Labor's Gotta Play Hardball to Win!

Showdown on West Coast Docks: The Battle of Longview
(November 2011). 
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Chicago Plant Occupation Electrifies Labor
(December 2008). 
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May Day Strike Against the War Shuts Down
U.S. West Coast Ports

(May 2008)

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The Internationalist  
  January 2013  

There Are No Neutrals In the Class War on the Docks

Why We Defend the ILWU and All Workers
…Including Against the Sellout Labor Bureaucracy

ILWU protests use of non-union labor at EGT plant then under construction in Longview, Washington,
3 June 2011.
(Photo: MarkDaMan PDX/YouTube)

In recent weeks, a showdown has loomed on U.S. docks between the shipping bosses and port workers that has rattled the capitalist ruling class. On the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA) prepared to strike container shipping on December 30 while the employers United States Maritime Alliance (USMX) threatened to lock out 14,500 ILA members. Over 100 leading business executives called upon President Barack Obama to take “immediate action” to prevent a walkout at all costs, including issuing an injunction under the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. At the last minute, the ILA and UMX reportedly struck a “partial agreement” on container payments, and extended the contract for 30 days to negotiate other outstanding issues including work rules. Washington and Wall Street breathed a sigh of relief at the reprieve in the midst of the year-end bargaining between Democrats and Republicans over tax hikes and spending cuts in the “fiscal cliff.” But the fight is not over.

On the West Coast, the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association (PNGHA) has been demanding a giveback contract from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), including no less than 750 changes which would effectively bypass the union hiring hall, slash workers’ vital safety protections and gut union power. This is a make-or-break battle for the ILWU, in which all labor has a vital stake. The shippers, who in this case are the four giant companies that monopolize the world grain trade, threatened a lockout. On December 21, the 3,000 affected ILWU workers in the Puget Sound (Seattle, Tacoma) and Columbia River basin (Portland, Vancouver) locals overwhelmingly rejected the bosses’ “last, best and final contract offer” with 94% voting “no.” A week later, at 6 a.m. on December 27, Columbia Grain, United Grain and LD Commodities imposed their union-busting contract. The union leadership told members to keep working, but the grain bosses’ arrogance is already provoking resistance: an entire shift reportedly walked out when they weren’t given a lunch break on a 12-hour shift.

Above: Columbia Grain set up separate access road at Portland's Terminal 5 in anticipation of scabs. Below: Professional strikebreakers of J.R. Gettier advertise an army of black-shirted scabs and thugs. (Photos: Pete Shaw; J.R. Gettier website)

The grain monopolies have been gearing up for this battle for months, preparing to assault one of the remaining strongholds of union power. They hired a professional strikebreaking outfit, J.R. Gettier, which reportedly put up “scores” of “replacement workers” (scabs) in motels around the Portland area. They built a new access road (scab alley?) into Portland’s main grain terminal and secured military backing from Obama’s Coast Guard, which declared a moving “safety/security zone” around any grain ship or terminal, with violators facing up to 10-12 years jail time. While ILWU leaders fiddled around with delaying tactics, union militants sought to prepare for a major class battle. Now D-Day has arrived. Facing an implacable enemy, longshore and other port workers can prevail, by adopting a policy of unflinching class struggle and using the key weapon in labor’s arsenal that is more powerful than the union-busting bosses and their government: solidarity.

The fate of the ILWU is at stake in this battle with the shadowy, price-fixing grain cartel. A year ago all eyes were on the bitter struggle against union-busting at the Longview, Washington Export Grain Terminal. After months of militant action by the union ranks and facing the prospect of coast-wide mobilization by ILWUers and activists of the Occupy movement against EGT, the union leadership caved under pressure from the bosses and their government and signed a dangerously concessionary contract. At the time, when many on the left (and in Occupy) were hailing the “victory” at Longview we warned that the other grain shippers would soon demand the same concessions. That’s exactly what is happening now. At a time like this, the old refrain from the Harlan County miners’ song Which Side Are You On? is doubly true: on the West Coast docks today, there are no neutrals. Yet in the midst of the Northwest grain battle, Occupy Portland activist Peter Little publishes an article, “One Year After the West Coast Port Shutdown,” in CounterPunch (21-23 December) vociferously arguing against the call to defend the ILWU!

The workers in the ports, he writes, “can choose for themselves whether this struggle will be to defend the union or to fight the union to defend their interests.” Hello? Fight the union? Little’s shameful pseudo-neutrality can only aid the bosses. His article shows no understanding of the nature of unions as mass organizations of the working class: like the liberals, the big business press and the labor bureaucrats, he equates the unions with the pro-capitalist leaders. The article also passes over the whole context of the class struggle pitting port workers against the sinister agribusiness/shipping giants. We say: All those who stand with the exploited and oppressed must come to the defense of the ILWU in this fight. And that defense includes forthrightly opposing the capitulations and betrayals by the labor bureaucracy which sells out vital union gains in the vain hope of an impossible “cooperation” with capital, endangering the workers organizations they preside over.

Which Side Are You On, Occupy?

New York, 23 January 2012: United-front protest initiated by the Internationalist Group brought out 75 demonstrators from a number of unions, student and left groups and Occupy Wall Street to protest use of Coast Guard for union-busting in Longview. (Internationalist photo)

In objecting to the call to defend the ILWU, Little cites a number of betrayals by the ILWU tops. It should be obvious that defending a union, an organization or a movement is not the same as politically supporting the outlook or policies of its leadership. When thousands of union members and workers joined in a pre-dawn mobilization in October 2011 to stop NYC mayor Bloomberg’s cops from evicting Occupy Wall Street, or when tens of thousands marched on the Port of Oakland that November to protest the mayor’s eviction of Occupy Oakland, that did not mean that they necessarily agreed with the politics of the Occupy movement. We in the Internationalist Group repeatedly defended OWS while strongly criticizing the bourgeois populism that was its ideological common denominator. Likewise, it should be ABC to defend labor unions, which are workers’ first line of defense against the boss, despite the sellout policies of the leaderships who aid the employers in controlling labor and blocking the road to the overthrow of capitalism.

Little’s article grows out of a sharp dispute that took place among left, labor and community activists who came together at the end of November just as an ultimatum from the NGHA bosses was about to expire and the threat of a lockout was looming. At a public meeting on November 28, Little propounded his thesis that unions were institutions that sometimes did good and sometimes did bad and therefore it was above all necessary to remain “independent” of the unions. A leaflet of the Port Working Group appeared that made no mention of the fight over the grain contract, went on about “community control of our public infrastructure” and referred only to workers’ “struggle for democracy in the workplace.” Seeing that the vital question of defending the union against the grain bosses’ union-busting offensive was left out, we in the Internationalist Group put out our own leaflet, “Bring Out Workers Power to Defend the ILWU!” (reprinted in The Internationalist, November-December 2012).

This set off a furious response from Occupy activists, including a lengthy e-mail from Little (part of which is reproduced in the last section of his CounterPunch article). When he refers to “the language of ‘stand with the ILWU in building mass picket lines’, and ‘Defend the ILWU and its historic gains’,” it is our leaflet he is attacking. IG supporters answered with an e-mail laying out why “In this battle, it is fundamental for working-class militants and their supporters to stand four-square in defense of the union.” We explained that a labor union is a working-class organization, even if is headed by a bunch of sellout misleaders. The union is the membership, not the bureaucrats in their cushy chairs finagling deals with the bosses. In fact, the bureaucracy is a parasitical petty-bourgeois (middle-class) layer with different interests than the membership they claim to represent. But supporters of the workers’ side in the class struggle, we wrote, must understand that it is a duty of workers everywhere to stand with the union against the bosses.

“That’s the class line. It’s fundamental to understand this. That’s why, even if you disagree with the union leadership, even if they commit abuses, a class-conscious worker would never go to the bosses’ government or the bosses’ courts against the union. That’s why a class-conscious worker would never cross a picket line.”

One thing that is striking in Little’s e-mail and article is the bloated sense of self-importance that ascribes to the Occupy movement almost magical transformative powers. He writes of the Occupy-called December 2011 West Coast port blockade that “our presence in the ports transformed not only our sense of power and possibility, but the sense of what was possible for the workers there.” Or again: “Occupy the Ports shattered the stagnation of decades of union-led struggles with small solidarity mobilizations.” Decades of stagnation?! What about the May Day 2008 strike against the war by the ILWU that closed every port on the West Coast? Or the 1999 coast-wide shutdown demanding freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal? Granting that Occupy activists were “outsiders to the ports,” Little portrays this as a virtue, declaring that “the movement at the gates of the factory transformed the possibilities within the factory in a way in which the inherent limits of the trade union could not.” He asks “whether victories can be won for Port workers … which do not undermine unity or further divide the working class as a whole,” and opines that longshore workers “if left to determine it themselves, will inevitably find distorted answers.”

ILWU longshoremen protest scab labor during occupation of EGT terminal, July 11. (Photo: Roger Werth/The Daily News [Longview])

What smug arrogance! It is almost as if the opening verse of the second stanza of The Internationale – “we want no condescending saviors” – were written expressly for Occupy. He’s flat wrong, besides. Back in July 2011, ILWU supporters occupied the EGT terminal, reportedly ripping down fences and blocking grain trains. Also, “before sunrise on September 8, some 800 union supporters ‘stormed’ the new Export Grain Terminal, as an AP dispatch and every subsequent article in the big business press put it. Media accounts said workers carrying baseball bats broke down gates, ‘overpowering’ security guards, who cowered as 10,000 tons of grain were dumped on the tracks and railroad cars disabled. In short: the workers were taking care of business. That morning more than 1,000 longshoremen refused to show up for work, shutting down the ports of Seattle, Tacoma and Vancouver, Washington as well as Portland, Oregon” (“Showdown on the West Coast Docks: The Battle of Longview,” The Internationalist, November 2011). These action by port workers even before Occupy existed had vastly greater transformative power than a couple of hundred radical youth showing up at the docks to win victories for them.

The vitally necessary struggle to raise revolutionary class consciousness will not be produced by some deus ex machina of outsiders who aren’t subject to “the inherent limits of trade unions.” Those limits – of fighting a guerrilla war to defend the interests of labor under capitalism, as Karl Marx put it – will be overcome when we have reached the stage of building workers councils that can undertake revolutionary action. What undercuts labor struggle today is rather the stranglehold of a privileged labor bureaucracy that chains the unions politically to the capitalist system (in the U.S. through the Democratic Party) and subjugates them to the bourgeoisie’s anti-labor laws. You can’t sidestep that obstacle, as Occupy pretends to do (sometimes hobnobbing with the bureaucrats they will denounce tomorrow). It is necessary to drive out these labor fakers in order to defend the unions, not destroy them. This requires a revolutionary vanguard fighting for a program of class struggle both within and outside the mass organizations of the working class.

That is something that Occupy with its populist politics claiming to represent “the 99%” and “the people” cannot do. Pete Little, like many anarcho-liberals in Occupy, sees the world through the lens of bourgeois sociology, talking in sociologese of what “metric” to measure mobilizations by, and referring to the “institution of the ILWU.” In this view, women, immigrants, blacks, the unemployed and unorganized, sexual minorities, etc., are separate constituencies alongside the unions and other “institutions” within society, divided by varying degrees of oppression and privilege. For Marxists, the liberation of all sectors of the population oppressed by bourgeois society is bound up with the working class, the only social force with the power to bring down capitalism. The contradictory character of the unions is not that they are “institutions” that sometimes do good or bad, but that these workers organizations are chained to capitalism by a parasitic petty-bourgeois bureaucracy. These are the treacherous misleaders so aptly described by American Socialist Daniel De Leon as “the labor lieutenants of the capitalist class.”

Little claims on the one hand that the December 2011 West Coast port blockades were “led by Longshore workers” – which is nonsense, only a handful of longshore workers were actively involved. He simultaneously asserts that Occupy “maintained a fierce independence of the union” – also a distortion, unless one equates the union with the bureaucracy (as he repeatedly does). As we pointed out last year, contrary to the claims of the union tops who opposed the shutdown, it was successful where there was at least some support from ILWU members and a flop where there were few or no contacts. Don’t get us wrong: against social-democratic academic Cal Winslow, writing in CounterPunch (5 December 2011), and others who opposed the port blockade and covered for the bureaucracy screaming “substitutionism,” we wrote:

“The fact that Occupy protesters, however contradictory their politics, are taking up the cause of labor should be greeted. Many who have never before been on a demonstration are experiencing, ‘up close and personal,’ the hard realities of American capitalism. Although coming from the outside, and despite the yelps from the bosses and their kept media, from the Democrats and sellout labor bureaucrats, the December 12 West Coast port blockade aided the workers’ class struggle against the exploiters.”

–“Longshore Workers, Truckers: Shut the Ports, Coast to Coast!”, The Internationalist (28 December 2011)

We added that “the basic problem with the December 12 port blockade is not that super-radical adventurist-substitutionist Occupiers ran roughshod over the unions, but rather that with their liberal/reformist/populist outlook, Occupy non-leaders are too soft on the union bureaucracy.”

The lack of a Marxist class perspective colors the entire article, sometimes leading to bizarre conclusions. Little’s argument for “Why Ports, why the Pacific Northwest, why Now?” is that more grain is being shipped through the Northwest because “the Mississippi River is at the lowest stage of flow in over 50 years,” and grain prices have shot up because of drought due to climate change while grain companies are “shipping massive amounts of grain (wheat, soy, corn) to China to fuel its artificially stimulated economy.” So should China, a bureaucratically deformed workers state, suffer from an economic depression like the capitalist world? And if last week’s Midwest snowstorm raises the level of the Mississippi, will that dampen the West Coast class struggle? This nutty anti-Communist meteorology explains nothing. About the fact that employers are on a union-busting tear nationwide, with lockouts at an all-time high, not a word. Why not? Because anarcho-liberals refuse to defend the unions. That is the crux of the matter.

Little is clueless about the class struggle. He writes that “The ‘Defend the ILWU,’ position will not likely rally the thousands in Occupy,” which may be true, because many in the heavily petty-bourgeois Occupy movement don’t understand the first thing about unions. He says “it is not the role of those of us who are not Longshore workers to decide whether or not to defend the ILWU, nor is it for us to decide when its time to strike or not to strike.” What is that supposed to mean? If scabs tried to cross an ILWU picket line in a strike or lockout, or a picket line in support of the ILWU, should defenders of labor say “it’s not up to us to decide, let the scabs decide for themselves”? Hell no. ILWU members and supporters would try to convince them, but failing that, they would stop them. Picket lines mean don’t cross, period. They are collective actions by the workers, and they must be enforced. Ultimately, this liberal argument is about refusing to defend union picket lines on the grounds of “self-determination” for everyone.

Little writes of the port truckers, who are largely immigrant and non-white, including in the Pacific Northwest many East Africans and South Asians. Yes, their struggle to unionize has been shamefully ignored and even stymied by the ILWU International. The bureaucracy has also fostered exclusionary practices and chauvinist attitudes in the ranks. These policies have been opposed by militants in the union who have called to organize the port truckers ever since their unions were broken in the late 1990s due to the deregulation policies of the Democratic Clinton administration. At last year’s May Day rally in Portland, ILWU Local 8 militant Jack Mulcahy passionately argued that port truckers were key. But Little argues that organizing port truckers “means independence from the union itself, and it may even mean a struggle against the union” in the name of “unified struggles.” Struggle against the ILWU? If it weren’t for union power on the docks, port truckers would find it a hell of a lot hard to unionize. In fact, in May 2008 ILWU militants who led the West Coast port strike against the war worked together with port truckers who held a work stoppage, mainly of Sikh and Latino drivers, four days later in Oakland.

In polemicizing against the call to defend the ILWU, Little cites the EGT concessionary contract as an example of where unions are bad. He doesn’t mention that we and longshoremen who defend the ILWU against the grain bosses sharply criticized this sellout while Occupy (echoing the bureaucrats) initially hailed it as a victory! (See “Occupy and ILWU Declare Victory as Contract Finalized with EGT” Portland Occupier, 14 February 2012). Some “fierce independence” from the union that was! If those in Occupy who oppose defending the unions against the grain cartel are ultralefts, they are pretty opportunist ones. Little also cites the disruption of the 6 January 2012 Seattle forum in solidarity with Longview longshore by ILWU bureaucrats and hangers-on. In contrast to the International Socialist Organization, Socialist Workers Party, Spartacist League and others who excused or even supported this attack on workers democracy, we denounced it. Moreover, in the Internationalist video of that attack (which Little’s article links to) you can see the five ILWUers on the stage and many in the audience chanting “ILWU, ILWU,” defending the union against the bureaucratic disrupters.

Class-Struggle Trade Unionism

080501 ILWU support march,
                    S.F., Internationalist photo
ILWU contingent in San Francisco May Day march in conjunction with West Coast port shutdown
against war and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. First-ever strike by U.S. unions against U.S. imperialist war was pushed through over resistance from union tops.
(Internationalist photo)

As we wrote in our recent leaflet, “This is class war: there are no neutrals here.” When Pete Little calls for “independence from the union” and “a struggle against the union,” saying workers may have to “fight the union,” he places himself on the side of the bosses. His are not off-hand remarks but reflect a program which labels unions institutions of capitalist domination. Speaking at the 2007 U.S. Social Forum – a confab of foundation-financed NGOs (“non-governmental organizations”) with some leftists tagging along – Little (then with the now-defunct Bring the Ruckus) called for “making a full break with the existing institutions of domination, be they unions, foundations, or parties themselves and to develop new forms of organization.” Likewise, supporters of the Seattle-based anarchist Black Orchid Collective argue that “Unions play a role in maintaining labor power as a commodity and in ensuring some level of discipline at the workplace” (BOC website, 29 February 2012). Little, the BOC and other Occupy “anti-capitalists” ascribe this to the nature of unions, not to the policies of the pro-capitalist leadership.

To be sure, not everyone in what is left of the Occupy movement is necessarily anti-union, nor are many anarcho-syndicalists in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), for example. On the other hand, the populist pot pourri of Occupy also contains downright pro-capitalist elements, who have been prominent in New York. Occupy Sandy, for example, worked together with the NYC mayor’s office, the New York Police Department and the National Guard during its recent relief efforts (see “Class, Race and Hurricane Sandy,” The Internationalist, November-December 2012). But the politics put forward in Little’s CounterPunch article and by anarchists and semi-anarchists in the Portland Ports Working Group while posing as ultra-left, if actually carried out would aid the employers who are hell-bent on destroying ILWU union power on the waterfront. And by blaming sellouts on the nature of unions they are letting the bureaucrats off the hook. These are the fundamental class realities in this fight.

Yes, as the Communist International under Lenin and Trotsky noted, there will come a time during a revolutionary upsurge when the limits of trade unions will be a fetter that must be burst by forming workplace-level workers committees and regional workers councils as the organizational form for carrying out workers revolution. But to pretend that the U.S. today is even remotely near such a level of struggle is a fantasy, or a cynical ploy. But, some may legitimately ask, is it possible to struggle inside the unions for revolutionary, class-struggle policies given the entrenched pro-capitalist bureaucracy and the string of defeats? We in the Internationalist Group answer, “yes.” We point to the example the immigrant workers at the Hot and Crusty bakery in New York City who after being locked out and spending 55 days on the picket line were able to win a union contract with a union hiring hall, something unheard of in the restaurant industry and exceedingly rare anywhere in recent decades. They were prepared to fight to the end, and their steadfastness won support from many NYC unionists.

The history of the formation of industrial unions in this country, and of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in particular, also bears this out. As we noted in an earlier article on “The Left, Labor and Occupy” (The Internationalist, May 2012), at the outset of the last big depression in the early 1930s, unions were in even worse shape than they are now. At the time that they launched the 1934 Big Strike that led to the founding of the ILWU, West Coast longshoremen were part of the ILA, whose president Joe Ryan was every bit as reactionary, pro-capitalist and submissive to the bourgeoisie’s labor laws as any union bureaucrat today. San Francisco dock workers, led by supporters of the Communist Party, were able to overcome the resistance of the sellout leadership by massively organizing the ranks and refusing to bow down to cops, courts and capitalist politicians. When San Francisco police attacked strikers on July 5, “Bloody Thursday,” killing two strikers and a strike supporter, the workers’ response was a general strike that shut down S.F.

The situation was similar in the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strike and Toledo Auto-Lite strike, which together with S.F. dock workers laid the basis for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) soon after. All three strikes faced sabotage by union bureaucrats, all three were met by massive state repression, and all three won because were led by “reds.” Of course, Communist Party supporters in the ILWU soon dropped their militancy, supporting Roosevelt and the Democrats in the name of the “popular front.” The Trotskyists who led the Minneapolis truckers faced down the arch-conservative Teamsters bureaucracy led by Dan Tobin, but were later jailed by the government (egged on by the CP) for their effective organizing of over-the-road drivers and their revolutionary opposition to the second U.S. imperialist world war. After WWII, the CIO unions were purged of communists with the aid of the Taft-Hartley “slave labor” law which also outlawed the closed shop, secondary boycotts and other powerful labor tactics.

Unlike most of labor officialdom, the ILWU resisted Taft-Hartley, defended the union hiring hall and successfully challenged the anti-communist exclusion clause in the courts. But even as the government repeatedly tried to deport ILWU leader Harry Bridges, he and the union bureaucracy he headed negotiated “mechanization and modernization” contracts that undercut the union’s power. Still, the ILWU today is a far cry from what it was in the past, with the top leadership now following policies little different from other “business unionists.” If under pressure from the ranks, top leaders like ILWU president Bob McEllrath take a stand and are arrested for blocking trains to stop EGT union-busting, the union lawyers are hard at work to prevent a repeat. And meanwhile, Coast committeeman Leal Sundet is a former labor relations official for the employers Pacific Maritime Association! As we have written before, he was serving the bosses then and he’s serving the bosses now.

Sundet said of the EGT agreement, which he negotiated, that it was “key to standardization of the grain export industry on the West Coast, particularly with respect to labor costs,” and that this “brings stability for everyone”! Now we are seeing what this “standardization” and “stability” means: endless givebacks. Longshore militants are asking, where will it stop? When the ILWU leaders, faced with the PNGHA’s threat of a lockout, instructed the ranks to work under the imposed contract, they earned praise from the bourgeois media: “Calmer Heads Prevail in Port of Portland Disputes” editorialized The Oregonian (29 December). The business press speculates that the union may intend to file an unfair labor practices suit against the employers before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Far from being “smart tactics,” all such maneuvers by the ILWU’s legal beagles assume that the NLRB, or the courts, or the Labor Department are somehow favorable or at least neutral, whereas they are all part of the capitalist state whose job is to subjugate labor.

The union tops may offer terms such as a purported deal with Temco (owned by Cargill). But this would be based on huge concessions to the shippers. Yet the grain cartel is making money hand over fist. If the PNGHA companies claim they are at a competitive disadvantage because of the concessions granted to EGT (as we and militant longshoremen warned they would), the ILWU could “level the playing field” by striking EGT: there are plenty of health and safety violations to justify a walkout. But the union bureaucracy plays by the bosses’ rules, which means they are guaranteed to lose – the only question is by how much. Faced with intransigent shippers, the two U.S. longshore unions should join hands to prepare a powerful nationwide ILA-ILWU dock strike against union-busting. Strike committees should be elected to organize an all-out struggle, other unions should be appealed to for support, efforts should be made to enlist backing from and aid port truckers, approaches should be made to black, Latino, Asian and white working-class communities. That’s how to win a real class battle.

We can talk until we’re blue in the face about how longshore workers did just that and won in ’34, and no doubt many will respond: that was then, and this is now. But what was key then and what’s lacking now is class-struggle leadership. Our job, and that of any who seriously intend to sweep away capitalism, is to build that leadership. That is a political fight, for the independence of the union from the capitalist state and the capitalist parties, and for a workers party that fights for a workers government.

In his article and earlier e-mail, Pete Little asked rhetorically, “If workers in the grain elevator wildcat and the ILWU withholds support and orders them to return to work – relative to what occurred in Longview – will we still defend the ILWU?” The answer of any class-conscious worker must be emphatically “yes!” If port workers are being sold down the Columbia River, in standing with those who would fight we defend the ILWU against the shippers and against the misleaders whose betrayals jeopardize the union. Refusing to defend the ILWU in this hour of grave danger can only aid the union-busting bosses and their labor lieutenants.

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