.

Kenneth Riley, president of the ILA's largest Charleston local, insists that the coalition is determined to work within the ILA, and that an informed, involved membership will lead to a more effective union.

The coalition isn't much of a force yet. It's still shunned by top ILA officials. A package of amendments and resolutions by coalition members was soundly defeated at the union's convention last month in San Juan. But don't write the coalition off yet.

Most of the ILA's inbred leadership wishes the coalition would just go away, but that doesn't appear likely. The reform caucus has attracted a modest level of grassroots support, even among officers of several local unions, and it appears to be here to stay. Like it or not, the next generation of ILA leaders will have to deal with it.