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Originally published Saturday, August 31, 2013 at 4:31 PM

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West Coast longshore union pulls out of national AFL-CIO

A letter by Robert McEllrath, president of the longshore union, shows rifts within organized labor, including other groups ignoring dockworker picket lines at grain terminals in the Portland area.

The Associated Press

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PORTLAND — The West Coast longshore union is cutting its 25-year affiliation with the national AFL-CIO because groups affiliated with the umbrella organization have been crossing picket lines at Pacific Northwest grain terminals and trying to take jobs from dockworkers at other ports.

Robert McEllrath, president of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU), explained the decision in a letter to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, a copy of which was obtained by The Oregonian.

Dockworkers at grain terminals in Portland and Vancouver, Wash., have been locked out of jobs for months, and McEllrath says affiliates have been “blatantly” crossing picket lines on a daily basis. He also cited offenses — he uses the word “attacks” — by other affiliates in Seattle, Tacoma, Los Angeles and Oakland.

As an affiliate since 1988, the ILWU passed on a portion of its dues receipts to the AFL-CIO, a national federation of unions with more than 12 million members. McEllrath’s letter, sent Thursday, notes that the ILWU has been independent and unaffiliated for most of its history.

“Today, the ILWU returns to that tradition,” he wrote.

Besides exposing a rift in organized labor, the letter reveals the increasingly embattled status of the dockworkers’ union as automation takes away jobs.

“We see this situation only getting worse as the ILWU is about to start West Coast longshore negotiations and face the challenge of the ports soon being run by robotics and computer-operated machinery over the next five to 10 years,” McEllrath wrote. “The survival of the ILWU and the job security of our members depend on our having these remaining jobs, which will mostly involve the servicing and maintenance of the robotics and other machinery.”

Moreover, McEllrath’s letter states that the ILWU has become frustrated with the AFL-CIO’s “overly compromising” policy positions on immigration, labor-law reform, health-care reform and international labor issues. “We feel the Federation has done a great disservice to the labor movement and all working people by going along to get along.”

Tom Chamberlain, Oregon AFL-CIO president, said the ILWU’s decision to leave is discouraging, but Trumka, the federation president, has a track record of mending fences and bringing groups back into the fold.

“Hopefully he can use some of that talent with the ILWU to find out what the true issues are and bring them back.”

The departure comes a little more than a week before the AFL-CIO holds a national conference in Los Angeles, an event that occurs every four years.

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