Labor - And A Whole Lot More

An Exceptional, Forgotten Leader
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It's time to revive the memory of Lou Goldblatt, one of the country's foremost labor leaders, yet a man largely forgotten since his death in 1983.

For most of the 40 years between 1937 and 1977, Goldblatt was secretary-treasurer of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union in San Francisco. He remainded, always, in the huge shadow cast by the charismatic figure of Harry Bridges, the ILWU's president throughout those 40 years.

But Goldblatt was a great leader in his own right. He was as responsible as Bridges for the founding and growth of the ILWUl for its crucial role in the spread of unionization throughout the West, and for the ILWU's standing as one of the country's most remarkable organizations, one of the most progressive, democratic, powerful, influential and corruption-free of unions.

"The idea of a generous and radical American labor movement is considered quaint by many clever people," writer Christopher Hitchens observed. "Lou Goldblatt was evidence for the other view."

Goldblatt was that rarity among union officials -- an intellectual. He was only 16 when he entered City College of New York, a school seething with the radicalism he had learned in a Bronx tenement from his Lithuanian-born parents, who were extremely active in the then booming socialist trade union movement.

The Great Depression abruptly ended Goldblatt's formal education. He was well on the way to a Ph.D. in economics at the University of California in 1933 when he had to leave and look for work. He found it in the warehouses along San Francisco's very busy waterfront. There, for a mere $60 a month, men wrestled with crates, bundles, cartons, merchandise in all sizes, shapes and weights, ten hours a day, six, seven days a week.

By 1936, Goldblatt was leading the warehousemen out in support of striking longshoremen and seamen. A year later, he joined Bridges, the longshoremen's leader, to bring the West Coast's longshoremen and warehousemen into a single union, under the banner of the newly established Congress of Industrial Organizations.

As elected leaders of the new union, Bridges and Goldblatt drafted a constitution that still is unique in the control it grants members. Many constitutions give members very little beyond the right of paying dues in exchange for the services provided them by the union's securely entrenched bureaucrats. But the ILWU constitution guarantees that nothing of importance can be done without a direct vote of the rank-and-file.

The ILWU also became one of the country's most socially conscious unions -- one, as the union's official history notes, that has been "the most outspoken among trade unions on civil rights, civil liberties, general welfare, and international amity, disarmament and peace."

Bridges and Goldblatt were a formidable combination. Both were superb organizers, tacticians and negotiators. But Goldblatt usually stayed behind the scenes, plotting strategy and negotiating with employers, while Bridges stood out front in the limelight, rallying the troops and leading them in battle.

Goldblatt didn't employ the colorful, rambling argot of dock worker Bridges, or exhibit Bridges' masterful command of the political art of using words to attract publicity and keep friends and foes alike off guard. Even in relaxed social gatherings, Goldblatt spoke precisely and directly to the point -- often coldly and harshly to and about those he considered enemies. They included employers and just about anyone else who had said or done anything against any working people or their unions, against any minority people, against anyone less privileged than they.

Goldblatt was most active among the ILWU's warehousemen, as head of that division of the union. But he also was a leader in the ILWU's highly successful drive to organize a wide variety of workers in Hawaii just before and after World War II -- a drive that transformed Hawaii from a feudalistic territory controlled by a handful of giant financial interests into a modern pluralistic state.

The pioneering mechanization and modernization agreement of 1960, through which longshoremen gave up the workers' traditional fight against job stealing but productivity and profit increasing machinery in return for unheard of benefit was drafted chiefly by Goldblatt.

It allowed employers to bring in as much labor-saving machinery as they wished, but said they could do it only by guaranteeing full paychecks to all registered longshoremen, even if there was not enough work available to keep them busy fulltime. They also got substantial cash bonuses in addition to their regular pensions when they retired, or could retire before 65 and draw even larger bonuses and pensions.

Credit Goldblatt, too, with coming up with and carrying out the idea of using the union's pension funds to build modern low-rent apartments for residents of the San Francisco's ghettos, creating what the ILWU cites as an extremely rare "model of cooperative, affordable, integrated working class housing."

He argued forcefully against the Vietnam War, to the point of persuading 450 of California's top AFL-CIO leaders to join the ILWU's officers in signing full-page newspaper ads denouncing it, at a time when President George Meany and other national AFL-CIO officials were pledging "unequivocal support" for the war.

Goldblatt fought as hard against those who tried to deny constitutional rights to many -- Bridges and Goldblatt included -- by labeling them as communists.

It ended abruptly and unhappily for Goldblatt in 1977, when he was forced to leave the union at the mandatory retirement age of 65. Although still harboring a burning purpose, he had no way of carrying it out, nothing deserving the energy that had carried him through frequent 15 to 20 hour days at the job that had been his life's work and mission as well.

He tried to fill the void by working with a group seeking peace between Israel and the Arab nations, and by leading union delegations to China and attempting to arrange exchange visits by Chinese unionists. But it was hardly the same. For Lou Goldblatt was a labor leader -- one, as former ILWU official Jim Herman said, who "gave us everything he had."

Copyright Dick Meister