A Class Struggle Critique
The ILWU Longshore Struggle in Longview and Beyond
Labor historian, Cal Winslow, imparts his “wisdom” from above in his CounterPunch article of July 25, 2012, “Victory in Longview, A Year On: And Some Lessons From Occupy.” His “lesson” is a justification for the ILWU union bureaucracy’s betrayal of a hard-fought struggle from the bottom up and a gratuitous diatribe against longshore militants and their allied Occupy radicals who organized some of the most powerful labor solidarity actions in years. Tellingly, Winslow evidently did extensive interviews and used quotes from ILWU President Robert McEllrath, union staff and the police but none from working longshoremen, except Dan Coffman, president of Longview Local 21.
As a recently retired longshoreman with more than 40 years on the docks and ships, who has organized numerous solidarity actions in the past and was actively involved for several months in building support for Longview longshore, I’d like to set the record straight.
In echoing the union bureaucracy, Winslow concludes the Export Grain Terminal (EGT) contract was a “great victory,” but offers no substantive evidence. How can this contract be a “victory” in light of the following:
- Although EGT union busting was stopped, ILWU did not win clear jurisdiction, as is claimed, because non-ILWU workers are still working at EGT. Furthermore, they signed away the Port Agreement recognizing ILWU jurisdiction in the Port of Longview.
- The union’s hiring hall, the monumental gain of the 1934 West Coast maritime strike that ensures a fair dispatch of work and is the source of the ILWU’s waterfront power, is bypassed and put on a chopping block if a court rules against it.
- This EGT contract has ominously imposed a “No Interruption of Work” clause. Written in Orwellian style, it “recognizes” ILWU’s right to respect a picket line, attend stop-work union meetings, refuse to work unsafely and honor the union’s July 5, Bloody Thursday, when West Coast ports are closed to commemorate the labor martyrs who were killed by police in the 1934 strike. However, during those “interruptions” EGT can bring in “outside employees” i.e. scabs, to do ILWU work!
- Union contracts usually contain an amnesty clause so employers can’t victimize union members after a dispute. Not with EGT. Union members have been banned from employment for picketing during the dispute. And if you’re on EGT’s employee list you can be fired at the “sole discretion of the employer,” no arbitration. To underscore this point, that phrase is used 14 times in EGT’s 15-page contract. (Read it at www.transportworkers.org)
- Winslow says “local 21’s membership voted unanimously in favor of the announced agreement.” Actually no. In violation of the ILWU Constitution, the membership of Longview Local 21 never even had a chance to vote on the contract.
That’s all in addition to the 13-hour shifts and other concessions that Winslow does mention.
Winslow writes, “On the role of the International, we need to hear from the workers themselves on this point.” Well, here’s what Kyle Mackey, a young Longview longshoreman and secretary-treasurer of the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Central Labor Council, had to say, “The thing I regret most is giving the International officers authorization to negotiate the EGT contract and them not letting us read the negotiated contract and vote on it.”
The officers didn’t need authorization to negotiate. They already had that authority, but they misconstrued that vote as a contract “ratification” vote, an unprecedented violation of the union constitution.
Mike Fuqua, a third generation Longview longshoreman, adds “90 percent of the local oppose the EGT contract.” Kyle and Mike were speaking at a July 29 San Francisco Labor Forum on the Longview struggle (where ILWU’ers, including myself, and Occupy activists who built support for ILWU’s struggle spoke). Readers can see for themselves by watching the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=08gc9lRReeE
Winslow also says that the membership “will have the responsibility of correcting whatever process went wrong, if it did. We can support them in that.” Thanks for the “support” but at the June ILWU Convention, San Francisco Local 10 submitted a resolution reaffirming the basic right of locals to vote on contracts. It was quashed in committee by the union bureaucrats. On this, Winslow is silent.
The ILWU has signed new contracts before to get jurisdiction, then used job actions to improve conditions. However, in this agreement if workers organize three “illegal work stoppages” as employers call them, EGT can declare the contract null and void.
This is no “victory,” unless you’re viewing it through the lens of a union bureaucrat. And that’s exactly what Winslow does.
For example on Bloody Thursday this year all West Coast ports were closed except EGT’s terminal. McEllrath called Coffman and barked at him to get his members to work “to protect ILWU jurisdiction.” According to Longview longshoremen, Coffman replied, “I can’t. My men are tired. They’re working 70-80 hours a week at EGT.” They proudly stood down like the rest of the Coast and honored Bloody Thursday.
After covering for the ILWU bureaucrats, Winslow criticizes Occupy Oakland for relying on a “handful of contacts in the union….who…never produced a following…..and relayed…. misinformation” about support in the union Yet, in his earlier December 5, 2011 piece in CounterPunch “Who’s Speaking for Whom? The Case of Occupy and the Longshoremen’s Union” after lambasting Occupy for “substitution,” Winslow lauds the legacy of ILWU militancy in the Bay Area—the anti-apartheid boycott, the 2008 May Day antiwar West Coast shutdown and the 2010 port closure in solidarity with the besieged Wisconsin workers. The fact is that Occupy’s contacts are the same longshoremen who organized those exemplary actions!
On this history and more about the contract, I encourage people to read the June 21 leaflet, “Danger! ILWU Headed in Wrong Direction! EGT Longview Longshore Contract Worst Ever!” which was distributed in Local 10 and is available on the website of the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee (www.transportworkers.org). In his December 5 diatribe against Occupy, Winslow wrote, “I confess to knowing little about the officers of the ILWU, the same for the rank and file.” Well, he has certainly proved that. But that hasn’t stopped him from making common cause with those ILWU officers who either opposed those actions or sought to dilute their impact.
Winslow and other reformists are in the business of providing alibis for the union bureaucracy. Frankly, this cover is one reason why the U.S. labor movement continues to atrophy. In its May edition, Labor Notes advised trade unionists “How to Bargain Concessions (If You Must).” That says it all. Reformists, who don’t envision any possibility of revolutionary change, give helpful advice about how to negotiate a giveback contract and then call a terrible contract a “victory,” while union bureaucrats are praised and union militants vilified.
And Winslow is not the only one. For a slew of so-called leftists like the International Socialists Organization, the Socialist Workers Party, the Spartacist League, Socialist Action and Socialist Appeal, “support” for this ILWU struggle means reproducing glowing statements by the ILWU tops without even citing major concessions in the contract or refusing to criticize the bureaucrats’ repression of the rank-and-file.
Simply put, from a Marxist point of view, in a class conflict a contract can not be good for both the employer and the union, as ILWU tops, EGT and Democrat Governor of Washington Gregoire maintain. Reformists wittingly prop up the labor lieutenants of capital and undermine class struggle. For a deeper insight into the devastating EGT contract concessions readers can view the rank and file newsletter Maritime Worker Monitor #11, produced by class struggle militants. It is available at: http://www.labournet.net/docks2/1203/MWM11.pdf
The significance of the EGT agreement is that it may set a precedent for two master contracts: 1)the Northwest grains negotiations at the end of this month and 2) the Pacific Coast longshore master contract negotiations in 2014. It should’ve been evident last year when the Pacific Northwest Grainhandlers’ Association extended the master grain contract for only one year, waiting until the EGT conflict was settled. Now a Northwest grain strike looms on the horizon. The EGT contract, ILWU Coast Committeeman Sundet brayed, “…is key to standardization of the grain export industry on the West Coast…” Angry that this settlement was pushed through in “sleazy, backhanded ways” Mike Fuqua, quoted earlier, joked, “The International officers said that the EGT contract was our foot in the door but if they use the EGT contract as a standard for the Northwest Grain agreement, that’ll be a foot in our ass!”
Carrying water for the bureaucrats
Today’s labor struggles are occurring in the context of a severe systemic crisis of global capitalism, one rooted in the falling rate of profit predicted by Karl Marx. Employers seek to protect the surplus value (profits) they extract from workers by cutting wages, benefits and working conditions. Class conflicts will increasingly arise under capitalism in this epoch. The workers’ fight is not just against the bosses and their government but the trade union bureaucracy that attempts to mediate between labor and capital. When the trade union bureaucracy is unwilling to fight the bosses on behalf of workers’ interests, then to preserve their lofty positions they inexorably resort to repression of the rank and file.
Winslow edited a book only two years ago, Rebel Rank and File, Labor Militancy and Revolt from Below During the long 1970s. He should know what a union bureaucracy is and the role it plays. One important lesson from that history is that union democracy and workers solidarity are inextricably linked in the class struggle. Another key lesson is that independence from the capitalist state is a precondition for democracy. Unfortunately, some of the union opposition groups dealt with in Winslow’s book ignored this, and went to the bosses’ government or the bosses’ courts to get into office. But suing the union under the illusion that courts are somehow neutral will not bring about union democracy. It will only replace the old bureaucrats with new reformist ones, who then sell out like their predecessors did.
That’s why class struggle trade unionists fight to keep the government out of internal union affairs and challenge anti-labor laws that restrict workers power. This is the hard, fundamental lesson of class struggle trade unionism underscored by James P. Cannon, former Wobbly [Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)] and later Trotskyist leader. He and much of the leadership of the Minneapolis Teamsters’ union and the Socialist Workers Party were imprisoned under the anti-communist Smith Act signed by Roosevelt and supported by the ossified Tobin Teamster bureaucracy before the U.S. entry into WWII.
Winslow rationalizes his defense of the ILWU bureaucrats by citing the union’s history of internal democratic practices. But that’s a practice the present officials are assiduously trying to bury along with ILWU’s record of militancy, while praising both to the hilt. Nor do they have a mandate. Robert McEllrath, the union president, ran unopposed for president in 2006 when he received 7,564 votes, the highest of the International officers, which amounts to 16.8 percent of the membership of 45,000. In 2009, the next union elections, he got 6,660 votes out of a dwindling membership of 40,000 or 16.7 percent. These facts are verifiable in the ILWU newspaper, The Dispatcher.
Let me give a couple of examples of how the high-handed leadership from the International played out in the Longview struggle.
When Longview Local 21 president Dan Coffman called for a dual area meeting of all Washington and Oregon longshore locals, which is done when the union confronts a serious issue, President McEllrath and Northwest Coast Committeeman Leal Sundet killed it. (It’s an embarrassment to many ILWU members that Sundet had been a top officer of the employers’ Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) before becoming a union member.)
Then, San Francisco Local 10 tried to call a special Longshore Caucus of all West Coast ports on EGT but to no avail. Local 10 invited Local 21 officers Byron Jacobs, Jake Whiteside and Dan Coffman to speak at our union meetings. Each time they were intimidated by International officers not to speak at our meetings. I know because I could hear Coast Committeeman Sundet screaming in a cell phone call just before our Executive Board meeting was about to convene, “What the hell are you doing down there with that bunch of commies!”
Local 10 takes pride in being a highly integrated union with a militant tradition, “the red and black local.” San Francisco longshoremen sparked the 1934 West Coast maritime strike that led to the organizing of our “leftwing” union, as Harry Bridges referred to ILWU. At the November Local 10 union meeting, Coffman emotionally addressed what he called “Harry’s local” and thanked us for our solidarity. He knew the International was trying to stifle that solidarity and isolate the Longview local. They demanded top down control. Longview oldtimers had warned him, “Don’t turn the struggle over to the International. They may not have the same interests as the local.” Local autonomy is a cherished principle in the ILWU. Union democracy is and always has been an exercise by the rank and file not a gift bestowed by the union tops from above.
The real heroes of the Longview EGT struggle
The heroes of the Longview struggle are the rank and file of Local 21. They gave it their all in freezing winter weather and nearly 100 degree summer heat. As Shelley Porter, a longshore worker and mother who was arrested in her house, put it concisely, “We’ve got no option. We’ve got to win.” They irrepressibly withstood arrests, fines, pepper spray and beatings from cops and courts, making Federal Judge Leighton exclaim that he felt like a “paper tiger.” First they dramatically occupied EGT in July. Then came another bold action. On September 7 a massive picket line of some 700 longshoremen and their supporters blocked a grain train from entering EGTs terminal. To his credit McEllrath who was all the way in the back of the pickets walked to the front. There he consulted with Portland longshoreman Jack Mulcahy who was organizing militant pickets in formation and leading chants. When cops started pepper spraying, pickets pushed back. McEllrath stepped forward amidst the chaos and was immediately arrested. The hundreds of longshoremen surrounded the outnumbered cops and they released him, deciding that discretion was the better part of valor.
McEllrath then appealed to longshoremen to leave. Some stayed for a while and chanted “No train today!” McEllrath is scheduled to be in court in September to face charges for leading that protest. He must be defended by all of labor. This is a frontal attack on arguably the most militant union in this country. He did what he was supposed to do.
The next day the wrath of the rank and file rained down on EGT. Longshoremen from the major Northwest ports, Seattle, Tacoma and Portland, seeing images of the ILWU president being manhandled by cops, stopped work, and descended on EGT. According to news reports, the cyclone fence was torn down, grain was dumped from the train cars, and the terminal was briefly occupied by angry longshore workers. Millions of dollars was lost that day in shipping, warning employers how far ILWU members were willing to go to protect their jobs.
The tag, “General” was used at the ILWU Convention to refer to McEllrath, in a not-so-subtle reminder that a general gives orders. Troops follow without questioning. During the Big Strike of ’34, none of the union’s leaders, Henry Schmidt, Germaine Bulcke or Harry Bridges, who led the ranks against the National Guard and police, would deign to call themselves “general.” ILWU had prided itself on being bottom up not top down.
Jeff Washburn, President of the Cowlitz Wahkiakum Labor Council, was actually the first arrested. He pleaded not guilty in court, firmly stating that workers have a right to protest to defend their jobs. At the ILWU Convention Local 21 only had one resolution. It would allow those arrested to plead not guilty, like Washburn. It was opposed by the union bureaucrats and resoundingly defeated in committee. Is that union democracy? Not in my book.
Occupy acted while union tops spun like a top
So what about Occupy? There had been signs before of a distancing of the ILWU International president McEllrath’s initial statement of solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. That was made when Occupy was in New York City. Then, on November 2, Occupy Oakland shut down the port with a massive, unprecedented march of some 30,000 demonstrators, occupying the port to protest the bloody police attack on the Occupy encampment in front of Oakland City hall in which Iraqi war vet Scott Olsen was hit in the head by a tear gas canister shot by police. It was also called in solidarity with the Longview longshore battle against EGT. Not one International officer took part in the port protest just across the bridge from San Francisco nor did they call on ILWU members to mobilize for it. They were changing their position on Occupy.
That morning at the San Francisco dispatch hall when Local 10 member Anthony Leviege spontaneously took the mike at the dispatchers’ cage and appealed to longshore workers to stand in solidarity with the Occupy protesters, many refused to take a job. So many in fact that work in the port was halted for two hours while union officials and maritime employers frantically scurried to consolidate the gangs so the terminals could work. On the nightside not one job was picked up in the dispatch. The 2003 bloody police attack against longshoremen and anti-war protesters was fresh in Local 10 members’ minds. Further, longshoremen knew that this action was also in solidarity with their Longview brothers and sisters and with port truckers who’ve been trying to get union recognition from the big shipping and trucking companies.
Neither McEllrath nor Sundet were exactly known for organizing mass labor protests before. Business unionist leaders today haven’t mobilized real class struggle actions like sit-down strikes which defy capitalist property rights or a general strike which challenges the power of capital. Yet, these are what built the American labor movement. Unlike in other countries, these business unionists believe capitalism is a better economic system than socialism for workers.
True, November 2 was not a general strike by unions, but it wasn’t substitutionalist either. With tens-of-thousands of working people marching on the docks, it was an awesome display of popular anger manifested against banksters, politicians and police, the guardians of capitalist law and order. Moreover, it was a warning to the global shippers of the potential for a union conflict to be turned into a broader class struggle. Occupy’s momentous action coordinated with Local 10 longshoremen succeeded because of the generalized malaise from the depredations of capitalism and because of the recent history of longshore solidarity actions going back to the 1978 refusal to load bombs to the Pinochet military dictatorship in Chile which by the way, was organized by Herb Mills, one of the longshoremen who signed the “Danger” leaflet warning that ILWU is headed in the wrong direction.
Up to this point, Local 21 had been leading the militant campaign against EGT’s union busting. Coffman and his local fought with the International for the right to have him speak to the media and not just newly-appointed public relations staffer Jennifer Sargent who knew little about grain operations, much less about union history on the Columbia River. The local won. Coffman began speaking to the media.
Coffman knew that the first grain ship had to be stopped or the struggle was doomed. The power of the ILWU is not in the small port of Longview, but in the ability of the union to stop global trade at its nexus, in the major ports. That’s exactly what happened on September 8 when longshoremen left work in the Northwest ports to protest the police arrest of McEllrath. The ILWU Coast Committee had promised to hit the ships of STX Pan Ocean, one of the EGT partners, but nothing was ever done. Frustrated with that lack of support, Local 21 officers, Coffman and Jacobs, joined an Occupy Oakland march on November 19 with their local’s banner alongside ILWU members of the Committee to Defend ILWU carrying their banner “Shut Down the West Coast Ports! Support the Longview Longshore Workers!”
ILWU bureaucrats had already been starting to distance themselves from Occupy falsely stating the union could be held responsible for Occupy’s actions. They acted as a transmission belt for the capitalists’ courts instilling the fear of hefty fines. Then came the call for Occupy’s December 12 coastwide shutdown. Union tops vociferously opposed it. In L.A., newly-appointed port commissioner and former ILWU International president David Arian, who had appointed McEllrath to his first position at the International, warned Occupy, according to one activist, that if there was any attempt to blockade the port, Homeland Security would be called in.
Jeff Smith, Portland president, went on TV to brag that his men would not honor any Occupy picket line. So the union bureaucrats worked overtime to keep their members and Occupy in check. Winslow and ILWU bureaucrats gloat that Occupy’s call for a coastwise shutdown “never materialized.” Actually, that’s not exactly true. Several ports were shut down. But if it wasn’t completely successful, why not? Because of opposition from the same union officials Winslow praises. Nevertheless, when the Occupy lines went up in Seattle, Portland, Oakland and Longview, longshoremen who had been denied the right to vote on union action against EGT honored Occupy’s picket lines. The ILWU tops spun in a fury like whirling dervishes.
ILWU bureaucrats take over the militant Longview struggle and…
So that brings us to the forums in Portland and Seattle, which Winslow calls “provocative.” Who was doing the provoking? Sundet warned Coffman against attending an Occupy Portland solidarity rally at the SEIU hall scheduled for January 5. Speakers included Clarence Thomas, a longtime Local 10 activist who’d been working with Occupy Oakland to organize solidarity actions, and former Portland Local 8 president Norm Parks. When Coffman began to speak the lights went out and the microphone stopped working. Occupy Portland organizer Peter Little tried to chair an orderly meeting but Portland Local 8 President Jeff Smith ran up on the stage to read President McEllrath’s January 3 letter which adulated bourgeois legality referring to Taft-Hartley, the courts, Department of Labor (DOL), NLRB and labor law no less than a dozen times in two pages. In case anyone was confused it stated clearly, “A call for a protest of EGT is not a call for a shutdown of West Coast ports and must not result in one.” He warns longshore workers to “take extreme caution when dealing with supporters of non-ILWU sanctioned calls to action,” i.e., Occupy. Then, after the Occupy Portland solidarity rally, Sundet pulled ILWU locals from the EGT picket line. Local 21 got the message.
The next day, January 6, Coffman, having been warned in no uncertain terms to stay away from the Occupy Seattle solidarity rally at the AFL-CIO Labor Temple in Seattle or else, Local 21 member Mike Fuqua and a delegation of Local 21 members went to represent Longview longshore workers. These Northwest Occupy rallies were being organized by Occupy in conjunction with rank and file longshoremen precisely because International officers had been blocking attempts by Local 21 officers to speak at Northwest local union meetings or continue to organize labor rallies. Coordinated action from ILWU locals requires an informed and prepared membership. Local 10’s call for labor caravans to EGT sought to muster a mass mobilization from organized labor and Occupy. Resolutions for joining the caravans were passed at the San Francisco and Alameda Labor Councils. Of this crucial labor support not a word was seen in The Dispatcher newspaper.
A defining moment was about to take place at the Occupy Seattle solidarity rally. It began with a full house, standing room only, coming to hear five ILWU speakers and others. The event began with a standing ovation for the dozen or so Longview longshore workers, men and women. In attendance were many union members and young people. It looked much like the 1999 anti-WTO protesters with one critical difference, the ILWU union tops were there to stop the young radicals. But Winslow makes short shrift of this significant assembly by obfuscating. He writes, “The charade of solidarity is best seen in that offered up in the provocative, ill-fated coastal January road show that culminated into brouhaha in Seattle.” There have been many videos made of this rally disruption but the best is by the Internationalist Group, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRFPz8qsc1k, which succinctly puts it in the context of the whole Longview longshore struggle.
The Seattle brouhaha was begun when Tacoma Local 23 president Scott Mason interrupted an ILWU speaker (myself) to demand that President McEllrath’s letter be read immediately. The chair, ILWU member Gabriel Prawl, trying to maintain order, explained that after the speakers were finished the letter could be read in the discussion period. That was not good enough for the union bureaucrats. Mason yelled out “Where’s the Local 21 officers?” It wasn’t so much Occupy the bureaucrats were after, it was the ILWU’ers, the ones on stage and the ones in Longview. The ILWU bureaucrats and their hangers-on proceeded to physically disrupt the rally. It could have been a scene out of Winslow’s book portraying the bureaucrats of the United Auto Workers, Mineworkers or the Steelworkers.
Next, the sea change, a “unifying meeting,” as it was called by The Dispatcher, of all presidents of longshore locals took place at the International headquarters in San Francisco on January 10. There is no provision for such a meeting in the ILWU constitution. Clarence Thomas and another Local 10 Executive Board member supporting Local 21 were barred. The International President McEllrath led the attack reportedly screaming, “There is only one general here and it’s me!” Coffman was forced to back down or, as he was warned, his small local would be stuck with over $1 million dollars in fines and legal expenses. The denouement of the militant campaign was at hand. He conceded. According to a Portland longshore veteran, Coffman had his head handed to him, “He was raped, politically.” As the scab ship was underway to the Columbia River the petrified ILWU International and its defeatist legalistic strategy stood uncontested at the union’s helm.
“The General” raises the white flag of surrender
Now the way was clear for Washington Democrat Governor Gregoire to set up a meeting between EGT CEO Larry Clarke and ILWU International officers to settle the conflict before the ship arrived. News media was rife with the Coast Guard declaring the port of Longview a “safety zone.” The Obama administration dispatched an armed Coast Guard cutter to escort the scab grain ship. There were plans for a massive deployment of police, military and Homeland Security forces to stop the anticipated protests by labor and Occupy, from land and water. The specter of a nightmare scenario for the capitalists was on the horizon. Workers fighting for their jobs being bloodily repressed wouldn’t bode well for the Democrat “friends of labor” in the upcoming elections in the midst of the worst economic crisis in decades.
McEllrath and Sundet capitulated. Their main concern was to counter the detailed plans of Local 21, labor and Occupy to mobilize against EGT upon the arrival of the scab ship. They were determined to make sure there would be no caravans to Longview, no West Coast ports shutdown, no East Coast ILA port actions and no international dockworkers’ solidarity. So, a quick legal agreement deferring to Taft-Hartley anti-union hiring hall measures was reached right out of the handbook of the National Right to Work Committee and foisted on the Local 21 membership. EGT had been using Operating Engineers Local 701 to scab on the ILWU and posing it as a conflict between two unions. Shamefully AFL-CIO head Trumka echoed this pro-scab position. He even interceded to overrule the Oregon State AFL-CIO position of support to the ILWU in Longview. So in the settlement, the ILWU negotiators began by giving up the Port of Longview requirement that all port work be done by ILWU labor. Members were asked to vote without showing them what was agreed to. EGT would not recognize any union but would handpick its workers first from the Local 21 members. So a caricature of a “union recognition” vote took place. ILWU workers, of course, voted for ILWU. McEllrath and Sundet appeared before a Local 21 meeting requesting the phony “authorization to negotiate” vote. Once they had that in their pocket, the members had no say in it.
Critical support to
the Occupy actions
Critical support to the Occupy actions was warranted because they sought to build support for the Longview longshore workers through militant action, which was sorely needed and which the union leadership opposed even though Longview Local 21, Local 10 and many longshoremen supported it. The Occupy activists were trying to work closely with longshoremen in Longview, Portland and Oakland, less so in Seattle and L.A. Occupy was not cowed by bourgeois laws or cops, though some of the infantile anarchist pranks served no good purpose. Yes, there was some anger toward unions expressed but that was because they didn’t differentiate between union bureaucrats and the rank and file. I criticized that in my remarks at the Seattle forum when the bureaucratic heavies moved to break the meeting up. Besides Occupy is not one cohesive ideology. It had conflicting politics and practices. Its inchoate left populism and vague anti-capitalist rhetoric has attracted some young workers who want to fight. Winslow speaks for the bureaucrats who after getting in hot water early in the fall did what their lawyers told them to do to avoid a fight at all costs.
not class collaboration
Longview isn’t the only example of treachery from above. In 2010, the International blocked locked-out ILWU miners at Rio Tinto’s mining facility in Boron, California from picketing scab containers at the docks in Los Angeles and Long Beach. They lied and said that picketing would be illegal. The Pacific Coast Longshore Contract Document (PCLCD), the longshore contract, has strong picket line language. They threathened to cut them off of strike support money if they picketed.
Instead, International officers ran a PR campaign with a caravan from the docks to the desert. Wrong direction! ILWU’s power is on the docks not isolated in the desert. The International sent members to Rio Tinto shareholders’ meetings, picketed the British embassy and raised the flag of patriotism. They did anything but use their power on the docks to defeat the lockout. In the end, a concessionary contract was signed and “victory” was declared in The Dispatcher. Yet, scabs were still working in the mine, seniority was gutted and new miners would not get a defined pension, only a 401K. If ILWU has anymore “victories” like Boron and Longview, it will be a different union, subservient to employers and union bureaucrats alike, with a lost legacy of union democracy and militancy.
Shortly after the Rio Tinto disaster, members of the ILWU Office Clerical Unit (OCU) in the port of L.A. set up picket lines when contract negotiations broke down. Longshore workers and ship clerks honored the picket at first. Then the arbitrator ruled that it was not a bona fide picket line. International officers adhered to the phony ruling as ILWU members crossed their own union sisters’ and brothers’ picket lines! This phony ruling was overturned a year later on appeal. This shameful act is not covered in The Dispatcher but you can read about it in the local media.
It violates one of the ILWU’s basic documents, “The Ten Guiding Principles” which was drafted during the anti-communist McCarthy period when the ILWU was under a relentless government attack. These principles were forged to ensure the union’s survival should the leadership face imprisonment or deportation. Principle #4 states “…Unions have to accept the fact that the solidarity of labor stands above all else, including even the so-called sanctity of the contract. We can not adopt for ourselves the policies of union leaders who insist that because they have a contract, their members are compelled to perform work even behind a picket line. Every picket line must be respected as if it were our own.” This was ILWU’s own picket line! This is a clear sign of how ILWU tops have cut the union’s fundamental principled moorings.
The logic of the present leadership of the ILWU, and of almost all top labor leaders in the U.S. today, stresses that you can’t fight the law. But is it true? Let’s look:
- Three years after Reagan crushed the PATCO strike during a most repressive, anti-labor period, Local 10 longshoremen organized a dock boycott of a ship from South Africa, the Nedlloyd Kimberly, to protest that government’s apartheid policies. The union leadership opposed it, but Nelson Mandela himself thanked Local 10 for it.
- In 2008, ILWU made history shutting down all West Coast ports to protest the war on Iraq and Afghanistan. It was the first-ever strike by a U.S. union against a U.S. war. The PMA screamed bloody murder. Again, the International leadership did everything it could to stop it and when that wasn’t possible they tried unsuccessfully to turn it into a flag-waving exercise. But Iraqi dockworkers expressed their solidarity, and even though the PMA threatened to sue the ILWU for violating Taft-Hartley, they had to back down because of union power.
- And last year, in an exemplary action rank-and-file longshore workers, shutdown Bay Area ports in solidarity with Wisconsin state workers.
If ILWU longshore men and women can organize these solidarity actions to support other workers, cited by Winslow as exemplary acts, then why can’t they shut down the West Coast to defend their own union? For dockworkers facing a concerted employer offensive these are not academic questions. The future of our union is at stake.
The ILWU tops blocked coastwide port actions for Longview Local 21. Now other longshore contracts are expiring: the master grain contract for ILWU’s Northwest ports, the East Coast ILA’s master contract and the West Coast in 2014. The question is will longshore workers rise to the challenge before them?
Jack Heyman is a retired Oakland longshoreman who participated in many of the Bay Area solidarity actions described in this article. His years as a militant maritime worker were recounted by Steve Stallone in CounterPunch, March 2, 2011.
—CounterPunch, Weekend Edition August 10-12, 2012