Workers Hammer No. 218
ILWU holds the line against union busting
Lessons of the battle of Longview
The following article is reprinted from Workers Vanguard no 996, 17 February 2012.
On 7 February, members of the US dockers union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 21 began loading wheat destined for South Korea on the first ship to pull into the new, high-tech EGT terminal in Longview, Washington. Two days later, a five-year contract settlement covering both maintenance and production at the terminal was approved by Local 21 members. The scabs of Operating Engineers Local 701 are out and the ILWU is in. This marks the end of a nearly two-year-long showdown pitting the ILWU against the giant EGT grain conglomerate and, behind it, finally, the full forces of the capitalist state.
We salute the militancy and determination of the ILWU members who fought so hard, centrally those of Local 21. Earlier in this battle, the union and its allies flexed their muscle in the kind of labour action not seen in this country for decades. Mass pickets were mobilised to block trains bringing grain into the terminal. The cops retaliated with a vendetta of harassment, intimidation and multiple arrests against ILWU members and their supporters. When police attacked the union’s lines on 7 September, ILWU International president Robert McEllrath, who had been brutally manhandled by the cops, called to disperse the picket and wait for the backing of other longshoremen. Ports in the region were shut down the following day as ILWU members poured into Longview to give EGT, its hired security thugs and the strikebreaking cops a real taste of union power. With the labour-hating media screaming that thousands of tonnes of grain had been dumped on the tracks, EGT, backed by Obama’s National Labor Relations Board, went to the courts, which levelled over $300,000 in fines against the union.
The ILWU International leadership backed off, retreating to filing suits in the capitalist courts and pushing a referendum appealing for the recall of the local Cowlitz County sheriff. Trainloads of grain were driven unhindered into the terminal, where it was unloaded by scabs from Operating Engineers Local 701. By late last year, the company was moving to get the grain shipped out, with the backing of the Obama administration’s “Homeland Security” apparatus. The union was now looking down the barrels of a flotilla of armed Coast Guard ships and helicopters being mobilised to escort the first ship up the Columbia River to the EGT terminal. Citing the ILWU’s previous “violent” actions, the Coast Guard ordered a temporary “safety zone” around the terminal and any incoming ships, giving itself authority to take whatever action was necessary to enforce it. Any violation could bring fines of up to $250,000 and six years in prison.
The Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Counties Central Labor Council issued a “Call to Action” urging workers and their allies to mobilise in Longview when the first ship came in. McEllrath wrote a letter to all ILWU locals calling on them to be prepared for protest action. The populist Occupy movement was organising for caravans from the Pacific Northwest and down the West Coast. Individual unions and labour councils around the country passed motions and sent letters protesting the deployment of the US military against the ILWU.
A showdown pitting military forces deployed by the Obama administration against unionists and Occupy protesters could have damaged the Democrat’s political fortunes in the lead-up to the 2012 presidential elections. With news spreading of the imminent arrival of the first ship, Washington State’s Democratic Party governor stepped in and brokered a tentative agreement between the ILWU and EGT.
The “partnership” of labour and capital is a lie!
The ILWU’s International president is now saluting “the partnership between the ILWU and EGT” as the beginning of “many years of safe, productive operation at the facility, and stability in the Pacific Northwest grain export industry”. But the whole battle at Longview gives the lie to the bureaucracy’s promotion of a “partnership” between the longshoremen and the EGT owners, a lie that is at the heart of the virtually unchallenged offensive by the bosses and their state that has gutted the unions in this country.
The “stability” of the multibillion dollar US grain industry, the biggest and most profitable in the world, means skyrocketing food prices and the starvation and death of millions around the globe. The world’s grain supply is controlled by a handful of agribusiness giants, including US-based Cargill and Archer-Daniels-Midland. At home, their profits are created through the increasing exploitation of the working class, which is why EGT was out to bust the ILWU at its Longview terminal. They didn’t succeed. The West Coast-wide organisation of the union, and the jobs at the Longview port the union has worked for 80 years, were preserved.
ILWU Local 21 president Dan Coffman told Workers Vanguard that the union prevailed in its demand that the company pay into the ILWU/Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) health and welfare package and pay into the pension plan as well. EGT will also pay the overtime rate for any work over eight hours per day. Nonetheless, the fact that EGT can mandate ILWU members to work twelve-hour shifts is a real threat to the workers’ health and safety. (The ILWU’s contract with the PMA allows shifts of at most ten hours, and then only if the ship is scheduled to sail immediately.) Moreover, EGT will pay straight time for night shifts instead of the standard time-and-a-third shift differential.
The union also beat back EGT’s refusal to recognise maintenance/repair and other inside workers in the terminal as members of the ILWU. These workers were selected and separately hired by the company from the Local 21 hall as permanent “steady men”. They were then required to decide on whether they would be represented by the ILWU. Steady men, who are guaranteed work with individual shipping and stevedoring companies, have long been allowed under the ILWU contract with the PMA, subverting the union hiring hall and rotary dispatch system. Those gains of the historic 1934 strike that forged the union are designed to equalise work opportunities for ILWU members. Coffman also told us that the union lost its demand to man the control room in the EGT terminal, which means that the central operations will be run by the company.
With unions like those of public sector workers in Wisconsin being mowed down by the capitalist union-busters, it is a real achievement that the ILWU in Longview was able to hold the line against EGT. But the fight is hardly over. The ILWU is still saddled with more than $300,000 in fines, which it is appealing in the federal courts. While the courts acquitted some of those arrested, there are still ILWU members facing charges, including felony counts. The ILWU and its supporters must fight for all of these charges to be dropped! And the next battle will be with other grain exporting companies when the Grainhandlers’ Agreement with the ILWU comes up on 1 October.
EGT’s $200 million Longview facility is the first new grain terminal to be built in 25 years in the US. It is equipped to handle an average load rate of 3000 metric tonnes per hour, far surpassing the 750 to 2500 metric tonne rate of other grain export elevators in the Pacific Northwest. Expected to load 150 to 200 ships a year at Longview, EGT — a multinational conglomerate of St Louis-based Bunge North America, the Japanese Itochu Corporation and the South Korean STX Pan Ocean shipping company — is positioned to come out on top of the profit bonanza that will flow from the projected increase of US corn, wheat and soybean exports to Asia. Faced with such competition, the other grain exporters will be looking to take their losses out of the hide of the ILWU.
Grain handling by the ILWU in the Pacific Northwest, overwhelmingly bulk cargo, is covered by agreements that are separate from the ILWU’s contract with the PMA, which is dominated by container shipping companies. That contract is up in 2014, and the PMA will be carefully watching the grain negotiations in order to press any advantage against the ILWU. With the newly enlarged Panama Canal scheduled to open the same year, the PMA will be playing to fears that the shipping companies will send their container ships directly to the East Coast instead of offloading containers in the West Coast ports and shipping them by rail across the continent. The APM Terminal at Hampton Roads, Virginia, which opened in 2007, is highly automated compared to West Coast ports and is the third-largest container terminal in the country. Shipping companies on both coasts seek to pit the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), which organises East Coast and Gulf Coast ports and whose master contract expires 30 September, against the relatively more powerful ILWU, in a race to the bottom over jobs.
The ILWU and ILA are both increasingly isolated union outposts amid a sea of low-wage, non-union workers in the ever-growing chain of world trade, from port truckers to warehouse and intermodal rail facility workers to sailors manning the mammoth cargo ships. The strength of the longshore unions has been further and increasingly eroded by the allegiance of their leaderships to the profitability and national interests of America’s capitalist rulers. The power of workers united on the basis of their own class interests in struggle against the employers was seen in the mass pickets and other actions in Longview. But this initial militancy ran straight up against the class collaborationism of the union misleaders.
Front lines of an international class battle
The ILWU leadership portrayed the fight against EGT as that of a small community against a “foreign” multinational corporation. On the contrary, it was a class battle pitting the workers against the capitalist owners of EGT. In any such battle, the owners can depend on the forces of the capitalist state, which exists precisely to defend their interests — from “community” cops and sheriff’s departments all the way up to the forces of “Homeland Security” and the military. The workers’ power lies in their collective organisation and ability to stop production and shut off the flow of profits. In marshalling this strength, solidarity actions between different unions and with workers internationally are crucial. This is all the more so with just-in-time delivery and increasingly interconnected global production. It is precisely because such actions as “hot-cargoing” and solidarity strikes are so effective that they have been outlawed.
As in any other conflict, the question of who wins or loses is decided by the relative strength of the opposing forces. The union’s power lay in its ability to stop grain coming in or going out of the EGT terminal. At the height of the grain harvest season in late summer and early fall, the company was particularly vulnerable. The ILWU urgently needed the backing of the strength and solidarity of other unions, most importantly those in the EGT grain cargo chain.
Early on, the union and its allies mobilised mass pickets that stopped trains carrying grain. These trains were driven by members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE), which is affiliated with the Teamsters. When the ILWU backed down in the face of massive police repression, the trains started rolling in. Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa Jr sent a letter pledging support to the ILWU in its fight with EGT. But the most elementary solidarity was for the BLE to stop the train shipments. That would have meant defying Taft-Hartley and the myriad other laws banning such actions. Defiance of anti-labour laws, with workers battling the cops and other strikebreaking forces, was how the unions were built in this country. And just as surely, they have been decimated by sacrificing labour’s weapons of struggle on the altar of capitalist legality.
Operating Engineers Local 701, which supplied the scab labour for EGT, was given cover by AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka. Trumka declared that this was simply a “jurisdictional” dispute between two unions that needed to be resolved in the chambers of the national labour traitors! As we wrote in “ILWU Fights Deadly Threat” (Workers Vanguard no 986, 16 September 2011): “The only ‘jurisdictional’ dispute in Longview is between capital and labour! And Trumka has taken the side of the bosses.” This treachery was in service to the Democratic Party, which is every bit as much a party of the bosses as the Republicans but one to which the labour officials pledge their allegiance, peddling the Democrats as the “friends of labour”. Trumka didn’t want a big class battle in Longview upsetting Obama’s electoral fortunes. When it came down to it, neither did the ILWU tops.
The union was in a tough spot. It is not easy to prevail in the face of the full force of the capitalist state. But the union’s capacity to fight was undermined by its leadership’s support for the very forces of “national security” the ILWU was up against. In 2002, the ILWU International leadership collaborated in the drafting of the Maritime Transportation Security Act, which is aimed at policing the docks as part of the government’s “war on terror”. Despicably pointing a finger at the largely immigrant, non-union port truckers as a potential “security” threat, the ILWU tops acquiesced to the implementation of the Transport Workers Identification Credential (TWIC), objecting only after it had been implemented. Forced to submit to criminal background and immigration status checks, tens of thousands of port workers were denied “security” clearance. Many immigrant truckers chose not to apply, fearing deportation.
Among the offences that would permanently bar workers from the waterfront under TWIC is involvement in a “transportation security incident” including “transportation system disruption or economic disruption in a specific area”. Coast Guard officials showed up at the Longview ILWU Local 21 hall threatening to revoke union members’ TWIC cards if there were any union protests interfering with the loading of the grain ship.
In the face of the military might of its “own” government, the ILWU desperately needed to appeal for international working-class solidarity. Last fall, there had been small solidarity protests against EGT’s union-busting in Japan, Korea and Australia. These needed to translate into action by appealing to dock workers in Korea and throughout Asia to refuse to unload scab grain shipped from EGT’s Longview terminal. But the ILWU was not well positioned to do so when its leadership was braying that the union was defending the US grain export industry against a “foreign” multinational. Grain and other food exports are wielded as weapons by US imperialism against the workers and oppressed of the world and to keep less developed countries under the boot of the “world’s only superpower”.
The very nature of longshore work, which is dependent on world trade, underlines that labour’s fight is international. Longshore and other transport workers in the global cargo chain have immense potential social power. This was laid out in an article by JoAnn Wypijewski titled “On the Front Lines of the World Class Struggle — The Cargo Chain” (CounterPunch, 1 March 2010):
As important as productivity is to the shipping industry’s fortunes, all the speed of automated ports is worthless if there are ruptures anywhere in the relay from factory to consumer . In the U.S.A. that means smooth acquiescence not only from 60,000 longshore workers, but also from 28,000 tugboat operators and harbor pilots, 60,000 port truckers, 850,000 freight truckers, 165,000 railroad workers, 2 million warehouse and distribution workers, 370,000 express package delivery people, and 160,000 logistic planners — and from similarly interlocked clusters of workers all around the world. They are not all organized, but then they would not all have to say No: just enough of them, acting in concert at vital points in the chain.”
But thanks to the treachery of the trade union misleaders, there were no such ruptures in the cargo chain bringing grain in and unloading it in the EGT terminal. The one notable and honourable exception when it came to getting the grain shipped out was the Inland Boatmen’s Union (part of the ILWU), which refused to man the tugs to take the ship in and out. With its back up against the wall in the face of US military forces, the ILWU leadership’s “America first” patriotism cuts across their ability to appeal for international solidarity.
Let those union militants and their allies who fought so courageously draw the lessons to prepare for future battles. If the unions are to be instruments of struggle against the bosses, they must break the chains forged by the labour misleaders that have shackled the workers to the interests of the capitalist exploiters and their political parties. The continued existence of the ILWU as a powerful industrial union cries out for a class-struggle fight to unionise the masses of unorganised workers, such as the port truckers, which would require combating anti-immigrant chauvinism and organising them at full union pay, benefits and working conditions. For two weeks, hundreds of truckers at the Port of Seattle have been on strike against their unbearable working conditions, demanding their right to unionise.
The red-white-and-blue bureaucrats must be ousted in a fight for a class-struggle leadership, one whose banner will be the red flag of working-class internationalism! Such a leadership will arm the workers for some hard-fought battles against the capitalist exploiters and lay the basis for forging a multiracial workers party, one that will fight for a socialist revolution to uproot the whole system of wage slavery, racial oppression, poverty and imperialist war.
Substituting the populist Occupy movement for class struggle
It is a measure of the betrayals by the labour misleaders that the populist Occupy movement has emerged as the central locus of any protest against the ravages of the economic catastrophe created by Wall Street financiers and corporate magnates. Occupy overwhelmingly believes in the myth of some “good old days” of American capitalist rule, with a government that represented the “will of the people”. Yet much of the “socialist” left in this country has opportunistically hailed Occupy as the key to revitalising the labour movement. On the contrary, its “99 per cent” populism — which extends to the racist, strikebreaking cops — dissolves any understanding of the fundamental class line between the workers and their capitalist exploiters.
In the Bay Area, left-talking labour fakers like retired ILWU bureaucrat Jack Heyman and former Local 10 executive board member Clarence Thomas promoted the “community pickets” by the Occupy movement that blockaded the Oakland port on 2 November and again on 12 December. In the lead-up to the 12 December Occupy blockades, which also shut down the ports in Longview and Portland in proclaimed solidarity with the ILWU’s fight in Longview, Heyman argued: “If Occupy is successful now, then momentum for a coastwide shutdown by longshore workers is highly likely when the scab ship arrives.” But far from building any such “momentum”, the blockade reduced the workers to at best being passive observers, standing by awaiting a decision by an arbitrator as to whether crossing these picket lines was a threat to their health and safety.
As enthusiastically described by the International Socialist Organization’s Socialist Worker (13 December 2011), there was much cheering in Oakland on 12 December when it was announced that the arbitrator had ruled and “workers had headed home”. What a farce! The workers were little more than pawns in a game of media and legal theatre. This is not a new game for Heyman and Thomas, who have built their “militant” reputations with the Bay Area rad-lib milieu through such community pickets.
As symbolic actions that pose the need for the workers to champion solidarity with the struggles of their class brothers and sisters, such pickets can episodically be an effective tactic. But they do little to raise workers’ consciousness of their social power and class interests. Although upheld as evidence of the militancy of the ILWU, these pickets of leftists, liberals and other forces are premised on the same acquiescence to anti-labour laws behind which the ILWU and other union tops hide their sellouts of militant labour action. This was expressed by an “Occupy the Ports” statement building for 12 December arguing that “labor unions are constrained under reactionary, anti-union federal legislation...from taking job actions on the basis of solidarity”.
Picket lines are not public relations shows on behalf of the workers. Nor are they actions of civil disobedience by masses of petty-bourgeois and other declassed elements in Occupy who have no relation to, or corresponding power at, the point of production. They are battle lines in the class struggle between the workers and the capitalists who derive their profits from the exploitation of labour. Their success is predicated on the consciousness and organisation of the workers mobilised as a class against their class enemy.
There is no question that the ILWU Longview local appreciated the attention that Occupy protests drew to their fight against the EGT union-busters. And who can blame them? When the ILWU International retreated, the Longview workers were taking all the casualties while EGT was riding high in the saddle, its terminal being filled with grain and the forces of Obama’s federal government at its back to get it shipped out. Solidarity with labour on the part of Occupy activists is certainly welcome. But the Occupy blockades were no substitute for the mobilisation of the class power of the workers in struggle. Whatever the intention of the protesters, their pickets could easily end up pitting the protesters against the workers and their union. That is precisely the programme of the more “radical” wing of Occupy exemplified by the Black Orchid anarchist collective in Seattle, which openly counterposes the largely petty-bourgeois Occupy forces as a “new movement of the working class” to the unions.
Evidently this is no problem for Jack Heyman. A central speaker at a 6 January Seattle Occupy meeting to mobilise for a caravan to Longview when the first ship pulled into the EGT terminal, Heyman embraced Occupy “sister Barucha” who “thinks that trade unions are capitalist institutions”. This, Heyman went on to argue, is “the wonderful thing about this Occupy movement . We have different tendencies in it and we can raise our differences and yet come together for one goal, which is to win victory for the Longview longshoremen.” It’s kind of hard to win such a victory for workers fighting to preserve their union with people who think that unions are capitalist institutions! But Heyman has been peddling his credentials as a union “militant” to liberal radicals for so long that he can’t even recognise the class line.
Like the US labour bureaucracy as a whole, the ILWU International embraced Occupy’s “99 per cent” populism, no doubt hoping that it would further Obama’s chances of re-election. But the longshore union tops were hostile to the 12 December port shutdown. In his 3 January letter to ILWU locals about protesting when the first ship arrived, McEllrath warned longshoremen to approach those organising for Occupy caravans to Longview with “extreme caution”. Several ILWU local bureaucrats and members from the Pacific Northwest attended the 6 January Seattle Occupy meeting and demanded that this letter be read. After being made to wait for close to two hours, they got out of their seats to protest and a melee ensued. In putting off the request by regional officials of the union under fire, the event organisers had invited such a confrontation.
In fact, the Black Orchid Collective seems to have relished it. In a statement issued after the event titled “Unity vs. Union Goons”, they condemned the ILWU officials for “trying to prevent us from transcending their dying structures”. In the aftermath of the confrontation, the Seattle local of the ILWU passed a motion banning its members from “all support for ‘Occupy’ formally or informally”, laying the basis to witch hunt ILWU members who have worked with Occupy. Such a witch hunt could be in the offing, and it should be rejected by the ILWU.
The Internationalist Group (IG), which cheerleads for Heyman, subsequently wrote us asking “where the Spartacist League stands on this disruption”? As we had made perfectly clear in writing to the IG: “We stand on the side of the defense of the union against EGT’s union-busting offensive, backed by the military and other police forces of the federal government, not with those in the Occupy movement who share the belief that the unions should be eliminated.”
While describing the politics of Occupy as “bourgeois populism”, the IG simultaneously condemns it for trying to go around the union bureaucracy “when what is needed is a fight to defeat and drive out these ‘labor lieutenants of the capitalist class’”. But Occupy is not part of the labour movement, which is where such a fight has to be waged. Our struggle with the labour bureaucrats is a political one, in opposition to its subordination of the unions to the national interests and profits of America’s capitalist rulers. Those like Heyman, the IG and others who promote the Occupy movement — whose populist politics in fact mirror those of the labour misleaders — as a substitute for the union reaped the fruits of their own grotesque opportunism at the Seattle meeting.
Those who labour must rule!
Occupy is not, and cannot be, the vehicle for revitalising the American labour movement. That is the task of the workers themselves. What is posed is not simply the preservation of the existing unions, many of which have already been reduced to a mere shadow of their former existence, but the struggle to transform them into workers’ battalions of class struggle. The majority black membership of Bay Area ILWU Local 10 bridges a key fault line in US society, giving the union the ability to harness its social power to the anger of the masses of the inner cities whose lives have been written off as worthless to American capitalism. Likewise, the Latino members in the ILWU’s LA/Long Beach local provide a key link to the huge number of Latino immigrants in Los Angeles. This would be a key to the fight to organise the non-union, majority immigrant port truckers who are vital to shutting down the ports.
To wage such battles, the union must inscribe on its banner the fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants and champion the cause of black freedom. But the union itself is rent by the same racial and ethnic fault lines that the shipping bosses play on to divide and weaken the ILWU, pitting the overwhelmingly white ILWU workers in the Pacific Northwest, the black members in the Bay Area and the Latino members in LA against each other. It was a coastwide strike in 1934 that laid the basis for the founding of the ILWU, uniting longshoremen, seamen and other maritime workers. In San Francisco, where the longshore struggle sparked a general strike, the union leadership consciously appealed to the oppressed black population and fought against the bosses’ attempts to use racial and ethnic divisions to break the workers’ struggle.
The San Francisco general strike was not the only major class battle of 1934. There was also a mass strike sparked by auto parts workers in Toledo and truck drivers’ strikes in Minneapolis, out of which the Teamsters was forged as a powerful industrial union. They were all led by reds. As James P Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism, whose supporters led the Minneapolis strikes, wrote in an article on the 1936 West Coast maritime strike (printed in Notebook of an Agitator, 1958), a contract settlement “is only a temporary truce and the nature of such a settlement is decided by power; ‘justice’ has nothing to do with it. The workers will not have justice until they take over the world . The bosses are powerful in the first place, because they own the ships and the docks, and the workers have not yet challenged their fraudulent claim to such ownership. And because they own the ships the bosses own the government”.
The workers struggle against increasingly brutal exploitation will not end short of getting rid of a system based on production for profit and establishing a workers government that will take the means of production out of the hands of the rapacious capitalist owners and make it the collective property of society. Then, advances in automation and other technology, which are now wielded as clubs against workers’ jobs and livelihoods, will be used to reduce their workload and lead to vast improvements in the conditions of life for the population as a whole.
The road forward lies in the fight to forge a new class-struggle leadership of the unions that will wage the battles out of which a revolutionary workers party can be built. It is the purpose of the Spartacist League to forge the nucleus of such a party as the US section of a revolutionary working-class international organisation. As Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote over 150 years ago in the Communist Manifesto: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries unite!”