Unchain the 
Power of Labor

charleston five
Charleston Five longshoremen arrested for defending picket lines against cop attack (January 2000).
click on photo for article

South Carolina clay miners appeal for solidarity in fight for their union (October 2001). 
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December 2002 

IG at Bay Area Labor Conference:

Strike Against Taft-Hartley! 
Hot-Cargo War Materiel!

Internationalist Group supporters intervened with a program for sharp class struggle at a “National Labor Conference Against Taft-Hartley and Union-Busting” held December 7 in San Francisco. The event was called in response to President Bush’s use of the slave-labor law to order 10,500 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union back to work in October, after they had been locked out by the employers’ Pacific Maritime Association. 

The conference was held immediately before the week-long Coast Caucus of the ILWU, which on December 12 voted in favor of the contract proposal promoted by the ILWU leadership and the PMA – and openly pushed by the Bush government. This contract would mean the loss of 400-600 jobs in the short term as well as undercutting the union hiring hall won in the historic 1934 SF maritime strike. (The contract will now be sent to the union membership for approval or rejection.)

Called under the auspices of the ILWU, the AFL-CIO labor councils of the Bay Area, several local unions and various “solidarity” groups, the December 7 conference was attended by some 200 unionists. Many came hoping for a real strategy for labor action against Taft-Hartley and the U.S. rulers’ drive for war on Iraq. Representatives of the Liverpool dockers brought news of the British fire fighters’ strike and denounced “Labor” Party prime minister Tony Blair’s strikebreaking and plans to send troops to Iraq. Myron Renew, union organizer of the Kentucky-Tennessee Clay miners in Langley, South Carolina, addressed the conference on the fight to unionize the South in the aftermath of the successful defense of the Charleston Five longshoremen. A spokesman for the Tate Lyle workers in the Decatur, Illinois “war zone” eloquently warned against illusions in the “labor hacks” of the AFL-CIO leadership who stabbed their struggle in the back. 

Yet overall the conference was a talk shop for union bureaucrats who wanted to blow off steam but opposed any real mobilization of the power of labor against Taft-Hartley and imperialist war. This was made clear in the opening session when ILWU press spokesman Steve Stallone said that while the PMA told the public the lockout was the union’s fault, “the ILWU made news and scored a lot of PR points by continuing to do a certain amount of the work,” including shipping “critical cargo” to Alaska and Hawaii and “continu[ing] to work the military cargo so that the government couldn’t get on our case about that.” In fact, workers picketed the docks during the lockout, and a union leadership worth its salt would have seen to it that nothing moved and that the docks were shut down tight.

In the perfunctory plenary discussion at the end of the conference, an Internationalist Group speaker (the only person to speak from the audience in opposition to the bureaucrats), said that “a love-in where everyone says a lot of hot air about solidarity” would accomplish nothing. What’s needed, he said, is to organize class-struggle action like “ripping up this contract promoted by Bush and the Pentagon, striking against Taft-Hartley, backed by a mobilization of all labor, and hot-cargoing war goods instead of boasting about loading them like Steve Stallone did in the opening session” – whereupon this spokesman for the ILWU International burst into enraged heckling. (Earlier, Stallone stormed off the stage when the Tate Lyle worker criticized the sellout ILWU contract proposal.)

Our speaker was met with loud applause from part of the audience, booing from others, and an “answer” from ILWU Local 10 Secretary-Treasurer Clarence Thomas, who said hot-cargoing war goods is not possible because “we live in the real world.” At an earlier workshop on “Labor and the War,” Thomas spoke at length against the IG’s call, saying “the reality of the situation is that we have to do it,” i.e., load war materiel. This is the same kind of logic as the ILWU International’s bowing down to Taft-Hartley with only pro forma verbal protest. 

Thomas was echoed by a spokeswoman for the International Socialist Organization, who after lauding Thomas for speaking “passionately and eloquently” said, “I don’t think it’s a question right now of stopping the military cargo.” At another workshop, the ISO responded to an IG comrade’s call for strike action and hot-cargoing by saying, “You have to learn to walk before you can run.” While presenting this patronizing view of the organized working class as toddlers, social democrats like the ISO sure know how to crawl before the bourgeoisie. 

We print below the intervention by an IG comrade at the “Labor and the War” workshop, followed by the Internationalist leaflet distributed at the conference and the subsequent ILWU Coast Caucus:

My name is Abram, from the Internationalist Group. The war against the working class and minorities is part of this imperialist war which the American ruling class is unleashing against Iraq. Our organization raises the call for the defeat of U.S. imperialism and the defense of Iraq.

Now, coalitions and resolutions, conferences and peace marches are not going to defeat the war. But I will tell you something which could take a real step towards defeating this imperialist war, and that is for the longshore workers to refuse to handle war materiel. During the lockout, the ILWU bureaucracy of [union president] Jim Spinosa et al. not only shipped the war materiel but boasted about it. Today, a representative for them repeated this, and the union leadership has promised to continue to do so, in other words to show the American ruling class its loyalty to this war in raining death and destruction on the people of Iraq. And that has to stop! 

The war materiel must be stopped, and it is the working class that has the power to do it, not just here but internationally. In Holland, for example, and other parts of Europe, supporters of our international organization, the League for the Fourth International, have called on dock workers to hot-cargo, or as they call it in some parts of Europe to “black” the cargo of U.S. warships, for example in the Dutch harbors.
In Brazil, our organization spoke to port workers in the port of Santos and in Rio de Janeiro. In Santos the workers are very familiar with what the destruction of the union hiring hall means: the union hiring hall was taken away by the bosses and there was a big protest against that by the workers, which was put down by the Military Police. 
Just so you know, there is actually a current from Brazil represented here, O Trabalho [followers of French pseudo-Trotskyist Pierre Lambert in the Workers Party of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva], which the plenary speaker from the Brazilian CUT labor federation belongs to, that actually “unionizes” Military Police, the most violent enemies of black people and the working class in Brazil. In Santos there was a lot of sentiment in favor of a work stoppage in solidarity with the longshore workers in the United States, but the word came down from the entourage of Lula, the guy who was just elected president of Brazil, and from the union bureaucracy of the CUT, that to take this elementary act of solidarity with the U.S. longshore workers would endanger the election prospects of Lula and his right-wing vice-presidential candidate.

One final point: the Democratic Party is represented in the antiwar coalitions as the instrumentality for keeping the working-class power chained, and even the most obvious things, like to strike against Taft-Hartley, to rip up this contract – which is a contract that comes from the White House and the Pentagon – even these things are being suppressed by the “alliance” with the Democratic Party.

In New York City the transit workers are on the receiving end of a New York State parallel to Taft-Hartley, which is the Taylor Law [prohibiting strikes by public employees], and are on the receiving end of the war against the working class. We call for uniting a strike by the transit workers in New York with a strike by the ILWU.


Port workers in Santos, Brazil fought bitter battle in April 2001 to defend union hiring hall, a gain which had been won in 1934 (as in the U.S.). Military Police viciously attacked striking dockers, as in the worst days of the military regime (1964-1985), leaving 50 injured and 28 arrested. (Photos: TV Mar)

Strike to Smash Taft-Hartley Anti-Labor War Repression!

For Powerful Workers Action 
Against the Bosses’ War!

The following is an Internationalist Group leaflet distributed at the labor conference against Taft-Hartley and union busting held in San Francisco on December 7.

The U.S. imperialist war on Iraq is also a capitalist war on the working class, blacks, Latinos and immigrants in the United States. While the Pentagon prepares to nuke civilian bomb shelters in Baghdad, American employers and their government are going after the unions, oppressed minorities and democratic rights with a vengeance. This is class war, and as the Harlan County miners declared in the bloody coalfield wars of the 1930s, there are no neutrals here

But it’s “one-sided class war,” and it’s been that way for a long time. The warmongers won’t be stopped by UN debates, jawboning in Congress, peace parades around the White House, or two, three, many antiwar resolutions by labor bureaucrats. The bosses’ war must be defeated – in Iraq and on the home front –  by mobilizing the power of the working class, in the streets, on the docks and in the plants. 

A National Labor Conference Against Taft-Hartley and Union-Busting has been called in San Francisco for December 7, by International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10, the ILWU International, San Francisco, Alameda and South Bay Labor Councils, and various Bay Area unions. Fighting the “slave labor law” used against West Coast longshore workers locked out by the Pacific Maritime Association bosses last September should be the cause of all labor. But how exactly should Taft-Hartley be fought? Here there is a sharp counterposition between those who pine for the “good old days” of class collaboration and those who stand for uncompromising class struggle.

ILWU dock workers and supporters at October 5 solidarity rally. The organized workers movement should have mobilized its power to defy the Taft-Hartley “slave labor law.” (Internationalist photo)

At the October 5 labor solidarity rally in Oakland, “progressive” Bay Area labor leaders like SF labor council head Walter Johnson vowed to shut down San Francisco for a few hours if Taft-Hartley was used against longshore workers. Another top union official said labor should close the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges. Demonstrators chanted, “Shut it down! Shut it down!” Back in August, the SF Labor Council issued a resolution against a war on Iraq and demanding the government stay off the docks. But this was just hot air. Taft-Hartley was imposed and nothing happened, not even symbolic actions. In many ways it was a replay of how the AFL-CIO tops bowed to Reagan’s busting of the PATCO air controllers strike in 1981, paving the way for wholesale union-busting around the country. The stakes today are no less. 

The program of class struggle requires a class-struggle leadership to wield it, and that leadership must be forged in combat against the pro-capitalist bureaucracy. The present misleaders of labor, including the sponsors of this conference, have chained the workers and oppressed to the class enemy, in the form of the Democratic Party. Republican George Bush slapped a Taft-Hartley injunction on the ILWU, but Democrat Diane Feinstein demanded he do so. And the ILWU and Bay Area labor council tops all backed Feinstein for senator, even if some did so claiming she was a “lesser evil.” Lesser-evilism is a program for defeat.

The characteristic Bay Area “popular front” stretches from Feinstein through the union bureaucracy to various left-wing groups. Feinstein (who flew the Confederate flag at SF city hall when she was mayor) was a little hard for many leftists to swallow, so instead they championed black Democrat Barbara Lee. The Workers World Party (WWP), Communist Party (CP) and even the erstwhile Trotskyists of the Spartacist League (SL) all hailed Lee for refusing to vote for Bush’s war powers resolution last year. For weeks on end, they all kept silent about the fact that Lee voted for the $40 billion war budget. (This past fall, Lee said talk of Taft-Hartley was “premature” – that is, Bush used it too early.)

The Iraq war cannot be separated from the assault against longshore workers, although many desperately try to do so. During the PMA lockout, none of the ISO/WWP/CP reformists, not even the left-centrists of the SL, called on the ILWU to “hot cargo” war materiel, as the Internationalist Group did. Everyone at the conference will declare their opposition to Taft-Hartley union-busting; many will recall how in 1978 the coal miners ripped up Jimmy Carter’s Taft-Hartley injunctions. But the reformists and centrists did not call for dock workers to defy Taft-Hartley and refuse to work under slave labor conditions. No doubt there will be a lot of criticism at the conference of the sellout contract negotiated by the ILWU leadership under Jim Spinosa, which the Coast Caucus is set to vote on Monday, December 9. But the opportunists have avoided the “s-word” (strike) like the plague. We say today, as The Internationalist has said since last summer, that it is necessary to organize a coastwise strike to defeat the union-busting offensive.

So what about the ILWU contract? Bush says it’s a good deal, PMA boss Miniace praises it, Spinosa hails it, but many longshore and warehouse workers aren’t buying it. The terms are still being kept secret from the membership, but any class-conscious union militant knows that a “settlement” announced by the White House is bad news for the workers. From the information that has leaked out so far, it’s clear that the ILWU leaders sacrificed thousands of future union jobs in the name of “modernization.” This recalls the “modernization and mechanization” (M&M) contracts negotiated by ILWU founder Harry Bridges in the 1960s which drastically cut the union ranks. The union hiring hall, a key gain of the 1934 strike, is threatened by the growth of “steady men” jobs. And a sweetheart deal has reportedly been negotiated for higher wages in Spinosa’s home port of Los Angeles-San Pedro. ILWU workers should vote the sellout down and shut down the coast tighter than a drum.

Many “progressives” argue the war is a “union issue.” ILWU Local 10 had speakers at both the Washington and San Francisco antiwar protests on October 26. But the war is more than another “issue,” and labor is more than another “constituency” to be appealed to. The workers movement has the power to cripple Washington’s drive for war on Iraq, and U.S. rulers are acutely aware of this. The Bush Administration demanded the injunction against the West Coast port shutdown saying that a work stoppage “may degrade military readiness” and hinder the U.S.’ “ability to prosecute the Global War on Terrorism.” War secretary Rumsfeld argued that a port stoppage “disrupts the flow of essential military cargo…during this time of war.” A solid West Coast dock strike would be a powerful blow against warmongers who are hell-bent on staging a new “Desert Slaughter” in the Persian Gulf. 

This is the kind of sharp class struggle against imperialist war that Lenin and Trotsky stood for. Following the 1919 Seattle general strike, dock workers there and in San Francisco refused to load shipments of guns being sent to the White (counterrevolutionary) armies besieging Red Russia. In 1920, British dock workers refused to load war materiel bound for the imperialist siege of the Soviet republic. Today, supporters of the League for the Fourth International in Europe have appealed to dockers in the Netherlands and Belgium to refuse to handle war cargo or to load and unload U.S. Military Sealift Command ships. The policy of the ILWU leadership is the opposite: during the lockout they got the PMA to let longshoremen load war materiel; a Local 10 press release declared, “The ILWU is committed to shipping all military cargo.” Left groups that dodge the question of war cargo (the ISO even pretended the stoppage this fall didn’t affect military shipments) are bowing to the pro-capitalist union bureaucracy and the Pentagon. 

Yet there is no ducking the Iraq war in this battle: the government already had talks with the PMA about putting docks under military control in a strike, and there will be sure to be attempts to organize star-spangled scabbing. Jingoistic flag-waving is bowing to the enemy and will only weaken dock workers’ resolve in this hard class battle against wartime anti-labor repression, while “fair trade” protectionism sets U.S. workers against their class brothers and sisters around the world. Each year the ILWU commemorates the workers killed in the 1934 San Francisco port strike. But this is not just ancient history. A dock strike under present wartime conditions would be a bitter battle on the order of the ’34 Frisco strike. Such a showdown requires serious preparations by a class-conscious union leadership. 

Some ILWU members fear that if they don’t agree to a concessionary contract, the government will put longshore under the Railway Labor Act and take away even more union gains. But the recent United Air Lines debacle shows the futility of trying to buy security by piecing off the bosses. The Wall Street Journal wrote that the settlement agreed to by the PMA and the ILWU tops was a victory for government union-busting, headlining “Taft-Hartley, Victorious.” Longshore workers have the power to make this voice for the bankers and speculators eat its words. There is a lot of anger across the country against the corporate criminals who bilked Enron workers of their pensions while shamelessly looting the company. If a fighting union had the determination and program to stand up to the exploiters and war criminals who run this country, it would send shock waves across the U.S. 

Fight to organize the unorganized, including non-unionized immigrant truckers (right), and for full union rights to “B-men” and casuals, is key to defending union hiring hall and mobilizing against union-busting offensive. (Photo: David Bacon)

The fight to defend the ILWU must take on anti-union strikebreaking measures like New York’s Taylor Law, now being held as a sword over the head of the Transport Workers Union in NYC. It must be a fight for the rights of blacks and immigrants. Importantly, in 1999 the ILWU stopped work up and down the coast for ten hours to demand freedom for former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal on Pennsylvania’s death row. Many longshore workers are denied full union rights as “B-men” and casuals, while immigrant truckers are the targets of the bureaucrats’ chauvinism. It must be a fight to organize the unorganized, particularly in the racist “open shop” South, as the K-T Clay miners in South Carolina have been courageously waging. Above all, it must be an international fight, and not just with empty solidarity motions. Dock workers unions from around the world represented at the conference have seen their unions ripped apart, despite many gestures of good will and resolutions of solidarity. 

What’s needed is class-struggle action. Events in the last few weeks underline the possibility of an international working-class offensive. In South Africa, the recent two-day general strike was the third in three years; in Italy, a million and a half demonstrated against the Iraq war, including many unions, while Fiat workers mobilize in defense of their jobs; in Britain, firefighters strike in defiance of “Bush’s poodle” Tony Blair, who complains that military forces are being diverted from war preparations. In France, public sector workers take to the streets against the government’s privatization plans. 

But all of these struggles remain isolated, nationally and even within each country, because of the traditional workers leaders who are beholden to “their own” bourgeoisie. This stranglehold will not be broken by passing a few resolutions, forming one more “coalition” or launching another campaign. What is required is a real fight for a victorious class war of the workers and oppressed against imperialist war, union-busting and racist repression. Only a leadership fighting to build revolutionary workers parties internationally, in the struggle to reforge Trotsky’s Fourth International, can lead the working class in  the kind of head-on class struggle so urgently required today. n
SL: Hard to Starboard

The Spartacist League, which has its second-largest local in the San Francisco Bay Area, did not intervene in the December 7 SF labor conference. Was this abstention some kind of “ultraleft sectarianism”? Far from it. In fact, the SL’s line on the longshore conflict is a telling example of its rapid motion to the right. 

As we noted in the Internationalist Group statement “Defeat U.S. Imperialism! Defend Iraq!” (17 October), on the longshore workers’ picket lines during the lockout, the Spartacist League “failed to mention the issue of war materiel, much less call to boycott it…. Nor did the front-page article in Workers Vanguard (4 October) utter a word of criticism of union leader Jim Spinosa, who tried to introduce flag-waving ‘anti-terrorist’ slogans into the strike; nor, for that matter, did it call on dock workers to defy the Taft-Hartley injunction which was clearly in the works, or urge that the rest of the working class undertake strike action against the slave labor law.” The subsequent longshore article in WV (18 October) continued to quote Spinosa favorably without criticism, and did not call to defy Taft-Hartley or to refuse to handle war cargo. 

This silence is all the more striking because only a month beforehand, the Spartacist League had highlighted the issue of war materiel, criticizing the ILWU tops for “cynical empty words” about the war on Iraq, because they “have sworn in advance that they will continue to load military shipments in the event of a strike” (WV, 6 September). Talk about cynical empty words – when the showdown actually came, the SL dropped this subject like a hot potato. 

For that matter, nowhere have they called for U.S. workers to strike against the Iraq war – they already dropped that call in polemicizing against the Internationalist Group back in 1998 (see “SL Rejects Calls for Labor Strikes Against Imperialist War Moves,” The Internationalist No. 5, April-May 1998).

One year ago, Workers Vanguard (7 December 2001) headlined “Japanese Longshoremen Refuse to Load Warships,” reporting the courageous action of workers at the Sasebo port in Nagasaki Prefecture who “have been refusing to load armaments and military supplies onto Japanese navy ships headed to assist the U.S.-led war of terror on Afghanistan.” Currently, the SL is trying to justify its refusal to call for the defeat of its “own” imperialist bourgeoisie in the war on Iraq by chanting “class struggle at home.” What this nationally centered slogan translates into in practice was shown in the West Coast longshore lockout, where the SL pointedly dropped any call on U.S. workers to carry out the kind of internationalist action undertaken by Japanese dockers. 

This was no oversight. Challenged as to why they have not called for hot-cargoing war supplies or for strike action against Taft-Hartley, SLers mouth the same verbiage used by ILWU bureaucrats at the SF conference. At a December 14 antiwar march in New York, for example, SLers justified not calling for hot-cargoing war materiel due to “tactical considerations,” because “the union has to keep its head above water,” and the classic, all-purpose excuse for opportunism, “you have to approach people where they’re at”! At a rally in support of NYC transit workers two days later, in a discussion between several SLers and IG supporters, the SL’s main spokesman on trade-union issues justified not calling for defiance of Taft-Hartley, and even criticized the Internationalist Group for calling for opposition to the sellout deal negotiated by the ILWU tops, saying “no one’s seen it.” 

In contrast to this demoralized outlook, the Internationalist Group pointed out in leaflets distributed on the ILWU picket lines that “standing together as a class, the workers have the power to defeat the bosses’ drive.” We noted, “Some of Bush’s advisors fear that if he imposes Taft-Hartley it could backfire and ‘energize’ the labor movement. This fear could be turned into reality – if labor mobilizes now and meets government intervention with strike action by strategic sectors of organized labor.” And as we pointed out in The Internationalist No. 14 (September-October 2002), “Bowing to slave-labor decrees only paves the way for even more savage union-busting, as shown by the bitter experience of what happened after 1981 when the labor tops sat by as Reagan smashed the PATCO air traffic controllers.”

Back in 1971, when a national longshore walkout was ended when President Richard Nixon issued a Taft-Hartley injunction, WV denounced ILWU leader Harry Bridges for “whip[ping] the men back to work under the excuse of the Taft-Hartley injunction” and urged “defiance of Taft-Hartley.” A five-point program for longshore prominently highlighted the demands: “For labor strikes against the war: Halt the flow of all war goods” (Workers Vanguard No. 3, November 1971). That was then, this is now, we can already hear the SL say.

We’ve pointed out how in recent years the Spartacist League has progressively abandoned one central Trotskyist programmatic position after another. This has occurred piecemeal, but what is most notable is that these capitulations occur every time the SL faces a test by the class struggle. The war repression of the ILWU workers is the latest. 

Go to PMA Lockout: A Declaration of War on All Labor! (October 2002)
Go to Strike Now to Defend ILWU Union Gains!
(7 July 2002)

To contact the League for the Fourth International or its sections, send an e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com