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  
  November 2012  

It’s Showdown Time on the Portland Docks

ILWU pickets block grain train to scab EGT terminal, 7 September 2011.
Labor’s gotta play hardball to win.
(Photo: Don Ryan/AP)

The global grain cartel, made up of some of the world’s biggest, greediest and most secretive monopolies, is gorging on record profits while hunger stalks millions of poor and working people. Now these profiteers are gunning for the hard-won gains of the working class. Their target is the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and ground zero is the Portland docks. On November 29, the Northwest Grainhandlers Agreement between the ILWU and the agribusiness/shipping cartels expired. This is a showdown. All working people must come to the defense of the ILWU.

 A headline in the International Business Times (4 September) put it starkly: “Big Grain Companies Reap Profits As Global Food Prices Soar And Poor Go Hungry.” The big four – Archer Daniel Midland, Bunge, Cargill and Louis Dreyfus, collectively known as the “ABCDs” – control up to 90 percent of the world’s grain trade, and they are making money hand over fist. Now they want to increase their bloated profits by destroying job protections, bargaining rights and safety conditions of the workers whose labor they exploit.

The employers are demanding huge givebacks from the ILWU, and they are preparing to use force to do so. The grain companies could impose their contract, or declare a lockout of union workers at any time. A strikebreaking “contractor,” J.R. Gettier Associates, has set up shop in Vancouver, WA for the last two months. Gettier, says the Portland Business Journal (28 November) “specializes in providing replacement labor and security measures during labor strikes”: i.e., scabs and thugs. A new access road, “Scab Alley,” has been built into the Port of Portland’s Terminal 5. Don’t think they won’t try to use it.

So here you have giant conglomerates, who are starving millions and forcing you to pay $4 and more for a box of cereal by jacking up prices with their monopoly power. Naturally these price gougers are defended by the bosses’ press and the bosses’ government. Under attack is the strongest union on the West Coast, which has been in the forefront of labor’s struggles for decades. On May Day 2008 the ILWU shut down all 29 Pacific Coast ports to stop the war on Iraq and Afghanistan. In this fight, WE HAVE A SIDE. The whole labor movement must prepare now for militant action to DEFEND OUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS IN THE ILWU!

The power of solidarity: on November 20, SEIU workers at the Port of Oakland picketed, shutting down the docks as ILWU Locals 10 and 34 respected their lines. (Photo: SEIU Local 1021)

Workers have the power, but we must use it, or lose it. Last week a picket by SEIU port workers shut down the Oakland docks. Right now, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, California – the largest in the U.S. – are shut down by a strike of office and clerical workers (OCU) Local 63 of the ILWU. Ten container terminals are paralyzed as ILWU members refuse to cross picket lines. After months of stonewalling, the employers suddenly announce they are ready to talk. But the retail store kingpins are calling on President Barack Obama to intervene. Despite the election rhetoric, Democrats are no friends of labor: Obama represents Wall Street, not working people and hard-pressed African Americans. Next up is the Pacific Northwest, with four of the nation’s biggest grain ports located in the Portland area.

The employers smell blood. They want to impose the terms of the concessionary contract at the new EGT grain terminal in Longview, WA. Last year, militant struggle by the ILWU ranks blocked mile-long grain trains and mobilized over 800 union members from up and down the coast to “storm” the scab terminal. The threat of more powerful workers mobilizations, with support from Occupy activists, brought the EGT bosses to the bargaining table. But an eleventh-hour deal struck between top ILWU bureaucrats and EGT resulted in a sellout that undermined the hiring hall, allowed for non-union construction, control-room, clerk and tugboat jobs, and wrote the “slave labor” Taft-Hartley law into the contract.

Many on the left and some Occupy activists hailed the EGT contract as a victory. Dead wrong. The Internationalist (11 February)  warned that “the union leadership made significant concessions in the bargaining. This could set the stage for future battles as other shippers demand similar terms.” Exactly that is what’s happening now. If the grain bosses are able to impose the rotten EGT terms, it will be a serious blow to the rights and living standards of all workers, union and unorganized. Crucially, East and Gulf Coast dockworkers in the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), whose contract has been extended to December 29, should mobilize together with workers on the West Coast. In case of a lockout, all U.S. ports should be struck, and there should be solidarity action around the globe.

This is class war: there are no neutrals here. The grain bosses have billions of dollars in their war chests. On their side stand the capitalist state, the media, the courts, the cops and their private armies of scab-herding security guards. Obama’s Coast Guard has announced that it will patrol the Columbia River in defense of the shippers, as it did at EGT in January. The grain merchants and the Wall Street bankers, backed up by the Democratic and Republican parties that rule this country on their behalf, think they can walk all over the millions of working people who are seeing our wages shrink, our jobs disappear and our homes foreclosed as the government ratchets up its endless wars, racist police-state repression and mass deportations of immigrants.

But without our labor, the billionaire bosses wouldn’t have a dime. If the labor movement comes to the aid of the ILWU along with the poor and oppressed African American, Asian and Latino populations, together we can bring the arrogant “ABCD” bosses to their knees!

Unions should prepare now to stand with the ILWU in building mass picket lines that scabs won’t dare to cross. This effort should be broadened to include non-union workers like the port truckers, and organizations representing all those oppressed by the rule of the billionaires – from neighborhoods fighting foreclosures to students fighting tuition hikes.

The Internationalist Group, a labor-socialist organization, is taking part in the efforts to mobilize solid support for the ILWU in their struggle with the grain bosses. We believe in the ILWU slogan, “an injury to one is an injury to all.” And that means real solidarity, not just in words but in deeds. Join with us, with your co-workers, friends and neighbors to defend the ILWU. THEIR FIGHT IS OUR FIGHT.

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