Labor's Gotta Play Hardball to Win!

charleston five
Charleston Five longshoremen arrested for defending picket lines against cop attack (January 2000).
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For Powerful Workers Action Against the Bosses’ War!
ILWU workers and supporters protest Taft-Hartley “slave labor” law. (October 2002). 
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October 2007  

Militant Protest Against Racist Cop
Attack on Bay Area Longshore Workers

Union protesters outside courthouse near Sacramento, October 4. “You ready to fight?”
“Damn right!”
(Photo: Indymedia)

On October 4, upwards of 250 demonstrators rallied outside the Yolo County Courthouse in Woodland, California to protest the vicious police assault last August on two black dock workers from San Francisco who were working in the port of Sacramento. Two busloads of workers came from Bay Area Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), while others traveled from every ILWU local in northern California and Portland, Oregon. Ken Riley of the East Coast International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) traveled all the way from Charleston, South Carolina to join the protest. They were joined by local community activists denouncing the brutal actions of the West Sacramento police they face day in and day out.

Local media described the energetic crowd as “angry” and “defiant.” The call “You ready to fight?” was met with a loud response, “Damn right!” Protesters demanded that all charges against union brothers Aaron Harrison and Jason Ruffin be dropped. Speakers described how port security singled out the two black workers who were working at the Stevedoring Services of America facility. The rent-a-cop guards demanded to search their car for no apparent reason, then called the police, who dragged the workers from their car,  assaulted and handcuffed them, spraying one in the face with pepper spray. Former Local 10 president Trent Willis declared: “They roughed them up and maced them…. You have a clear case of police brutality and racial profiling” (“ILWU Cries Foul,” Woodland Daily Democrat, 5 October).

While the turnout was large and energetic, the rally was strictly a rank-and-file affair notable for the absence of ILWU officialdom. In fact, the ILWU International tops sought to undercut the mobilization, while trying to foist a treacherous “deal” on the two Local 10 members even though they are innocent of all charges. Riley of the ILA asked pointedly from the microphone, “Where is the International?” The union tops’ non-participation is no accident but reflects the role of the labor bureaucracy as flunkeys of the bosses inside the workers movement, constantly seeking to hold back and even sabotage workers’ struggles, particularly when they affect vital interests of capital. And the August incident at the port of Sacramento is only the tip of the iceberg of mounting repression and militarization of the docks.

Bay Area port workers are fighting mad over the recent series of attacks and dangerous work conditions on the waterfront. In late September, a longshoreman, Reginald Ross, was killed after being struck by a container while working a ship at the SSA terminal in Oakland. (SSA is a notoriously anti-union outfit, a major shipper of military cargo to the Persian Gulf, and also runs Iraq’s only seaport for the U.S. occupation authorities.) Local 10 workers immediately walked off the job and shut down the port for 36 hours, despite howls from the employers’ Pacific Maritime Association (PMA). On top of this, Homeland Security is gearing up to introduce the Transport Worker Identification Card (TWIC), a major attack on port workers. Using the “war on terror” as a smokescreen, the TWIC will be used to “weed out” longshoremen the PMA or government consider “undesirable” or a “risk,” as well as undermining the union hiring hall. 

Rev. Ashiye Odeye spoke for local residents fed up over the police department arrogantly trampling on their rights as it sought an “anti-gang” injunction. “This is just more fodder against the West Sac PD,” said Odeye, director of the Sacramento-based civil rights group, Justice Reform Coalition. “This just shows what they’ve been doing to the citizens of West Sacramento. But now they have made the mistake of doing this to members of a union.” While the black and Latino populace take the brunt of the police attacks, a white longshoreman described how he was rousted out of his van by the local cops. If the ILWU brings its power to bear, it can strike a blow against the rampant police brutality and racial “profiling.”

The next court date is set for October 22, two days after a Labor Conference to Stop the War, called by ILWU Locals 10 and 34. Conference organizers noted how S.F. dock workers have in the past refused to load military cargo for rightist dictatorships in Chile and El Salvador, refused to unload cargo from apartheid South Africa, honored “illegal” picket lines supporting dock workers’ struggles in Liverpool, England and in Australia, while the ILWU shut down all West Coast ports demanding freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former black Panther and renowned radical journalist held for the last quarter century on Pennsylvania’s death row.

Jack Heyman of ILWU Local 10 speaking to October 4 protest rally.

(Photo: Matthew Henderson/Woodland Daily Democrat)

By now it should be clear to all that the war and colonial occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan is reflected in the war on immigrants, minorities and labor here. As ICE immigration cops escalate their raids, they have singled out union activists to be picked up and deported. And in 2002 the government threatened union officials with military occupation of the West Coast ports, then slapped a Taft-Hartley injunction on the Bay Area docks, saying any work stoppage was a threat to the “war effort.” Moreover, it’s not only the widely despised George Bush behind it all – the Democrats have voted for every war and repression law, and are spearheading the drive for “port security.” In the face of this “bipartisan” capitalist assault, Bay Area dock workers, and all labor, need to go beyond paper resolutions and mobilize their power in concrete action.

While most of the left has spent the last six years in impotent “peace” parades with Democratic Party politicians, the Internationalist Group has insistently called to defeat the imperialist war abroad and the bosses’ war “at home” through working-class action. We call for transport workers to “hot cargo” war shipments and for workers strikes against the war. It is necessary to break with the Democrats and build a class-struggle workers party. The time for action is long overdue. If and when the Local 10 brothers go on trial, the union membership should come with them in mass. As Local 10 executive board member Jack Heyman said at the October 4 rally, “We’re going to get our people from San Francisco, Stockton and Oakland at the courthouse – and if they’re here they can’t be at the docks working.”

Port Shutdown Over Dock Worker Killed in Oakland,
Union Mobilization Over “Anti-Terror” Security Assault   

ILWU Dock Workers Under Attack

Dump the TWIC Card – Strike Against the War!

ILWU dock workers in San Francisco antiwar march, March 2004.
It’s not just “Bush’s war” but  bipartisan
imperialist war.

Twice in the space of a month, longshore workers in California have been victimized amid the ruling class hysteria over port “security threats” while actual safety conditions on the docks deteriorate. First, on August 23, police in West Sacramento beat up, maced and arrested two longshoremen from the SF Bay Area Local 10 as they were returning to work at the port of Sacramento. Local 10 has voted to call a mass rally to defend the union brothers at the court house when their case comes up on October 4. Port workers are also outraged over the Transport Worker Identification Cards (TWIC) containing “biometric” data, police records and who-knows-what other info that will be used to weed out  “undesirable” workers. This is a centerpiece of the 2002 Maritime Transportation Security Act. Shutting down Bay Area docks would be a powerful protest against the government’s “war on terror” whose real aim is to terrorize workers and the population in general.

Then on September 24, a worker in the port of Oakland, Reginald Ross, 39, was killed after being struck by a container. Outraged fellow workers immediately shut down the entire port, bringing one of the U.S.’ busiest harbors to a grinding halt. Nothing moved on the docks the next day. The employers’ Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) complained that the work stoppage was “not authorized,” but defiant workers stayed out. Now the bosses are counseling to await the outcome of an investigation by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). There can be no trust in the bosses’ government any more than in the employers themselves. OSHA is notoriously lax in tolerating dangerous working conditions that have led to an average of over 5,700 workplace deaths every year. The ILWU itself should conduct the investigation and union safety committees must be empowered to shut down any suspect operation in this extremely dangerous occupation.

The September 25 port shutdown and upcoming October 4 rally are a demonstration of the tremendous potential strength of labor, if the workers movement decides to use it. Coming up is an October 20 “Labor Conference to Stop the War” sponsored by Bay Area ILWU locals. This could set the stage for mobilizing union power. Yet leadership of the unions is in the hands of a conservative bureaucracy that blocks such mobilization at every turn. It acts, in the famous phrase of socialist Daniel DeLeon as the “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class.” By rights, the ILWU leadership ought to be at the forefront of the port shutdowns and extend them up and down the West Coast. Instead, the pro-capitalist labor fakers have at best stood on the sidelines and more often sought to undercut class-struggle actions. On May 1, when Local 10 voted to stop work in solidarity with immigrant rights protests, ILWU International and Local officers, enforcing the decision of the PMA’s hand-picked arbitrator, ordered that there be no walkouts or demonstration. But now anger is building and the question of union action against war and repression is coming to a head.

Racial Profiling, Union-Busting  and the “War on Terror”

The August 23 attack on the two Bay Area longshoremen in Sacramento was a clear case of racist repression. It was no accident that the two, Aaron Harrison and Jason Ruffin, are black, while the police in West Sacramento (where less than 3 percent of the population is African American) have been accused of “racial profiling” of minorities, particularly in enforcing a local “anti-gang” ordinance. Harrison and Ruffin were returning from lunch when security guards aggressively demanded to search their car. Since the two workers had already shown a driver’s license and PMA ID, they asked what was the maritime security regulation justifying a search. The enraged guards called the cops, who arrived and assaulted the two as they were talking on the phone with the ILWU business agent. The workers were dragged from the car, one sprayed with mace, and then jailed on the absurd charge of “trespassing”!

The attack on the union brothers comes in the context of mounting police attacks on dock workers in the Bay Area, and a “security” frenzy on the docks nationwide. In October 2002, the government imposed a Taft-Hartley injunction on West Coast docks so that war cargo could flow to the Persian Gulf in the build-up for war. When an antiwar protest was called at the port of Oakland on 7 April 2003, barely two weeks after the start of the invasion of Iraq, cops on orders from Democratic mayor (now California attorney general) Jerry Brown launched a brutal assault, firing rubber bullets and wooden dowels, tossing concussion grenades and “sting balls” into the crowd, injuring six longshoremen who were treated by paramedics, and arresting 25 people. The victims of this vicious attack subsequently sued the city of Oakland and won. More recently, last May ILWU longshoremen refused to cross a picket line of the Oakland Education Association and the antiwar Port Action Committee outside the terminal of Stevedoring Services of America (SSA). Trying to undercut the protest, police set up “checkpoints” a mile away from the location.

The role of SSA in these events is also noteworthy. This prime shipper of war cargo was one of the two companies picketed in the April 2003 antiwar protest. The workers who were beaten in Sacramento this August were working at an SSA facility. And the longshoreman killed on the job last week was in the hold of a ship unloading at the SSA terminal. Stevedoring Services of America (now calling itself SSA Marine) is notorious among unionists as the most anti-labor maritime outfit on the West Coast. It focuses on using technology in order to get rid of workers. The privately held company has millions of dollars in contracts with the U.S. government. In March 2003 it got a $14 million USAID contract to manage the Iraqi Port Authority, notably the docks at Umm Qasr, the only port in the country that can handle ocean-going vessels. Working together with Bechtel Corporation, SSA was accused by shippers of “gross profiteering” for the extortionate rates it charged on the basis of its monopoly position. These are certified union-busting war profiteers.

Meanwhile, introduction of the TWIC card has longshore workers up in arms. A rank-and-file newsletter, the Maritime Worker Monitor (19 September) comments that it “reminds you of the racist South African government’s ‘pass cards’ forced on workers under apartheid.” Do the initials stand for “Transport Workers In Chains”? it asks. The article goes on:

“Why are maritime bosses and their government so hot for TWIC? By invoking ‘port security’ in the ‘war on terror,’ the feds want to bypass the union hiring hall. They want to say who can and can’t work on the waterfront. Intrusive background checks are made by Bush’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to see who’s been arrested before. You can be deemed a threat to port security and denied access to marine terminals for many different kinds of past arrests and ‘offenses’ that have nothing to do with terrorism.”

The Monitor article points out that during the McCarthyite witch hunts of the 1950s, when the government tried to deport ILWU president Harry Bridges and ban militant maritime workers from ships and docks, longshoremen would stop work if a fellow union member was blacklisted by government screening. But now the feds want to “interface with other federal, state and local agencies” so that their card can include all sorts of information. Including credit history, phone calls, Internet sites visited, asks the Monitor: “TWIC will carry electronic snoop data of every kind. It’s another step towards the national ID card they’ve been dreaming about for so long.”

This will be racial profiling with a vengeance. As a result of the government strategy of policing black ghettos, Latino barrios and immigrant neighborhoods like they are occupied territories, a far higher portion of minority populations, particularly young black and Latino men, have been hauled in by the cops on one grounds or another. Implementing this will mean a blatant racial purge of port workers, and everyone knows it. This is part and parcel of a large-scale militarization of the docks, whose aim will be to bust the ILWU (and the East Coast International Longshoremen’s Association). And leading the charge on “port security” is the Democratic Party, notably California Senator Dianne Feinstein and New York Senator Chuck Schumer. Feinstein also called on Bush to impose an injunction under the slave-labor Taft-Hartley Act in 2002. Democrats and Republicans alike voted for the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act, the Maritime Security Act and every other piece of police-state legislation, as well as authorizing the war on Afghanistan and Iraq.

For Labor Strikes Against the War!

There have been numerous resolutions by local and national unions and labor councils around the country denouncing the war on Iraq, as well as the repressive legislation by which the bosses’ government seeks to strike at “the enemy within.” ILWU banners in San Francisco antiwar marches proclaim: “Down with the PATRIOT Act! Uphold the Bill of Rights! Defend Immigrant Workers Rights! Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ = War on Workers.” Of course, the “war on terror” (like the war on Iraq and Afghanistan) is not just “Bush’s war” but a bipartisan imperialist war. As for concrete action by labor, there has been none. Last year ILWU Local 10 passed a resolution calling to “Strike Against the War – No Peace, No Work!” but the resolution was deep-sixed by the union tops. Now ILWU Locals 10 and 34 have issued a “Call to Action” for a Labor Conference to Stop the War to be held at the San Francisco union hall October 20. This could be an important step toward bringing to bear workers’ power against the imperialist war, including through strike action. The point is not to have a “talk shop” where left-talking bureaucrats can blow off steam, but to actually prepare the ranks for class-struggle action.

It is urgent that the ILWU and Bay Area labor come out in force on October 4 in defense of longshoremen Harrison and Ruffin against the racist, anti-labor cops assault. As the Maritime Worker Monitor noted, adding a touch of irony to the old IWW slogan, “An injury to two is an injury to all!” Particularly if the Bay Area docks are effectively shut down, this could be the first mass labor action against the government’s terrorist “war on terror.” It is also vital to prepare the way for workers strikes against the war. After the 2006 mid-term elections in which the Democrats gained control of Congress, many liberals and reformist leftists fostered the illusion that this could bring about a change of course in Iraq. Dream on. In a recent debate, Democratic presidential hopefuls kept repeating that “everyone up here wants to take a responsible course to end the war in Iraq,” “everyone” agrees that there is “no military solution,” “everyone” is for withdrawal of the troops … in one year, in six months, in three months, even immediately. But meanwhile they vote for every military budget in the name of “supporting the troops.”

The fact is that the only way to stop the war is for the warmongers to be defeated on the battlefields of the Near East and by mobilizing workers’ power here.

The Internationalist Group and League for the Fourth International have uniquely fought for workers strikes against the imperialist war and for transportation unions to “hot-cargo” (refuse to handle) war materiel. In early 2003, there were examples in Britain and Italy of workers action against the impending invasion of Iraq. Scottish engineers refused to move a munitions train and Italian railroad workers joined with antiwar demonstrators in blocking trains carrying jeeps, tanks and other military equipment bound for the Near East. But when we Trotskyists raised the call for working-class action against the war, virtually the entire left dismissed this as hopeless illusions, pie in the sky, cloud cuckooland, etc. For years, leftist-led antiwar demonstrations have sought to pressure the Democratic Party into ending the war. Yet no matter how many demonstrators they attract, no matter how many peace crawls are held begging the Democrats in Congress, bourgeois pressure politics will never stop the war. It is high time for class-conscious worker militants across the country and internationally to take up the struggle for labor strikes against the war, and against the terror war on workers and immigrants “at home.” n

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