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Confessions of a Dual Unionist

Sometimes a person can feel like they are battling the demons of the world all alone. As if that which seems clear to them is lost in a fog of incomprehension to others. No matter how strong the warrior is the warrior must be grounded in clear purpose. For to strike out blindly only insures defeat. Thus the battle against wrongs is only part of the equation of meaningful struggle, the other two parts are; creating change that eliminates the wrongs from continuing, and joining together with others of the same mind and purpose. 

The basic idea of unionism, even when used for just greater nickels and dimes, is a good one. Anything you can do to improve of the lives of working people, I’ll be there to support it. But within the business unions are a number of practices that greatly limit the ability of working people to make significant improvements in their daily working conditions and to create long term social chance.  

The general conditions of working people within economic systems, based upon what benefits the few at the expense of the many, are harsh at best. This is a direct result of the social value of profit for the few being the supreme consideration, while the well-being of those that labor to produce that profit are  mostly disregarded. Thus the interests of the employing class and the working class are diametrically opposite. Within the business unions there are also two opposing interests. There are the interests of the professional class of union leaders, the piecards as Wobblies call them,  which is to insure their continuing power and income. Then there are the interests of the membership, which is to improve their conditions on the job. 

The differences of economic self-interest have crafted working conditions of low wages and that are many times needlessly dangerous to working people. I do not state this as some type of an ideological theory, but rather my words come from direct experiences within industry. 

In my laboring years I have worked: day labor, as a farm worker, in the hard rock mining industry, in the maritime industry, as wildcat oilrig roughneck, as a long haul truck driver and as an environmental technician. Some of my jobs have been in union shops and some of them have not. Though I have always actively supported the unions where I worked, and supported organizing drives in non-union shops, the reality of my experiences has been that, though you make a little bit more money, the real working conditions in union and non-union jobs are not at all different. Matter of fact the most dangerous working condition I have ever experienced have been on union jobs. 

Business unions tend to focus on gaining greater pieces of the economic pie and working conditions seem to get overlooked. I have, through my working years, tried to struggle around the issues of safe and humane working conditions and limiting the hazardous impact industry has on our environment. When I have worked within union shops I have tried bringing these issues to the forefront of union activity. Because I feel I have the need to be grounded in greater union ideals than the business unions provide, I have been a Wobbly, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) for over 33 years. 

The first union shops I worked at, if it were not for paying dues, I would not have been able to notice the union at all. Later on I went to work for the Bunker Hill Mining Company as a zinc stripper and it was there that I saw just how flawed business unions could be. Though there had been union struggles going on at Bunker Hill for over 80 years, little had changed in  the dangerous working conditions. Shortly before I went to work there a major mine fire at a union mine a few miles down the road had killed 91 miners. At Bunker Hill there was a fire in the baghouse, where smelter emissions were released into the air. Rather than close down the smelter, the owners continued operations raining lead pollution down on the workers and the surrounding community. 56% of the workers came down with kidney disease and over 500 children were poisoned. Later when Bunker Hill was forced to close down, because of that pollution and over 80 years of careless polluting practices, Bunker Hill became that largest ‘Superfund’ site in America. 

At Bunker Hill workers died of lead poisoning, of  “the con” (Silicosis lung disease), and many were lost in accidents. The surrounding community was poisoned and the environment was damaged beyond anyone’s comprehension. Did the union lead a major struggle against these crimes against humanity and nature? No! The major concern of the union was keeping the mines running and dues money income. Thus the union itself became an accomplice in the crime and the cover-up.

After I left Bunker Hill I decided to learn a trade and that trade was pipefitting. My first two jobs, in a chemical plant and a railroad yard, were union shops but the unions were not noticeable.

Later I went to work in the shipyards and as of this writing I have worked over 20 years in 13 shipyards on the west, east and gulf coasts. Some were union yards and some were not. Even though I worked the same trade, in the same industry, and all the unions were members of the AFL-CIO, job jurisdiction changed between three different International Unions, the United Association of Plumbers, Pipefitters and Steamfitters (UA), the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, and the Boilermakers Iron Shipbuilders, Blacksmiths, Forgers & Helpers Union. In the shipyards none of these were industrial unions, so on the same job you had other unions. The shipyard with the most unions had nine of them.   

I have worked under contracts of four different UA Locals. Two of those Locals (Houston and New Orleans) had their books closed which meant that new workers could not join the union and most of the workers covered by the UA contract were not members of the union, had no say in union activities and had to pay an agency fee. I have been a member of two UA Locals, Local 32 (Seattle) and Local 82 (Tacoma).
  With all this unionism in the shipyards you would expect good wages and conditions, but that unfortunately is not the case.  The problem with most shipyard unions is that, rather than uniting shipyard workers, they too often divide them. This division of workers even leads to the situation of workers competing with each other to work for lower wages.

1. The first division found is that created by craft unions. Each craft union will have its own contract. Sometimes the different craft unions cooperate with each other, but other times there is conflict and computation between the craft unions, even to the point that some unions will be working while other unions are on strike. This condition of competitive unionism on the job may employ more union piecards, but for the worker on the job it only makes for weaker unions.

Within UA Locals pipefitters are divided in to two groups of workers. The marine pipefitters who are in a group called “Metal Trades” workers and the other pipefitters are “Building Trades” workers, or as they are commonly called “Uptown pipefitters.” Marine pipefitters on any single job will have to work more different types of piping systems under normally more difficult fitting conditions. There are far greater hazards on a ship that there is in “Uptown” jobs. Marine pipefitters make $10 an hour less (sometimes the difference in pay is even greater) than do “Uptown” pipefitters. When work is slow “Uptown” pipefitters can be dispatched to “Metal Trades” jobs, but marine pipefitters are not dispatched to “Building Trades” jobs.

There is at times competition and hostility between different Locals of the same union. Here where I live there is hostility between the Seattle UA Local 32 and the Tacoma UA Local 82.

There is a select group of “Uptowners” who have what is called a ‘Travel Card’ that allows them to travel to different UA Locals and work. At times when there is a lot of work one local may call upon another local to dispatch the needed workers. But outside of that situation, all Metal Trades and most Uptown pipefitters who seek work outside of their Local’s jurisdiction are forced to join the other Local, by paying the initiation fee and they have to quit the other Local and have to rejoin if they return.

Rather than the different Locals working together to improve wages and conditions of all shipyard workers, the business unions will compete with each other for work and thus driving down wages of all shipyard workers, and making it easier for work to be moved to the lowest paying shipyards.

Most of the shipyard unions belong to the AFL-CIO. You would think that all those unions together in a federation of unions would make for a powerful force. The problem with the AFL-CIO is that it will not use its combined organized power, that being the economic power at the point of production, to win labor battles, but that ain’t the way it works. The federation is mostly a political organization trying to influence politicians. Unfortunately the federation has a piss poor record as a political organization and anti-labor laws get passed with little to no organized resistance. And for the workers out on the picketline, well the federation at best will organize a sympathy march or boycott, but real economic action is not used and union workers even handle scab goods.

The health and safety conditions in the shipyards are bad. I have seen workers die on the job. I have even been soaked in their blood. I have two hands that have been operated on. My left knee was blownout years ago because of oil on a deck that I slid on and just recently my other knee was injured when I stepped on to a gangway that was not tied down and it slid sending me flying. Once I nearly died in a forepeak tank when I hit a pocket of bad air. And then there is all the asbestos found on ships. These important issues the business unions mostly lack any real concern over.

The union principle of the 8-hour day has long been lost in the shipyards. Forced overtime work is very common. The longest workweek I have worked in a union yard was five 12-hour days and two 16-hour days. That was 92 hours in just one week! I have worked union yards where I went a few months without a day off. One reason that UA does not deal with the issue of forced overtime is that we must pay a percentage of the wages made from each hour of work to the union. So the more hours we have to work the more money the union makes.

In the shipyards I have worked the unions have had no concern for the hazards the industry creates to the environment or the surrounding community. 

There is in the international maritime industry a major problem of multinational corporate greed in the form of what is called “Flag Of Convenience” (FOC) ships. These ships are registered in countries where there is no or very little regulation of labor, health/safety and environmental standards. And by using crews from extremely poor countries where there is little if any rights to organize unions, FOC ships have been a means to break the unions of international seafarers. 

FOC ships are not only hazardous to the seafarers who sail them, but they are also hazardous to all workers who must work them. As a shipyard worker I have had to work repair on many FOC ships and without any doubt they are the most dangerous ships I have worked upon. The only labor federation or union I have seen that has taken up the struggle around FOC ships is the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), but the ITF lacks the economic power to rid the oceans of FOC ships. But the organized economic power of the unions of the maritime industry does have the power if they would just be willing to refuse to load/unload, supply, repair all FOC ships and all union workers should refuse to handle any goods shipped on FOC ships. 

In this ‘new age’ of globalized exploitation I do not get that much work in the shipyards anymore. When I am able to work in the industry and I try to speak to the union piecards about wages, hours and working conditions, all that I get out of them is that I should just be happy to get the work. 

Many times the business unions work in opposite interests than the interests of the members of the union. There are a number of cases where the international union has sought to break the strike of one of its locals, the P-9 strike in the early 1980’s is one good example of that. In one union I belonged to, the Machinists, the local membership voted down a dues increase and the international came in and over turned the members vote. Then there is the ‘unsanctioned’ strike, or ‘wildcat strike’, where workers are forced to not only strike against the boss but also strike against their union. In a union run by the workers themselves it is they and not the piecards that sanction a strike. I believe that the will of the rank and file members should rule supreme in every union.  

Some of the business unions even go so far as to try to suppress the views of its members that disagree with the piecards. I have run into this a number of times and the worse case happened down in New Orleans. We had a meeting of all the Metal Trades Unions to talk about an upcoming Metal Trades Waterfront strike. One of the demands of the owners was that we workers show up at the ships and not at the shops. The piecards stated that we could only picket the shops and we already knew that the owners were going to open up knew scabs shops so we would just be picketing empty buildings. I got up and stated that since the owners wanted us to show up at the ships and that the ships were our real job sites then we should picket the waterfront docks, thus shutting down the whole maritime industry on the river.
The piecards did not like that statement and when I tried to push the issue they sent some goons to shut me up. But the workers that I worked with all stood up and the goons backed down knowing that faced an ass kicking if they attempted to strong-arm us.  Later I received threatening phone calls warning me not to attend any more union meetings.  

Though I have been a union member of different AFL-CIO unions most of my working years, I find that I must also belong to the IWW for the Wobblies have the ideas and goals that the rest of the labor movement here in the U.S. lacks. The IWW in their industrial unions, organized not to divide workers but to unite them on every job throughout the world. The IWW believes in universal solidarity, no worker ever handles scab goods, does the work on a striking worker or work a job that other workers on striking would have worked. All members in the IWW are equal and no worker gains at the expense of another worker. There is universal transfer in the IWW so if you join one IWW industrial union you can transfer free to any other industrial union within the IWW. 

I am not out to try to reform the business unions, for that I believe is an impossible job. Rather I struggle for what benefits the workers on the job. I advocate workers seizing control of their job organizations, if the piecards resist then kick them out the damn door. For the piecards are a breed of parasites feeding upon the host body of the working class. Let them have their damn federation, but we workers should make sure that it is a federation without the benefit of the working class. On jobs where there are business unions, I believe that the workers on the job should organize rank and file organizations that through direct action gain that which needs to be gained.

The AFL-CIO is only after greater crumbs from the economic pie, in good times more crumbs are won; in hard times crumbs are lost. The AFL-CIO has no long-term goals and thus dooms working people to continuous class conflict. But the IWW is different, it seeks to eliminate class conflict through the process of organizing working people into the strongest possible organizational forms and rebuilding society where those that do the work control the means of production and industry is run for the well-being of all and rather than shamelessly exploiting and polluting Mother Earth learns to live in balance with her. It is for these reasons that I am a dual unionist.