What is the ILWU?
From its inception in 1934, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) has represented longshore and warehouse workers up and down the West Coast. Since these early beginnings, however, the ILWU has expanded into Hawaii, Alaska, and Canada, and has organized workers across a variety of occupations, including those in the sugar, pineapple, and tourism industries. Given the union’s diverse makeup, it is not surprising that it characterized as one of the most militant and socially active labor organizations. In addition, the union is known for its commitment to democratic governance, particularly as expressed by the legendary Harry Bridges, the union’s International President for over 30 years. It is this self-acclaimed commitment to democracy that we wish to analyze as part of a larger Union Democracy research project.
Ultimately, our task is to evaluate the extent to which the ILWU has exhibited democratic behavior within a specified governance structure; namely, the union convention. Our objectives are thus two-fold: (1) to assess if convention proceedings can serve as a valid source for examining the democratic or undemocratic behavior of unions, and (2) to determine if ILWU conventions have historically provided an avenue for democratic governance and participation via an open forum for debate.
In an effort to achieve these objectives, we have narrowed our research to the ILWU’s convention proceedings. The ILWU convention, composed of delegates elected by direct rank-and-file vote, is defined as the union’s highest governing body. We have therefore examined the proceedings for instances of debate over issues and have recorded these examples into an online database, classifying them according to the topic of discussion.
What follows is a brief discussion of the role of debate within democratic governance, the utility of convention proceedings in evaluating union democracy, and examples of issues that have caused considerable debate during ILWU conventions.
Special thanks to Professor Margaret Levi, Professor David Olson, John Ahlquist,
and the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies