DEBATE AND DEMOCRATIC GOVERNANCE
For many, the meaning of democracy is eloquently expressed in Abraham Lincoln’s famous words: “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Among other things, such a government requires vigorous debate over issues, both at large and among governing representatives. This facilitates the formation of insightful interpretations and allows individuals to form opinions in accordance with their values and interests. It is only through debate, then, that contending policies can be challenged to ultimately reveal the people’s will.
In the context of union governance, these same principles hold true. Union representatives must debate issues that are relevant to the preservation and advancement of the union and in a manner that is in line with the wants and needs of the rank-and-file. To the extent that such debate takes place within the ILWU, we will be able to assess the union’s allegiance to this one democratic procedure.
UNION CONVENTION PROCEEDINGS: WHAT CAN THEY TELL US?
If accurately recorded, convention proceedings can provide a considerable amount of insight into the structure and workings of a union. Such proceedings can therefore offer clues as to the intensity and legitimacy of a union’s deliberative processes. In the case of the ILWU, the transparent and comprehensive nature of the convention proceedings lead us to believe that they can indeed serve as a useful tool in examining the union’s commitment to democratic governance.
THE FIGHT FOR TERM LIMITS
Support for term limits within the ILWU centered on preventing the prolonged accumulation of power among a few International Officers. Local level leaders, in particular, feared that the lack of term limits would have a corrupting effect. The term limit issue was brought before ILWU conventions in 1938, 1939, and 1940:
Continuity of Leadership
A 1938 resolution proposed that International Officer term limits be removed from the ILWU constitution. At the time President Harry Bridges and Secretary Matt Meehan were the heart of the ILWU movement and it was felt that continuity of leadership was needed. The resolution stated that, as long as the officers were democratically elected and their election was subject to coastwise referendum, there was no need to impose term limits. Although there were strong objections from several convention delegates, the resolution was carried.
In 1939, a resolution proposed that 2-year term limits be imposed to prevent district officers from backing out of campaign promises once in office. Various delegates spoke out against the resolution on the grounds that it would disrupt the continuity of leadership. The resolution was voted down, while a recommendation that all locals do away with term limits was approved.
A last attempt to limit the term of International Officers in the ILWU took place in 1940 in the form of a convention resolution. A convention committee recommended that the delegates vote the resolution down. During the debate, it was proposed that the entire rank-and-file directly approve or reject term-limits via a coast-wide referendum. This perhaps would have been the most democratic solution to the matter, but due to technicalities, the resolution and the referendum proposition were pulled entirely from convention consideration.
Special thanks to Professor Margaret Levi, Professor David Olson, John Ahlquist,
and the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies