Delegates to the ILWU’s 36th convention in Hawaii debated union policy and made plans for the future during five days of meetings that emphasized unity over differences.
History & tradition
The group of 360 delegates joined together with 35 ILWU Pensioner and Auxiliary “fraternal” delegates, along with a host of invited guests. On the opening day, delegates met in the Sheraton Waikiki hotel in Honolulu, Oahu, where ceremonies began with ILWU International President Robert McEllrath inviting Local 142 President Donna Domingo to the podium, thanking her and the host committee for their two years of hard work preparing for the convention.
Domingo explained that they wanted delegates to experience some of Hawaii’s culture and traditions then introduced artist Aaron Sala and Local 142 member Kumu Hula Keola Kapu. The pair offered a traditional Hawaiian blessing for the convention, with Sala recounting an island legend about service, commitment and community that inspired the blessing.
Dozens of musicians from Hawaii’s Royal Band were on hand at the opening ceremony to play the national anthems of the United States, Canada and Panama. The Royal Band is a unique public treasure in Hawaii that was founded 175 years ago by King Kamehameha III, and performs 300 times a year.
ILWU International Vice President (Hawaii) Wesley Furtado introduced another special guest, Hawaii Governor David Ige. The Governor welcomed delegates, acknowledged the importance of labor unions, and concluded by recalling the summers he spent working as a young man in a pineapple processing plant where the ILWU contract meant he and other workers were paid fairly.
ILWU International President Robert McEllrath returned to the podium – after receiving a gracious introduction by International Secretary- Treasurer Willie Adams – to deliver a speech outlining his views on the critical issues facing ILWU members.
McEllrath began by thanking his wife and family members who were asked to stand and received a long round of applause, then acknowledged the contributions of his fellow officers: Vice Presidents Ray Familathe and Wesley Furtado, Secretary-Treasurer Willie Adams, and Coast Committeemen Ray Ortiz, Jr., and Leal Sundet. He then invited delegates to view a short video featuring dramatic highlights from ILWU struggles during the previous eight years. After the video, he noted that the union could not have endured so many challenges without strong support from rank-and-file members and dedicated local officers.
“If it’s true that fighting in these struggles makes us stronger, then we must be Hercules by now!” said McEllrath. He recalled the frustration of dealing with other unions when ILWU members were locked-out by big grain companies in the Pacific Northwest.
“It’s pretty hard to get a contract when other unions are walking through your picket lines,” he noted. McEllrath said the decision to leave the AFL-CIO, initiated by delegates at the previous 2012 convention, was correct, but said ILWU locals should remain active with other unions in their communities. “We are out of the AFL-CIO, but not out of the labor movement,” he reminded delegates.
McEllrath then addressed the recently concluded longshore contract, noting that employers had fired many workers and curtailed operations during the conflict – then blamed workers for the resulting congestion.
The contract settlement doesn’t mean the struggle is over, he said, pointing to new legislation being introduced in Congress that aims to weaken longshore union bargaining power in future contracts.
McEllrath said the proposed legislation would re-write federal labor laws by requiring regular monitoring of production levels at West Coast ports – and give state governors new power to threaten union members with court injunctions in order to maintain productions levels during a contract dispute.
“They’re coming after us, saying ‘you can’t stop work at the ports.’ They want to take away your power on the docks. This is one of the most draconian things that we’ve seen in the labor movement, and we’re going to fight it as long as we can.”
The way forward, said McEllrath, is both simple and challenging because it requires unity and support from all union members: “We’ve all got to do our jobs, maintain our jurisdiction, fight the employers and outsmart them.”
After the President’s speech, convention delegates adjourned to begin working on a committee of their own choosing. Unlike many unions, the ILWU’s democratic tradition allows individual delegates to choose which committee they will serve on. The most popular committees were Resolutions and Constitution & Programs.
Both committees heard a wide variety of proposals for new policies and procedures. In order to be considered for a vote by delegates on the convention floor, proposed resolutions were first required to win support from a majority of local union members or a majority of local union delegates attending the convention. Then each resolution was thoroughly explained, debated, amended and subject to an up or down vote in one of the committees before finally reaching the convention floor.
This requirement meant some committee meetings went late into the night to consider all of the proposed resolutions. A total of 46 proposed resolutions were heard by the Committees and most – but not all – of the proposals went on to the convention floor for further consideration by delegates.
Trade unionists from around the world attended the ILWU convention in Hawaii – part of the union’s long tradition of international solidarity – which included the following special guests:
Chris Cain, Secretary of the Western Branch, Maritime Union of Australia, explained how their union has experienced dynamic growth and involved young members into their leadership. Growing recently from 1,000 to 5,000 members, the Western Branch is being challenged by powerful employers, including Chevron. He noted the need to be politically involved and constantly organizing new members.
Stephen Cotton, General Secretary of the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), a global network of 700 unions in 150 different countries. Cotton has served as an ITF staffer for 22 years and was recently elected to the top position. Paddy Crumlin, National Secretary for the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) also serves as President of the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF). In Australia, the MUA is facing an anti-union government that has been waging war against workers.
Rogue operators, including ICTSI, are investing in Australian ports. In the country’s Northwest, giant corporations including Chevron are exploiting the country’s resources, threatening to undermine worker standards, and suing MUA members for over $20 million dollars because of a safety dispute. Crumlin’s leadership at the ITF has helped to coordinate actions on behalf of 4 million workers around the globe.
Joe Fleetwood, General Secretary of the Maritime Union of New Zealand, recently helped the MUNZ membership conclude a bitter anti-union campaign in which the Ports of Auckland, Limited, sought to “casualize” dockworkers by turning good union jobs into junk jobs. The ILWU and other unions mobilized quickly for solidarity rallies and marches, but the dispute required a three-year battle before an agreement was reached.
Marc Loridan, Federal Secretary for the Ports of Belgium Transport Workers Union, known as the BTB, is a frequent participant in global solidarity efforts but their union faces challenges at home from anti-union politicians who have been pushing a big business agenda to weaken unions, lower labor standards, and give more power to management. In 2013, BTB workers went on strike for 6 days after employers tried to conceal the hiring of nonunion, low-wage workers who were secretly performing union warehouse work near the docks.
Kozo Matsumoto, President of Zenkowan, the All-Japan Dockworkers Union, leads a militant, democratic, and progressive union that recently engaged in a series of one-day port strikes and provided critical support for ILWU Pacific Beach Hotel workers to reach their first contract settlement.
In a gesture that has become an important tradition, President Matsumoto brought a “Friendship and Solidarity Statement” from Zenkowan that was signed by him and ILWU President Robert McEllrath in front of delegates.
Niek Stam, General Secretary of the Dutch dockworkers union (FVN) led a successful 7-year battle to recover pension funds that were stolen from workers through an insurance swindle. With help from the ILWU and other unions, the FVN was able to eventually recover $260 million that helped restore retirement plansfor workers. Stam is also an expert about the impact of new technology on dockworkers because the ports in Holland employ some of the world’s most automated systems Steve Todd, National Secretary of Britain’s Rail, Maritime & Transport Workers’ Union (RMT), assumed his post last year, following the untimely death of Bob Crow, the dynamic militant leader who died suddenly at the age of 52. Now Todd is leading efforts to help British union members in a challenging environment where anti-union politicians are increasingly common.
Each of the special guests was presented with a bronze sculpture of an ILWU cargo hook, hand-crafted by the talented artist and Local 19 pensioner Ron Gustin. He has exhibited work ingalleries up and down the coast, and Produced 16 sculptures that were presented at the convention, each requiring more than a dozen steps to complete the unique works of art.
Global solidarity within the ILWU’s own ranks was demonstrated with exciting growth in the new Panama Division. International Vice President Ray Familathe explained how the connections between the ILWU and Panama Canal Pilots Union were first established during the 2002 lockout, when the ILWU longshore negotiating committee was seeking international support and met Londor Rankin of the Panama Canal Pilots Union. During the years that followed, Familathe and President McEllrath encouraged discussions of a possible alliance, and in September of 2011 the Panama Canal Pilots voted to affiliate with the ILWU and the new Panama Division was established.
The Pilots are now trying to negotiate a new contract with the Panama Canal Authority, which has been resisting a fair settlement. Members of the Pilots Union, including Secretary-General Raniero Salas, explained their contract struggle to convention delegates who responded with a strong showing of support by unanimously adopting a solidarity resolution.
The Panama Division has also been busy building solidarity at home by assisting dockworkers employed by Panama Ports. These dockworkers finally succeeded in forming their own independent union after rejecting a “yellow union” imposed by their employer. Dockworkers had to first win a long fight to hold an election, then found the voting process was rigged in favor of the company’s yellow union. That’s when ILWU leaders joined with the Panama Division to support an honest and open election process. When that finally happened, dockworkers at Panama Ports voted for their own independent SINTRAPORSPA union led by Secretary-General Alberto Ochoa. On December 30, 2014, SINTRAPORSPA and the ILWU signed an affiliation agreement welcoming 2850 dockworkers into the Panama Division.
After explaining this background, Vice President Familathe provided a warm introduction for SINTRAPOR who delivered his remarks in Spanish that were translated by Secretary-General Raniero Salas of the Pilots Union.
Ochoa said he brought greetings from his fellow dockworkers in Panama who just won their first independent union contract that will raise pay by 35% over the next four years, crediting the ILWU Panama Division for helping to make it possible. He noted that Panama Ports, owned by Hong Kong based Hutchinson Port Holdings, had been trying to outsource jobs which will require continued vigilance and support in order to maintain the new union’s jurisdiction.
“The ILWU has been instrumental in growing our union in Panama. We are grateful for the support you have provided us and hope to continue receiving your help which has given us great results,” said Ochoa.
During a break in the convention schedule, a good-natured surfing contest was held between MUA President Paddy Crumlin and ILWU President Bob McEllrath, who both waded into the water at beautiful Waikiki and paddled out to the surf line. They returned after both caught waves and each incurred minor foot injuries from the sharp coral that makes Waikiki waves break so smoothly over the reef. After some debate, Crumlin was declared the contest winner but immediately donated his board to ILWU Local 142 members.
New organizing challenges Convention delegates heard two detailed organizing reports, one for Hawaii and the other covering the mainland, with both emphasizing the challenges involved with organizing new workers.
International Vice President (Hawaii) Wesley Furtado delivered the Hawaii organizing report, explaining that 85% of their union campaigns have resulted in a first contract. He also noted that employers are changing tactics to make organizing more difficult by hiring workers online instead of conducting open interviews for new hotels. In the past, union organizers could go to interview sites with clipboards where “one-on-one,” and had union authorization cards ready for workers to sign. Now the union must rely more on family and friends to contact hotel workers who are hired online. Furtado said organizers try to sign up at least 70-80% of the workers in a new shop, to ensure a safe margin and overcome the employer’s anti-union campaigning.
He concluded by recognizing the staff and member organizers of Local 142 who he said have been doing an excellent job. International Vice President (Mainland) Ray Familathe also praised his International organizing team for their hard work and dedication. He noted several recent campaigns that illustrate the challenges and opportunities facing ILWU organizing efforts on the mainland, beginning with a strategic campaign to help recycling industry workers in Alameda County win industry-leading wages and benefits.
He said the effort began with a campaign to improve existing contracts covering more than 200 Local 6 workers, and has now expanded to help non-union workers at Alameda County Industries organize and join the union.
All the campaigns required lengthy, difficult fights with multiple strikes and dozens of job actions, but workers have now secured wages that will soon pay almost $21 an hour with excellent benefits.
Familathe also pointed to joint organizing projects with the Inlandboatmen’s Union, involving strategic targets such as the first successful tugboat organizing campaign on the West Coast in 20 years, and an ongoing campaign to help fuel dock workers organize in Dutch Harbor Alaska. Even campaigns to help small units, such as the Port of Anacortes or workers at Harbor Dental, frequently involve lengthy, complex campaigns to win recognition and first contracts. He noted the recent effort to help workers organize at Catalina Express, where a strong union campaign effort was overwhelmed by aggressive anti-union consultants, concluding that these efforts frequently require multiple campaigns over many years to succeed.
Convention delegates continued debating policy resolutions throughout the remaining hours, but one of the more poignant proposals to reach the floor celebrated seven decades of union service by ILWU member LeRoy King. This was the first convention since the 1940’s that King was unable to attend, so many speakers noted his exceptional absence and praised his lifelong commitment to the union. The resolution honoring King passed unanimously after many heartfelt testimonials, including one from San Francisco IBU Regional Director Marina Secchitano who was unable to hold back tears as she described King’s role as her mentor who taught her about the union that he loved so much. After the resolution passed, King was informed by telephone of the resolution honoring his lifetime of service, while resting in his San Francisco home. The news gave him great comfort and joy, according to Local 6 Secretary-Treasurer Fred Pecker, who placed the call just one day before King passed peacefully in his sleep.
Pensioners & Auxiliary
After all the resolutions had been heard, Secretary-Treasurer Willie Adams called Pacific Coast Pensioner President Rich Austin, Jr. to the podium, followed by Auxiliary President Ida Taylor. Adams praised both for their leadership and important organizational roles.
Austin, Jr. invited everyone to the upcoming Pensioners Convention in San Francisco on September 7-9, and finished his remarks with a reminder.
“There are a whole lot of people in this world who work hard, but don’t have the ILWU to support them. And that’s our challenge. We’re supposed to organize the unorganized. That’s what we do with our good fortune. We pensioners stand ready, to be of service whenever called upon. Pupukahi holomua – united we progress!”
Ida Taylor thanked the officers and delegates for hosting the convention, and conveyed warm regards from past Auxiliary President Carolyn Williams who was unable to attend this year’s convention. She also thanked everyone who purchased raffle tickets for the beautiful ILWU quilt assembled by Auxiliary volunteers up and down the coast that was raffled on July 5 in Coos Bay Oregon. Taylor said that Auxiliary members will be organizing and educating in the months and years ahead, and encouraged all delegates to “bring your families and have them join our Auxiliary!”
The process of nominating candidates for International office was next on the agenda, with President Robert McEllrath, Secretary-Treasurer Willie Adams, Vice President (Mainland) Ray Familathe and Vice President (Hawaii) Wesley Furtado, all being nominated without opposition. Candidates were also nominated for the International Executive Board and Trustee positions. All candidates will appear on a ballot being mailed to members on July 27.
The final round of comments from the floor included words of appreciation from ILWU Canada President Mark Gordienko. He noted that ILWU Canada members will be celebrating their 80th anniversary of the 1935 strike at Ballantyne Pier on June 18. He reminded delegates that the strike itself was broken, but workers went on to form their union and join the ILWU 12 years later. He also said it had been a pleasure to work with the International officers during his term on the Executive Board. He concluded by thanking Local 142 President Donna Domingo and all Local 142 members on behalf of the entire Canadian delegation, saying, “thank you very much for how well you treated us here. It’s been a great= Convention!”
Domingo responded by recognizing John Bush from Local 200 in Alaska, who with members of Local 514 in British Columbia, donated salmon that fed almost 1000 delegates and guests at a BBQ dinner earlier in the week. “With all people coming together, Local 142 was very happy with how the convention turned out,” she said.
As President McEllrath rose to the podium for the last time, he thanked the Hawaii delegation once more for doing such a fine job of planning all the details that made the convention enjoyable, including a memorable banquet, BBQ dinner and cultural evening – plus sightseeing events for spouses. He also called up the staff and volunteers from Local 142 and the International Union to the front of the room where they were recognized for making the convention run smoothly.
“Staying here in Hawaii has been gorgeous,” said McEllrath, “and I’d like to leave you with a couple of thoughts. It’s the ILWU way that we sometimes get upset at each other. If anybody’s feelings were hurt, I apologize.
But, this is why we’re tough, why we’re the ILWU. We fight it out here, then we go home. And when we go home, we’re united. We’re united right now. We’re going to stay united. So thank you brothers and sisters. This has been a hell of a week. The next convention will be in Portland, Oregon in 2018.”