ILWU members and leaders attended a rousing convention in late July to support ILWU Local 56 members, known as the “shipscalers” who have a proud history and are preparing for a tough contract fight this November.
History of the “scalers”
Today, the “scalers” are employed by contractors who provide hazardous- materials and spill prevention services at Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors. Local 56 members have their hiring hall just down the street from Local 13 in San Pedro, but many ILWU members are just beginning to learn more about the fascinating history of these longtime ILWU members.
For old-timers, the family connections between Local 13 and 56 run deep. Powerful documentary film Connections like this were detailed during Local 56’s fast-paced, two-hour convention on Saturday, July 27th at the San Pedro Boys and Girls Club.
One highlight was a dramatic 15-minute film, produced by talented local filmmaker Nathan Sacharow, who captured the unknown history of this important ILWU Local that is organizing non-union environmental service companies who operate in the harbor area. Using vintage film and photos from early in the last century, the film explained how Local 56 members once scraped barnacles from the hulls of old ships – a dirty and difficult job for the men called “shipscalers.”
97-year-old ILWU member
The star of the film was 97 year-old ILWU member Felix “Blacky” Alvarez, who told of the hard work and difficult days that he and others faced in the early days of their union. Remarkably, Alvarez appeared in-person at the convention where he quickly became a celebrity, surrounded by children, ILWU members and leaders.
ILWU International Vice-President= Ray Familathe was on hand to congratulate the “scalers” for their past accomplishments and goals to organize non-union environmental service companies.
“ILWU Local 56 was struggling a few years ago, but now the members are working hard to put things back in order. Your hard work – on display at this convention – is a positive sign that the best days of Local 56 are still ahead.”
Familathe introduced ILWU leaders at the convention, including Local 13 President Chris Viramontes, Local 63 President Mike Podue, Local 94 President Danny Miranda, Local 26 President Luisa Gratz, and President of the Inland Boatmen’s Union (IBU), Alan Coté, who attended with IBU Regional Director John Scow. Familathe also introduced former Local 13 President and former International President Dave Arian who now serves as a Los Angeles Port Commissioner.
Viramontes praised the “scalers” for their work and effort to organize nonunion environmental services companies.
“We can’t afford to have any more non-union outfits working in our harbors,” said Viramontes. “It’s wrong because those environmental workers are being exploited by non-union companies – but it’s also bad because we don’t want PMA employers thinking that the ILWU will tolerate non-union outfits working around us.”
Calls for solidarity were offered by the ILWU leaders who followed Viramontes – and all joined him in signing a “support” banner that confirmed the solidarity. Support pledges were also signed by other unions, including Teamsters Port Division Local 848, Hotel and Restaurant workers Local 11, the AFL-CIO, and Steelworkers Local 675. Community supporters offered their support too, including Cathy Jurado from the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Southern California Pensioners Group and ILWU Auxiliary #8 activist Maureen Montoya.
Political leaders were on hand to show support and sign the solidarity pledge to help Local 56 workers. State Assembly member Bonnie Lowenthal, Long Beach Council members Steve Neal and Patrick O’Donnell, and State Senator Rod Wright were introduced by Cathy Familathe, President of the ILWU’s Southern California District Council. Other officials represented at the event included staff from Congress member Janice Hahn and Los Angeles City Councilmember Joe Buscaino, along with Lorena Cervantes of the Compton College Board of Trustees. But the focus of the convention was on rank-and-file members – not politicians – who shared their hopes and concerns in their own words. Most were speaking in public before a large audience for the first time – and they were doing it in their native language – Spanish. A professional translator provided remote-powered earphones that were made available to everyone – made it possible for both English and Spanish speakers to talk and be heard without difficulty.
Member Maria Lapov explained how Local 56 families need health benefits for their families; a priority that members want to win this November when their contract expires.
Armando Trujillo told of the relatively low wages that Local 56 members now receive for their difficult and sometimes dangerous work. He said better wages should also be a priority.
Margarito Suarez reminded delegates and guests that members currently have no pensions or health insurance, but are committed to fighting for these goals in November. Sergio Naboa gave an eloquent speech about the good work done by Local 56 members to protect the environment – and the need for companies to provide safer working conditions.
And Jesse Lopez warned delegates and guests about the threat posed by non-union environmental companies – and the need to protect ILWU jurisdiction in this area.
After hearing these presentations, workers unanimously adopted these goals as their platform to win better contracts when their current agreements expire on November 4.
“We’re trying to re-build our union from the bottom-up and hold companies more accountable for better jobs and a more secure future,” said Local 56 Business Agent/Dispatcher, Ruben Hurtado. “This convention was a big step for us and all the support from Local 13 and the rest of the ILWU family is making a huge difference to us.”
Before adjourning for the carne asada lunch that was prepared for delegates and guests, President Ilugardo
Mendoza reminded everyone that a major struggle is brewing – in the form of a contract campaign and possible strike – that may be necessary on November 4th to win basic contract improvements that many union members take for granted, such as decent wages, family health benefits and pensions.
“Many of us are immigrants who have struggled hard to survive. We love being a part of the ILWU family, because it’s a union that isn’t afraid to stand up and fight. Working together is the most important way for all of us to win.”