Posted by: kokoro | 31st Mar, 2009

Wellman,The Union Makes Us Strong

Wellman focuses on the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), Local 10 in San Francisco, to argue that radical unionism is not dead.

In Part One Wellman argues against previous scholarship that assumes that the industrial unionism of the 1930s became business unionism following WWII. The trajectory into business unionism is assumed to be a natural course, and the left-wing unions that didn’t follow that trajectory, like the ILWU, are considered “exceptions.” Wellman believes that the survival of ILWU-like unions calls into question the beliefs about radical labor’s demise. He argues against putting too many distinctions between industrial and business unionism and against assuming that control contests end with contracts. The early CIO of the 1930s fought for working-class participation in U.S. institutions, shopfloor democracy in the workplace, and industrial demands in national politics. Wellman points to the demise of labor in the national political agenda as the failure scholars point to, but he argues that issues of control and participation in everyday workers’ lives are another example of radical labor. Participatory politics continue today in the ILWU and beyond.

In Part Two Wellman investigates the political aspects of Local 10 in San Francisco. In the late 1940s and 1950s bargaining contracts and anti-Communism led to the CIO to become dependent on the Democratic Party, acting as a pressure group within the party. Political attacks allowed the leftist ILWU to avoid bureaucratizing. Unable to rely on federal protection, the union remained politically independent.

The community resources of Local 10 remain important for its struggle for control of the workplace. Public politics and the culture of participation are organizational mainstays, and workers participate is in nearly every part of the union. The community of Local 10 is both cultural and institutional. The practices of fraternity, equality, and liberty are resources for disobedience, challenging management’s control, and avoiding the centralizing, bureaucratic tendency of the union.

Union halls are the fabric of the community. The union continues to operate as it has for over a half century, through a participationist, egalitarian “tumultuous democracy.” It is another source of opposition to employer control and the centralizing tendencies of unionism. Deliberations become the business of the entire membership, and officials are joined at the bargaining table by the rank and file. The grapevine, daily dispatch, and flexible work hours also allow longshoremen to keep an eye on elected officials. Politicos are longshoremen who run for office and participate regularly and extensively in union activities. They “make the record” through their militarism at the bargaining table and union meetings, and through their accomplishments, issues raised, and programs produced. Longshoremen learn practical democracy in the union hall and practice it on the docks.

In Part Three Wellman discusses how the introduction of technology impacted work on the docks, as well as codes of conducts for working. In the 1960s the union signed a contractual agreement, called the “Mechanization and Modernization Agreement” (M&M), which introduced new technology. Longshoring became capital intensive, and work came to resemble factory tasks. However, employers still relied on workers for many reasons. Technological renovation didn’t live up to its expectations. Workplace governance was not settled despite changes in dockwork, and while traditional skills became less important, they were replaced by new skills. The community also remained political active, as longshoremen insisted on being taken into account and objected to being disregarded.

While new technology did not alter class relations, it did create two debates within the longshoremen community based on the nature of skilled labor on the waterfront. One group argues that modern longshoring requires technological equipment. They equate skill with containerization. The other group argues that running equipment doesn’t require much skill. The supporters of the first argument are longshoremen who work with modern technology on container docks and union officials who defend the M&M Agreements. The supporters of the other argument include men working out of hiring halls or in gangs with conventional technology. The debate is fueled for many reasons. New technology fractured the understanding of skilled labor. It created a definition of skill determined by the employer, which ruins traditional longshoremen respect for experience. Equipment operators tend to be young men, which inverts the traditional relationship between experience, ability, and reward. Also, steady technology based work decreases dependency on the union, which hurts the community of fraternity, equality, and liberty.

Wellman also discusses the codes of conduct for longshoremen. They are principles that distinguish acceptable and unacceptable, fair and unfair, work practices. These standards of accountability and principles of self-regulation are enforced by the longshoremen.

In Part Four Wellman examines Local 10’s contractual encounters with the Pacific Maritime Association. He argues that the battle for shopfloor control did not end with the M&M Agreements. Longshoremen challenge management’s control over the waterfront through informal means on the docks (through knowledge to autonomous work) and contractually (through grievance processes). The disagreements between longshoremen and management have remained virtually the same since the 1930s based upon which side’s rules will be followed in relation to how to work, language, and merit.

Determining how to work results in disagreements over the distribution of the rewards and burdens of the work process and over flexibility and managerial prerogatives. Language disagreements are based on formulating and interpreting. Local 10 and PMA don’t share the same vocabularies, and they don’t even agree on the language specifying the terms of their cooperation. They argue over which side’s understanding will be used in contract negotiations and in grievance processes. In acknowledging merit, both sides argue over defining a fair day’s pay, choosing supervision, determining skill, and promotion and salary differentiation.

In Part Five Wellman argues that like in the 1930s the fight over workplace control continues between the ILWU and PMA, but unlike then the matter is technically contractually settled on the employer’s side. Practically, it is not settled, and the ILWU uses the contract as a weapon. Though defensible disobedience, each side tries to gain the advantage over the other while staying within the language of the contract.

Three conditions are required for defensible disobedience. First, troubles must be translated into grievable issues. Longshoremen act on their complaints if they are defendable in the contact. “Good beefs” refer to complaints that leave the union with little to lose and everything to gain and are contact defendable. Second, both sides must keep the agreement. Both sides take advantage of the contract and stretch it to fit their needs, but a living contract must be maintained by appearing to keep their side of the bargain. Third, the appearance of cooperation must be maintained. Even when one side is taking advantage of the other, the impression of cooperation must be kept to maintain a living contract. Both sides maintain the appearance of reciprocity through the illusion of negotiation, saving face for the other side, and through the appearance of justice.

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