United States

Longshore Union faces the Grain Monopolies:
Will Labor Solidarity Prevail?

By Jack Heyman

The Oregonian has reported that grain talks between the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) are heating up. An “epic showdown” is looming because workers in Portland, Seattle, Tacoma and Vancouver won’t accept major concessions (“Port braces for new labor standoff,” September 26).

The contract expired September 30 when the grain giants had threatened to lock out longshoremen and hire scabs. A port shutdown was averted only because the employers failed to file required legal paperwork in time, forcing an extension until October 24, according to union sources. An editorial in The Oregonian (October 3) charges the union with “temper tantrums” for defending contract rights.

The International Business Times reports, “Big grain companies reap profits as global food prices soar and poor go hungry” (September 4, 2012). The world’s four largest grain companies—Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill and Louis Dreyfus, known as the “ABCDs”—collectively control 75 to 90 percent of global grain trade and are raking in billions during a worldwide food crisis, the story says. (Bunge owns Longview’s Export Grain Terminal with partners.)

In the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, grain monopolies are boasting record profits, yet they’re demanding major concessions from the longshoremen who do the dangerous work of loading ships. So, who’s the real culprit?

A year ago, members of the ILWU protested EGT’s attempt to break their union and impose concessions in Longview. Scores were arrested for blocking grain trains, including ILWU President Robert McEllrath, who was following the will of the membership. Coastwide protests occurred on his conviction this October 5.

In February, state police and an armed Coast Guard cutter were deployed to escort a grain ship through picket lines at EGT and stop mass protests by ILWU members, labor supporters and Occupy activists caravanning from Portland, the Bay Area and Puget Sound. Under the threat of overwhelming police and military forces, including from the Obama administration, union officials succumbed. The ranks succeeded in defending their union jurisdiction, but a hugely concessionary contract was imposed, brokered by Washington Governor Chris Gregoire.

So now, the other profit-bloated grain companies want the EGT concessions that the union ranks fought against. Following ILWU’s democratic tradition, members and retirees with nearly 300 combined years on the waterfront signed a leaflet that opposed the contract: “EGT-Longview Longshore Contract—Worst Ever!”

The militant 1934 West Coast maritime strike, like other strikes across the country, built the trade union movement, which raised standards for all working people—including those not in unions—on wages, safe working conditions and social benefits. Unions fought for and won Social Security, unemployment insurance and Medicare. Now the ILWU is on the front line defending all labor.

Last year when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was attacking public workers, ILWU Local 10 protested by shutting down ports in the Bay Area. On May Day 2008, ILWU closed West Coast ports to demand an end to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. And in 1984, longshoremen, protesting apartheid, organized a boycott in San Francisco of a ship from South Africa.

Were these “temper tantrums?” Are these the actions of “greedy workers?” Nelson Mandela commended the ILWU for sparking the U.S. anti-apartheid movement. For these solidarity actions, longshore workers were docked pay, but that did not deter them from implementing their time-honored slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

Now in Portland, the ILWU is faced with an employer-imposed contract or lockout backed by a massive police and Coast Guard mobilization. And in Vancouver, a strikebreaking agency is already stationed at United Grain.

Will intimidation by profiteering grain exporters and their government backers prevail, or will union solidarity and ILWU unity against EGT concessions win out?

The stakes are high for all working people.

Jack Heyman, a retired longshoreman from Oakland, California, writes about labor and politics.

The Oregonian, October 16, 2012