ILWU Canada held its third biennial Young Workers Convention at the Maritime Labour Center in Vancouver, British Columbia on September 27-29. The theme for this year’s conference was “Internationalism: Solidarity Beyond Borders.”
Internationalism and solidarity were indeed in the air at the conference, beginning with the diverse delegates present, about 40 of whom were from outside Canada. Many of them were from U.S. ILWU locals, and others were from dockers’ unions across the globe in places as far away as Germany, Poland, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Their presence set much of the tone for the week, in which young workers discussed ways to build solidarity and learn from one another at home and abroad.
The conference focused on international solidarity, and also covered ILWU history, political action, and other concerns, such as workplace health and safety, port security, and social media.
Conference day 1
The conference opened with ILWU pensioner John Cordecedo discussing the “Bow and Arrow Gangs”—longshore crews composed of primarily indigenous men on the Vancouver waterfront more than 100 years ago. Afterwards, ILWU Canada President Rob Ashton took the stage to introduce the ILWU Canada Executive Board, who were onsite for their meeting. Ashton spoke to pressing issues facing labor today: the fight for a an hour wage, diversity in the workplace, and educating the next generation of union leaders. He said to the young workers present: “What is your job? It is to carry this union forward and never let our flag drop.”
Second Vice President Bill Hoadley, whose work is to implement ILWU Canada’s education programs, gave a warm welcome to the delegates and introduced the outgoing Young Workers Committee. Each person on the committee talked for a few minutes about the value of engaging young workers in the labor movement. Their work on the committee for the past two years included participation in charitable work and food drives and support to other young workers groups such as the Canadian Labour Council’s Young Workers Conference.
Two committee members, Stephanie Dobler and Danielle Burgess discussed international action and their work with ILWU Local 23 in Tacoma.
“Going abroad opened our eyes to issues we have at home.” said Dobler and Burgess in a joint statement. Brian Skiffington, the young workers committee representative from Local 23 proclaimed, “We are all leaders—not necessarily in union office, but on the job and in the community.”
March and rally for
Before lunch, Amandeep Nijjar, a representative from the Canadian Labour Congress Pacific Region, gave a talk on political action that helped set the stage for young workers looking at ways to get involved. The conference harnessed the young delegates’ energy by organizing a march and rally in support of Vancouver’s Fight for campaign Irene Lanzinger, President of the BC Federation of Labour, gave some background on the struggle, and delegates were invited to make their own signs.
The young workers were joined by pensioners and others from the ILWU who took to the streets following a large truck emblazoned with banners and a loudspeaker to show their support for a higher minimum wage. The march echoed with chants of “Who are we? ILWU!” and “What’s outrageous? Sweatshop wages!”
In addition to showing solidarity through the march and rally to support the Vancouver Fight for , delegates to the conference were encouraged to bring non-perishable food items to donate to the local food bank. Over the course of the conference, the food drive gained a competitive angle, and many local delegations pooled their money to shop for canned goods and sanitary items for local families. By the end of the week, one corner of the room was piled high with food and supplies to help those in need.
Conference day 2
Day two featured cautionary presentations on social media and transportation security by Victory Square Law attorneys Jeff Sanders and Allison Tremblay, a look at international dockers’ struggles by ITF Dockers’ Section members Nigel Venes and Enrico Tortolano, and lessons on ILWU history from pensioners.
International Secretary-Treasurer Willie Adams gave an impassioned speech in the morning on the importance of cultivating young leaders within the ILWU. Adams recalled his early life and how he channeled some of his youthful anger into positive work within the union. He also commented on the need to both learn from the past and continue to make history.
“What you do here has an impact on the world, he said. “Your voice and what you do here resonates all over the world and what you do here will only continue to grow.” Adams noted that young workers were crucial to the creation of the ILWU. “Harry Bridges was a young worker in 1934,” he said. Adams also said that education is the key to building a strong rank-and-file. “We need to continue to make sure that we are creating ways for new members to be active in the ILWU and to ensure their energy and ideas are harnessed to help build and strengthen our union.” Adams was inspired by the energy and enthusiasm the conference generated. Shortly after the conference, Adams received a personal note from one of the participants stating the conference had “lit a fire in him” that he had not expected.
The afternoon featured presentations on ILWU history by pensioners. Tom Dufresne, Barry Campbell, and Herb Howe spoke of the ILWU’s powerful legacy of rank-and-file democracy and urged that “understanding history is essential—let us never forget our roots.”
Campbell, a pensioner from Local 500, described the history and meaning of the phrase, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” He explained the slogan originated with the Industrial Workers of the World and that it shows the importance of unity in the labor movement, both historically and in the present.
Dufresne, retired President of ILWU Canada, discussed ILWU Canada’s early struggles and the “Battle of Ballantyne,” a fierce battle between police and longshore workers on June 18, 1935.
Much of the excitement on Day 2 centered on the nominations process for the next Young Workers Committee. The delegates were broken into groups based on local affiliation, with another group for the international delegates. They were tasked with putting forward names to run for the seven seats on the committee. The nominations process was lively, and several people put their names in for the running.
The third and final day of the conference was packed with information, including a talk on workplace health and safety by Brian Campbell of the BC Federation of Labour, a presentation on union leadership by Caitlin Davidson-King, the BC Federation of Labour Young Workers Representative, and a discussion on the ILWU’s Ten Guiding Principles. One of the first orders of business, however, was hearing the statements from the 12 candidates who put their names in to run for the Young Workers Committee.
Each candidate gave a brief statement, and the theme running through all of the comments was a commitment to growing the union. Tyler Gerard, one of the candidates from Local 502, said: “The union has done a lot for my family, and I would like to see more young people involved.”
Another, candidate, Ashley Bordignon of Local 502 recalled her work before joining the ILWU when she had no voice to combat workplace problems. “Now that I have a voice, I want to speak loud and help as best I can. We need to feel valued.”
By midday, the delegates cast their votes for the next young workers committee members. The results were announced at the day’s end to much cheering and applause. Isaac Baidoo (500), Ashley Bordignon (502), Stefanie Flores (54), Tyler Gerard (502), Viri Gomez (519), Danielle Phelan (500), and John Sullivan (500), and won seats on the committee.
The afternoon program was led by Brian Skiffington and Zack Pattin, two of the founders of the Local 23 Young Workers Committee. They gave a presentation on the Ten Guiding Principles, lending a historical context to the talk. They tasked delegates to discuss which of the principles they have seen in action on the job and in the union.
This led to a rich dialog on topics such as diversity in the workplace. Conference organizers The conference was organized by the ILWU Canada officers, 2nd Vice President Bill Hoadley and outgoing 2nd Vice President Steve Nasby. The outgoing ILWU Canada Young Workers Committee—Hannah Aiello (500), Julian Demarco (500), Danielle Burgess (502), Stephanie Dobler (502), Andrew Gwartney (502), Richard Larsen (505), Kyle Knapton (400) and Brian Skiffington (23) were also a tremendous support in helping and volunteering their time over the days of the conference. Serving on the Election Committee were: Nae Nae Grant (10), Monique Anglada (13), Elric Sommers (333), Pritpaul Gill (502).
Much of the conference’s success was due to the support of the Locals and efforts of volunteers who contributed time and resources to help out.
More than a dozen other ILWU members—mostly young workers—provided onsite support and many also offered up space in their homes to host out-of-town delegates.
Looking to the future
The conference ended with a dance and dinner, solidifying new friendships and commitments to work together to continue to strengthen the ILWU.
– Robin Walker