LOU GOLDBLATT: A REMARKABLE, FORGOTTEN LEADER
By Dick Meister
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 20 years
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
"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
The Great Depression abruptly ended Goldblat'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
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
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
Goldblatt fought as hard against those who tried to deny constitutional
rights to many -- Bridges and Goldblatt included -- by labeling them as
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 c 2003 Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based freelance columnist who
has covered labor issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and