LEAD training aims  to strengthen a  rank-and-file union

Team building: The LEAD Institute program emphasized group participation and collaborative problem solving to help build a strong democratic union from the bottom-up.

A diverse group of 100 rank-and-file members and elected leaders attended the ILWU’s Leadership, Education and Development (LEAD) training in Seattle on May 7-12. The week- long education program seeks to provide tools that attendees can take back to their local unions that will encourage new leadership and more membership involvement – both fundamental tenants of the ILWU belief that strong unions are built from the bottom-up. Practical skills Dozens of exercises were conducted throughout the week, emphasizing active participation and collaborative problem-solving skills. Participants learned practical skills, including how to run a successful union meeting, how to increase member involvement, how to speak confidently in public, and how to communicate a positive, public-interest union message to the news media.

Opening remarks

Opening remarks ILWU International President Robert McEllrath opened the training, emphasizing that leadership comes in many forms and is not limited only to those holding elected union office. He reminded everyone that the ILWU’s strength comes from an active and engaged rank-and-file, not a “top down” leadership style.  “Does a leader have to be the president or secretary-treasurer of the local?” asked McEllrath. “Absolutely not,” he answered. “You’ll see a leader stand up in a union meeting and speak their mind, ask questions and go through the democratic process of our union. It’s you, the rank-and-file, who are going to make this union work.”

Keynote address

Vision: Local 19’s Alexandra Vekich served as note taker during a group exercise to develop a broad vision for the union.

On the second day of the training, a keynote address was delivered by Dr. Steven Pitts, an economist at UC Berkeley’s Labor Center. He focused on America’s growing inequality, explaining that wages for workers no longer rise with higher productivity.  During the decades following WWII until the late 1960s, Pitts said wages rose along with productivity, allowing workers to share the benefits of producing goods and services more efficiently. Pitts said that wages have been stagnant for several decades despite rising productivity levels. More profits from higher productivity are now going into the pockets of the super-rich.

“Workers in this country have been beaten-down for 40 years, and that beat-down is a result of workers lacking power,” Pitts said. He stressed that workers can begin to reverse this trend by starting with a common vision and shared values about the kind of world they want to see in the future. Pitts then led participants in a group exercise to develop that shared vision.  Presentations and group exercises that afternoon focused on how to make union meetings more effective and how different personality types and “working styles” can collaborate to make an effective team. Those sessions were facilitated by Joel Schaffer and Rick Ogelsby of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS). That was followed by a session on “Robert’s Rules of Order,” which is the process used by the ILWU and other bodies to assure orderly debate and decision making. This session was led by Local 8’s Jim Daw and Local 52’s Max Vekich; both have served as parliamentarians at Longshore Caucuses and ILWU Conventions.

The ILWU’s 10 Guiding Principles

The third day started with a discussion about the ILWU’s Ten Guiding Principles, led by pensioner Rich Austin, Sr., who presented an overview of the principles and their history. A panel discussion followed with IBU Secretary-Treasurer Terri Mast, Local 5 Union Representative Ryan Takas and Local 19 President Rich Austin, Jr., who explained the importance of the Guiding Principles and how they have shaped the union. Following the panel discussion, workshop participants voted for what they felt were the most important principles, listing favorites at one of ten easels set-up around the room.

Bridging the ‘generations gap’

Later that afternoon, conference participants discussed the need to develop and involve young leaders in the union. A discussion on “bridging the generation” gap began with a brainstorming session that explored the perspectives of younger and older workers led by Gary Hattal and Ligia Velazquez of FMCS. A panel discussion followed with ILWU Canada Second Vice-President Steve Nasby, Local 5 Secretary-Treasurer Amy Wren, ILWU 23 President Dean McGrath, Tacoma Pensioners President Mike Jagielski, and Local 23 B-Man Brian Skiffington. Panelists explained how their locals are developing younger and newer leaders. Nasby discussed ILWU Canada’s annual “Young Workers Conference” along with efforts to include ID Casuals in education and other union programs. The Tacoma delegation talked about their Young Workers’ Committee that built strong bonds between Local 23 pensioners and younger Tacoma longshore workers.

“We brought together young workers who are hungry for knowledge about the ILWU and the industry, and you have this group of pensioners who are eager to share their knowledge and experience. It’s a powerful combination,” said Mike Jagielski.  Local 5’s Amy Wren talked about the challenges of building union culture at Powell’s where the turnover rate is much higher than the longshore industry, and most workers have no personal or family experience with unions before working at Powell’s.


On day four, ILWU International Vice President Ray Familathe gave a multi-media presentation that explained the growing threat of automation on the docks, in the trucking industry and in warehouses and hotels. “I’m tired of being lied to by politicians,” said Familathe. “I don’t think there’s a politician on either side of the aisle who understands where this technology is going and what is going to happen to working people over the next few years. We need to challenge these politicians on where they stand on automation and how they expect public services can continue to be funded if more and more workers are displaced by robots.”

Communications workshop

The ILWU communications staff held a workshop in the afternoon of day four. Topics included internal and external communications strategies, developing a public-interest messages, flyer design and public speaking. The workshop was interactive, and participants worked in small groups to practice public speaking, produce their own flyers and develop messages that combined union issues with broader public concerns.

Report from Standing Rock 

Toward the end of the day, Local 4 members Steve Hunt and Jamison Roberts shared their experiences with building community support for ILWU members who were locked-out of the EGT grain terminal in Vancouver, WA for 18 months, ending in late 2014. They also shared details about their recent solidarity efforts to support the Lakota Sioux and other Native Americans who opposed the Dakota Access pipeline that was proposed to run through their land.  Hunt said the tactics he saw on TV used by the police against Native Americans reminded him of how ILWU members had been treated in Vancouver during the lockout. “I wanted to go there and see for myself what was happening, and not rely on what the media was telling me,” he said. “I know they police aren’t there to protect the grass. They have the backs of the oil companies, just like they had the backs of the grain companies in Vancouver,” he said.  Hunt and Roberts were the first ILWU members on the ground at Standing Rock protest. They brought a trailer full of donated supplies from Local 4 members and stayed for a week to provide assistance. Delegations from Locals 10, 13 and 23 followed, and the ILWU Executive Board and the Coast Longshore Division both donated funds to support the cause.

Member Action Plan

The week culminated with the Member Action Plan (MAP) exercise. Small working groups were tasked with developing a plan to help new members get more involved in their local unions.   The idea was introduced by Fred Glass, Communications Director for the American Federation of Teachers, who helped develop the exercise with former ILWU Education Director Gene Vrana. Each group was asked to begin by assessing the current needs of their locals to determine any shortcomings that now exist with new member education, outreach and orientation. Those insights were combined with skills and approaches learned during the week, then shaped into a proposed plan that was presented to the conference on the final morning of the training.

Closing address

On the final day, ILWU International Secretary Treasurer Willie Adams delivered closing remarks to the conference. He stressed the need for participants to bring back what they had learned and apply that knowledge to work with their local union officers. “What will you do with all of this knowledge? What will happen when you get back home? Will your momentum and enthusiasm die out? Will you be on fire when you get home or will you just go back to doing what we’ve always been doing?” Adams asked. Active members, strong unions Local 500 member Joulene Parent, who now works on her local’s Education Committee, said her own experience as a casual dockworker illustrated how important it is to actively encourage new workers to participate.  “I’m one of those people who was pulled into working with our union’s Education Committee before I became a full member,” Parent said. “I used to think that you had to be a fully-registered member to get educated and that it was an exclusive club. But Local 500 members reached out to me, invited me, encouraged me to participate, and made me feel like I had something to contribute. Now I see that our inactive members and casuals are resources lying dormant that could benefit our union.”

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