Labor's Gotta Play Hardball to Win!

Showdown on West Coast Docks: The Battle of Longview
(November 2011). 
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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 2012

ILWU Bureaucrats Target Union Militants,
Attack “Occupy” Solidarity Meeting

January 6: An Outrage in Seattle

ILWU bureaucrats disrupt solidarity meeting for Longview longshore at Seattle union hall, Jan. 6.
(Photo from Internationalist video)

Recently all eyes in U.S. labor and the left have focused on the small West Coast port of Longview, Washington, where a sharp class battle has been underway over the past year. Under concerted attack by a giant grain shipping consortium, EGT, seeking to break their union, longshore workers fought back with everything they’ve got.

Using militant tactics of labor struggle not seen in this country in decades, the ranks of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) repeatedly mobilized to block grain trains and occupy the EGT facility being operated with scab labor. In the process, the 200-member ILWU Local 21 has taken 220 arrests and been hit with over $300,000 in fines by the capitalist courts.

This fall, under heavy police guard, EGT managed to bring in four trains loaded with grain from the Upper Midwest. The company was now eager to bring its new $200-million state-of-the-art facility on-line and begin shipping. On November 5, Local 21 president Dan Coffman, speaking at a solidarity rally called by the Japanese Railway Workers Union Doro-Chiba in Tokyo, declared that when the first grain ship arrives at the scab mill, the union would seek to stop it: “The ILWU will not quit, and we will fight to win.”

Historically militant ILWU Local 10 in San Francisco/Oakland took up the call to aid their brothers and sisters in Washington, voting $10,000 to organize a caravan to Longview for the planned protest. On December 12, the S.F. Labor Council passed a resolution endorsing the call for a caravan to Longview in solidarity with ILWU Local 21.

At the same time, the example of combative longshore workers and their supporters inspired youth who burst on to the scene in recent months in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Twice they shut down West Coast ports in solidarity with Longview: first, on November 2 in Oakland, California when up to 40,000 people blocked the port in response to the bloody cop eviction of the Occupy camp there, and then coastwide on December 12, as Occupiers struck back at police assaults on their camps around the country.

Following the relatively successful “D12” blockade, which shut down the ports of Oakland, Portland and Longview and key terminals in Seattle, Occupy groups on the West Coast put out their own call to converge on Longview on D-Day, when the first grain ship showed up to dock at the scab terminal, and “blockade EGT.”

For our part, the Internationalist Group published an article emphasizing that the key was for the workers themselves to shut it down:

“The goal should be a real occupation of the terminal by the workers to prevent the loading of the scab cargo. And that is only the beginning. Longshore militants have called on the ILWU ranks to shut down every port on the West Coast, and for the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) to shut down the East and Gulf Coasts, in support of the Longview struggle. In addition, longshoremen around the globe should refuse to handle (‘hot cargo’) any ship of the union-busting consortium

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

The IG also sent a representative to Longview, as well as Portland and Seattle, in the first week of January. At the same time representatives of Local 10 were visiting the area to work with Local 21, issuing a January 4 joint appeal by the two locals to “Join the Caravan to Mass Labor Protest: Defend Our Union and Our Jobs!!!”  

In response to the D12 blockade, liberal politicians and right-wing media went ballistic, accusing Occupy of “economic terrorism” (Oakland mayor Jean Quan) and “piracy” (Investor’s Business Daily) for targeting “Wall Street on the Waterfront.” Major shippers including Target, Walgreens, J.C. Penney and Crate & Barrel threatened to pull out of Oakland because of disturbances to their supply chain.

In mid-December the Oakland city council debated a motion to ban all protests at the port, tabling it after an uproar ensued. (It came up and failed again in early February.) A few days later, the U.S. Coast Guard announced it would be sending armed cutters and helicopters to escort the grain ship to EGT. Local and state police would also be out in force to repress protests.

As the capitalist rulers were going nuts over the prospect of yet another West Coast port shutdown, ILWU International president Bob McEllrath was feeling the heat. A week before the Occupy West Coast port blockade of December 12, McEllrath issued a statement against “outside groups attempting to co-opt our struggle in order to advance a broader agenda.”

On January 2, the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum counties labor council in Longview called on “friends of labor and the ‘99%’ everywhere” to come to the aid of the embattled longshore union and foresaw a “community and labor protest” against a ship docking at the scab terminal. The very next day, McEllrath sent out a memo saying that due to the threat of an injunction for violating Taft-Hartley:

“any showing of support for Local 21 at the time that a vessel calls at the EGT facility must be measured to ensure that the West Coast ports have sufficient manpower so as not to impact cargo movement for PMA member companies. A call for a protest of EGT is not a call for a shutdown of West Coast ports and must not result in one.”

So here you have the supposedly “pro-union” NLRB appointed by Barack Obama using the “slave labor” Taft-Hartley Act and bringing out the Coast Guard against a union that endorsed and worked for the election of this liberal Democratic capitalist politician. And you have the union bureaucracy, acting as enforcers of capitalist law and order, going all-out to squelch the kind of powerful labor action that could achieve a stunning victory in this key class battle.

As we have written repeatedly, Playing by the bosses’ rules is a losing game. Labor’s gotta play hardball to win. The bosses sure as hell do. Having nixed the kind of militant action that built the unions in the 1930s, the labor fakers of today at most seek to limit their concessions, and then declare that a “victory” because it could have been a lot worse. There you have in a nutshell the dilemma of simple trade-unionism in this epoch of capitalist decay.

When the ILWU Defied Taft Hartley

The Taft-Hartley Act, passed by Congress in 1947, outlawed mass pickets, flying pickets, secondary boycotts, strikes over jurisdiction, the closed shop, the union hiring hall and just about every other effective tactic of labor struggle. It also allowed the president to order a 80-day “cooling off” period to prevent strikes affecting the “national interest, forced unions to submit employers’ “last offer” for a vote by the membership and required all union officers to sign an affidavit saying that they were not now and never had been members of the Communist Party. The ILWU refused to sign the affidavits, and openly defied Taft-Hartley. In 1948, the maritime employers sought to use the new law to demand the elimination of the hiring hall, provoking a bitter strike. For 95 days ILWU members shut down the West Coast docks, until finally the bosses were forced to give in. In 1950 the ILWU was expelled by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) for being “communist-dominated.”

The U.S. government repeatedly tried to deport Australian-born ILWU founder Harry Bridges for being a communist, but failed every time. The state of Nevada also tried to jail Bridges in 1958 under a state “miscegenation” law for marrying Noriko Sawada, a Japanese American woman. This led the state legislature to repeal the racist law. The union eventually got the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the anti-communist affidavits in 1965 in the case, U.S. v. Brown, after ILWU executive board member Archie Brown was sentenced to jail for six months for being a member of the CP. In these cases the union eventually won in the courts and legislature, but only because they were prepared to stand up to and defy the bosses’ laws, the red-baiters and union-busters with labor power. That’s what’s sorely needed today.

That’s why it’s necessary to break with the Democrats, oust the pro-capitalist bureaucrats and raise a program of class struggle instead of class collaboration, for a workers party that fights for a workers government. Otherwise, we’re just talking about cutting our losses, and that “strategy” is a loser. It can only lead to defeat after defeat, as it has over the last three decades in which “responsible” union leaders have presided over the wholesale destruction of their own unions.

Why? Because their fundamental loyalty is to maintaining the capitalist order, and their own relatively privileged position in it, rather than defending the interests of the workers. Whenever the employers threaten to bring the law down on them, bureaucrats cringe and order the ranks to eat it. But the working class does not have to passively accept the destruction of its livelihoods and past gains, because we have the power. Anti-labor laws, from Taft-Hartley on down, are just so many chains to keep us from using our power. We have to break those chains to prevail.

Bureaucratic Disruption in Portland and Seattle

As a build-up to the mass protest scheduled for the arrival of a grain ship at the EGT terminal in Longview, Occupy groups in Portland and Seattle scheduled forums for January 5 and 6 in solidarity with ILWU Local 21. The events were held in labor locales (the SEIU hall in Portland, the AFL-CIO King County Labor Temple in Seattle). ILWU speakers were featured.


In Portland on January 5, Norm Parks, the retired former president of Local 8, went into the history of the ILWU in the Columbia River area. Barucha Peller, an anarchist from Occupy Oakland, said that unions have lost the spark of resistance and lost power to capital, which is certainly true, but went on to argue that the structure of trade unions made them responsible for the continuation of capitalism. Dan Coffman, president of Local 21, spoke about the struggle in Longview. Strangely, as soon as he started talking the microphone went dead and the lights went off. A coincidence? It appeared that someone was trying to sabotage the meeting, and specifically Coffman’s talk.

A supporter of the Internationalist Group spoke in the discussion period saying that this is a key moment in the class struggle in the U.S., as at the time of the 1981 PATCO air traffic controllers strike. However, where the crushing of PATCO led to decades of defeat, a hard fight here could produce victory. When the ship comes in to load scab cargo at Longview, the workers should shut down the docks coastwide.

He noted that trade unions had many limitations, as Karl Marx analyzed a century and a half ago, saying that at most unions engaged in guerrilla war against the effects of capitalism rather than fighting to get rid of it. But saying that unions are responsible for capitalism is confusing the labor bureaucracy with the union as a whole. The members are the union; it is the leadership, which undercuts struggle, including in the ILWU. This bureaucracy has to be defeated, you can’t just go around it. As Leon Trotsky noted, the unions in this epoch can either serve as instruments for disciplining the workers or vehicles for revolutionary struggle.

This triggered outrage from several  local ILWU officials in the audience. Local 4 (Vancouver, WA) president Brad Clark said he took offense at talk of an ILWU bureaucracy holding back struggle. “Don’t start bashing the union bureaucracy, they know what they’re doing,” he said, adding that Occupy should “keep your  mistaken solidarity efforts away.”

Then, as Jack Heyman of Local 10 (San Francisco/Oakland, retired) was recognized to speak, the president of Local 8, Jeff Smith, climbed up on the stage and over objections from the chair interrupted the program by reading the McEllrath letter, clearly written by the ILWU’s lawyers, opposing a shutdown of West Coast ports. (Many in the audience had already seen the letter, which was available at the entrance, as was the joint statement by Locals 10 and 21.)

As he was reading, about half the audience walked out, some shouting about how Smith had said he didn’t need their solidarity on December 12. (In fact, he said Local 8 members would cross the Occupy lines, but none did.) After Smith stalked off, Heyman responded: “People asked, ‘Is there a bureaucracy?’ Well, you just heard it.”

Seattle forum recognized Longview ILWU Local 21 members. (Internationalist photo)


That was only the bureaucracy’s warm-up act. The next morning (January 6), the ILWU tops ordered members of Locals 4, 8 and 40 (Portland clerks) off the picket line at the EGT facility, in retaliation for Local 21 president Coffman speaking in Portland the night before. This was a real stab in the back. Under threat from the International, official Local 21 participation in the Seattle panel that evening was called off. Eventually, a couple carloads of rank-and-filers from the Longview Local came up, and received tremendous applause by the over 200 people in the audience.

At the hall in Seattle before the meeting, officials of the ILWU and King County Labor Council kept asking whether Local 21 officials were present to “explain the legality” of any protest in Longview. After the panel discussion started, a couple dozen of these local officials milled around at the back.

The bureaucrats lay in wait as Mike Fuqua, a rank-and-filer from Local 21, spoke of how police in Longview with automatic rifles were arresting union members in front of their children. He vowed that longshore workers would stick it out but would feel a lot stronger with thousands standing behind them.

They were silent when Jack Mulcahy recalled the Ten Guiding Principles of the ILWU, approved in 1953, saying that every picket line must be respected as though it is your own – in contrast to the calls by ILWU officials in the hall to cross the Occupy lines on December 12.

These officials didn’t interrupt Clarence Thomas of Local 10, as he answered objections to Occupy solidarity action by relating how key to winning the Big Strike in 1934 was Harry Bridges’ appeal to the black churches in the Bay Area to join the picket lines in exchange for doing away with the exclusion of black workers from the waterfront.

The bureaucratic disrupters waited until Jack Heyman began speaking.

Heyman began by dedicating his remarks to Shaun “Jack” Maloney, the five-term president of ILWU Local 19 in Seattle, who died in December 1999, shortly after the protests against the World Trade Organization. Jack Maloney was one of the leaders of the Trotskyist-led Minneapolis Teamster strike in 1934. He was already in jail in 1941 for organizing over-the-road drivers when he was joined by other Minneapolis Teamsters and Trotskyist leaders imprisoned for their revolutionary opposition to the second imperialist world war.

Heyman noted that the 1934 SF general strike that gave birth to the ILWU as well as the Minneapolis Teamsters strike and the Toledo Auto-Lite strike that year were all led by communists and radicals. Responding to objections to Occupy taking up the cause of Longview longshore workers, he asked: “What’s wrong with that? I thought that was what solidarity was all about.”

Portland Local 8 president Jeff Smith (above) and Tacoma Local 23 president Scott Mason (below) disrupting Seattle forum.
(Photos from Internationalist video)

But when Heyman said that longshoremen in Seattle, Longview, Portland and Oakland respected the Occupy lines on December 12, all hell broke loose. At this point the bureaucratic thugs started shouting and moving menacingly toward the stage. As viewers can see in a video posted at our web site,, the president of Local 23 (Tacoma), Scott Mason, was yelling “Where is the president of Local 21?” Local 19 (Seattle) president Cam Williams tried to grab the floor mike. Local 8 president Smith, who came up from Portland for the event, was throwing his considerable weight around.

Even though the meeting chairman (a member of Seattle ILWU clerks Local 52) told them that they could speak in the discussion period, the disrupters kept shouting and demanding that they read the McEllrath letter from the podium. Members of the audience took up position to defend the stage. Even after the speaker from Local 21 tried to calm things, the disrupters used sexist epithets to provoke women Occupy activists. The president of the ILWU pensioners’ association, Rich Austin Sr., started pushing, shoving and throwing punches, and his buddies joined in. It’s all on the video.

The union misleaders’ attack was a frontal assault on workers democracy. No one was denying them the right to speak, which they could have done in the discussion like everyone else. During the fray, the speakers and audience chanted “ILWU, ILWU” to make it clear that they stood with the union against the shameful disruption by the attackers. When the bureaucrats’ messenger eventually read the letter, he reread for emphasis the sentence about a possible injunction for violating the Taft-Hartley Act.

In response, the ILWU members on the stage and the audience rose to their feet chanting “Repeal Taft-Hartley!” The sentiment was right, but the chances that Congress will repeal this centerpiece of U.S. anti-labor laws are nil. What’s actually needed is to forge a class-struggle leadership of labor prepared to defy Taft-Hartley. The ILWU has done it before, under far more threatening conditions at the height of McCarthyism, and West Coast dock workers can take the lead again.

We haven’t seen this kind of violent disruption by bureaucratic heavies in some time. Whether or not they were “liquored up,” as some reports say, what stood out was rather how coldly calculated and deliberate it all was. Moreover, while many activists saw the disruption as an attack on Occupy Seattle, which it was in part, they failed to see that the bureaucrats’ main target was the Local 21 leaders and ILWUers on the stage who had spoken for a mass mobilization against the EGT’s union-busting.

The ILWU bureaucracy was trying to stifle dissent within the union over its policy of cold-shouldering Occupy solidarity actions. This hostility is in direct response to pressure from the bourgeoisie, up in arms over port stoppages; it reflects the fear of union lawyers of violating the sacrosanct laws of capital which ban all forms of effective labor struggle; and it shows that, despite (or maybe because of) the clash with the cops in Longview last fall, the ILWU tops were dead opposed to mobilizing the union’s power.

Speakers on stage (including four from ILWU) and audience chanted “ILWU, ILWU” against the
bureaucratic disrupters, making it clear which side they’re on.
(Photo from Internationalist video)


In the aftermath of the row in Seattle, solidarity with Longview longshore workers continued to mount. In Portland, United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC) Local 156 sent a letter strongly supporting Local 21 and sharply criticizing International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 701 which has been scabbing at the EGT facility.

Painters District Council 5 (Portland) also issued a resolution “condemn[ing], in the strongest way possible, the strike breaking and predatory actions of the current leadership of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 701” and calling on painters to give all possible assistance to ILWU Local 21.

The announcement by the U.S. Coast Guard that armed cutters and helicopters would be used to escort a grain ship to the scab EGT terminal was roundly condemned by unions and labor councils from San Francisco to Wisconsin and North and South Carolina. Demonstrations in solidarity with Longview longshore workers and against military union-busting were organized for January 23 in Oakland and New York. The press release for the NYC demo noted:

“This is the first time the U.S. military has been used in a labor dispute in over a quarter century, since the National Guard was mobilized against striking Phelps Dodge copper miners in 1986. The Obama administration’s plans echo the Reagan administration’s use of military personnel to replace striking PATCO air traffic controllers in 1981. But organizers noted that President Nixon’s attempt to break the 1970 postal workers strike with tens of thousands of U.S. Army and National Guard troops failed.”

That same day (January 23), the Homeland Security Department announced that the Coast Guard had established a “safety zone” around the EGT terminal to deal with “protest activities” at the scab facility.

The West Coast dock union stands out in comparison with the sorry state of the rest of the U.S. labor movement in terms of solidarity action: refusing to unload the Nedlloyd Kimberly in 1985 in protest against South African apartheid; refusing to unload the Neptune Jade to protest union-busting in Liverpool, England; shutting down the West Coast on 24 April 1999 to demand freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal; defying the Taft-Hartley Act by striking all 29 Pacific ports on May Day 2008 to stop the war on Iraq and Afghanistan; shutting the port of Oakland in November 2010 to protest the police murder of Oscar Grant, and in April 2011 in solidarity with the union struggle in Wisconsin.

Yet every single one of these actions was resisted by the ILWU tops, who have also attacked militant solidarity action over Longview, vowing to keep West Coast ports running. If despite the backstabbing, the union-busting drive is beaten back in Longview today, it’s because of the workers’ tenacious resistance, aided by the mobilizations of  “Occupy” supporters from the outside, not slick maneuvers by the bureaucratic wheeler-dealers.

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