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The IWW Presence at Jeffboat

By x347685, May 12, 2001

Before dawn on Monday, April 30, four IWW members arrived at Gate 8 of JeffBoat shipyard. Two of the Wobblies walked along the sidewalk across from the gate while another Wobbly flashed his sign at oncoming traffic. Workers drove into the adjacent parking lot and, upon seeing the picket line the Wobblies had formed, decided to postpone clocking in and instead to talk to each other about what to do. Soon another worker joined the wobblies and then another. The United States's MayDay wildcat strike had begun.

By midday the wildcat picket lines were packed and standing strong. Workers inside the shipyard could not get out because the gates were locked and many shook the chain link fence that held them back from their fellow workers on the line. At lunch, when the gates were opened, these trapped workers joined the picket lines and a total walkout occurred at JeffBoat.

Monday afternoon angry workers on the wildcat picket lines jumped in their cars and filled the backs of pickup trucks in a caravan to their union hall, Teamsters Local 89. They were going to demand to speak to Local 89 President, Fred Zuckerman. They had a bone to pick with him.

To understand what lead to this wildcat strike, you'd have to look at the history of organized labor at JeffBoat. Several decades ago, JeffBoat workers fought against their corrupt business union, Teamsters Local 65. After much work, they were able to get a new local and a new hope by switching to Teamsters Local 89. But the problems with business union corruption continued, and even worsened. Local 89 has threatened to ratify contracts against union members' demands. Local 89 business agents have literally tossed coins over workers' jobs and fallen asleep during grievance hearings. There is no pressure from the local to enforce serious safety precautions or to insure workers' health. The local does nothing as the company postpones medical treatment to workers until they can be drug tested. The local has repeatedly denied strike benefits to workers.

Two years ago Wobblies in the shipyard began trying to organize to help workers change some of these things. An IWW shipbuilders branch was formed to talk about working conditions. There were walk offs and area-specific slowdowns and gradually a few important changes began to occur. For instance, workers were no longer required to work if lightening was flashing overhead. This is very important since JeffBoat workers are standing on or crawling through sheet steel and using high voltage electrical equipment. In fact, many workers used direct action and simply began walking away from their job if rain fell it all. These victories the Wobblies assisted with and the attitude these wins produced set the foundation for the events of the first week of May, 2001.

On April 29, workers gathered in the meeting hall of Local 89 to vote on JeffBoat management's contract proposal. Up until this time, workers were not allowed by the Teamsters to see the contract proposal and what they did see came as a shock. There was a minuscule rise in wages but a greater rise in insurance payments, a change of the contract date from late April in the busy season to late September in the slow season (these seasonal differences mean workers are at an advantage or disadvantage in collective bargaining with the company) and, worst of all, a section of the contract that stated that the business agent and the company were free to change the contract at will if only they put the change in writing.

Teamster officials demanded the workers sign the contract as it was "the best you're gonna get." There were shouts and cussing and nearly a riot as Teamster officials tried to strong arm workers, but a vote was taken and the result was over 4-to-1 opposition to the new contract. Teamster officials told workers that a picket schedule would soon be in place and they would be receiving their strike benefits after the following Friday.

When all but twenty workers had left the union hall, Local 89 President Fred Zuckerman declared that he would not sanction the strike. That evening, workers received phone calls from the union hall telling them that the strike was not sanctioned and demanding that they report to work in the morning or face disciplinary action.

When wildcatting workers piled into the union hall Monday afternoon President Zuckerman told them that a "clerical error" had resulted in their old contract being extended for another year. He told workers that they must return to work or there was "nothing the union could do to help them."

The wildcat held strong throughout the week. Some workers brought out guitars, harmonicas and amplifiers and serenaded the picket lines. A barbecue was set up. Louisville Food Not Bombs and Louisville IWW worked long hours each day gathering enormous amounts of food, preparing it, and serving it to the strikers. Pizza parlors and other local businesses sent food to the striking workers. The half mile of sidewalk running parallel to JeffBoat shipyard became a leaderless, street festival where workers of a number of races and ethnicities, men and women, young and old, stood beside one another. There was not one incidence of violence the entire week.

Workers for other businesses refused to betray their brothers and sisters on the picket lines. A Teamster driver from California would not enter the shipyard to deliver his cargo of welding rods. UPS drivers refused to make any deliveries to JeffBoat during the strike. Interestingly, Jeffersonville police and sheriff's department refrained from taking action against the illegal strikers. Police in Jeffersonville have been working without a contract for two years and they suffer from low wages and terrible working conditions including long hours. They are also used by JeffBoat management to enforce company policies. As one high-ranking officer said, "Half of our calls come from JeffBoat, and we're sick of their bullshit." JeffBoat management is reported to have called the mayor's office to complain about officers flashing their lights and sounding their sirens in support of strikers. After Tuesday, there was no law enforcement presence at the scene of the wildcat.

President Zuckerman called for a meeting on Sunday morning, May 6. Approximately 450 workers filled the union hall while outside a couple of dozen wobblies distributed flyers and held a huge banner reading, "An Injury to One is An Injury to All." Inside the union hall, International Brotherhood of Teamsters Senior Vice President Walt Lytle tried to strong arm JeffBoat workers into revoting and accepting the contract they rejected a week earlier. Walt was clearly not in control of the meeting as workers took to the microphone demanding the Teamsters be thrown out and telling how sick they were to have to listen to new lies. A vote was taken and the contract was once again rejected, this time by 18-to-one with one person voting, "Fuck you."

After talking among themselves, JeffBoat strikers decided that their interests would be best served by returning to work Monday May 7 under the old contract. Returning to work under, they claimed, would put both the Teamsters--or "Schemesters," as many workers are calling them--and the company over a barrel. Workers claim that the Teamsters have already been paid to deliver them to JeffBoat management under a new contract. JeffBoat itself needs the new contract in particular because of the new contract date which is included in the agreement. JeffBoat has just signed a multimillion dollar deal which extends through the early autumn of 2002. The old contract would expire on April 29, 2002, which would place a major labor dispute right in the middle of work on the new 30 million dollar deal.

Some JeffBoat workers met Sunday after the meeting at the Teamster union hall to discuss how to take the wildcat back into the shipyard. Members of the IWW's General Executive Board spoke and the strikers formed a Workers' Defense Committee which is now active within the gates.

What the future holds for these workers is uncertain, though it is clear the fight is far from over. JeffBoat workers have learned a serious lesson about their strength and what working people can do if they do not rely on leaders, or the crippling practices of business unionism. Almost all workers at JeffBoat agree that the Teamsters must go and over 400 signed a decertification petition on the picket lines. Many of the workers are talking about looking into a union that is not affiliated with the corruption of the AFL-CIO. Quite a few are talking about the IWW.

What is certain is that JeffBoat workers, on their own, became a union and acted like one.