Labor and US Politics

Longshore Workers Make a Stand for All of Labor

By Jack Heyman

Longshore workers on the Columbia River caught everyone’s attention three weeks ago [September 2011] when they blocked a move by a multinational grain consortium that threatened their union and their jobs. The media berated hundreds of longshoremen “storming” the port of Longview, Washington, and dumping thousands-of-tons of grain from railroad cars on the track. Most accounts glossed over that in opening its $200 million Export Grain Terminal, St. Louis-based Bunge North America refused to abide by the port’s contract to hire workers from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union [ILWU], Local 21.

Bunge threw down the gauntlet, then acted shocked when the ILWU resisted. More than 125 longshore workers and their supporters have been arrested, including ILWU International President Bob McEllrath. He was released after police were surrounded by some 500 angry longshoremen. U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton complained because his anti-picket injunction has been defied, saying he felt like a “paper tiger.” The Local 21 union hall proudly displays a banner, “Defend the Picket Line, Defend Free Speech.”

Why such a militant struggle to defend jobs? At a time when poverty in America has reached the highest level in 50 years, maritime companies want to eliminate good-paying union jobs. Last year in Philadelphia, Del Monte Fresh Produce Co. went nonunion, violating its agreement with the East Coast International Longshoremen’s Association. Now Bunge wants to do the same on the West Coast. It’s a threat to all waterfront unions and all workers.

Last February and March, labor supporters occupied the Wisconsin capitol and held marches of more than 100,000 to protest an attack on unions. That electrified workers around the country, but the action was derailed after it became a political football for Democratic Party politicians. So now teachers and other public workers in Wisconsin have no bargaining rights. ILWU pickets proudly wear T-shirts reading “No Wisconsin Here.”

This scenario may change. A line has been drawn on the waterfront of this country. Trying to disguise its union-busting as an inter-union squabble, EGT [Export Grain Terminal] hired Operating Engineers Local 701 to do the longshore work. That fiction won’t wash. Washington and Oregon state AFL-CIOs are supporting ILWU, as is the ILA [International Longshoremen’s Association], pledging “full support.” Corporate arrogance could provoke a first-ever shut down of all U.S. ports at once. And Panama Canal pilots, who recently joined the ILWU, as well as the International Dockworkers’ Council and the International Transport Workers Federation, are also on board.

The American working class, like European workers protesting antilabor attacks, could awaken. EGT needs to ship the grain to the global market to make its profit. But longshore workers and their supporters aren’t backing down.

Just last week, Local 21 President Dan Coffman and a dozen “Women of the Waterfront,” members and supporters of the longshore union were arrested for sitting down on the railroad tracks in Longview. As Shelly Porter, a young longshore worker and mother of a young daughter who’s been arrested three times (once at night in her home), put it, “We’ve got no option. Either we defend our jobs or we have nothing.”

Longshoremen on both coasts couldn’t agree more.

Jack Heyman has worked 45 years in the maritime industry as a seaman and as an Oakland longshoreman.