Labor's Gotta Play Hardball to Win!

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 2011

Militant Class Struggle Like You Haven’t Seen in Years:
ILWUers Defy Federal Injunction, Block Train, “Storm” Scab Terminal

Police attack ILWU pickets in Longview, Washington, September 7 as they block grain train to scab
facility: 19 arrested. Despite federal injunciton, the next day 800 union supporters returned to seize
the terminal. Ten thousand tons of grain were dumped, judge said he felt like a “paper tiger.”
(Photo: Dawn Des Brisay/Flickr)

Bust the Union-Busters – Shut Down the Ports on All 3 Coasts!

Since early this year a bitter struggle has been waged in the small West Coast  port of Longview, Washington. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) is fighting a vicious union-busting attack by a new grain shipping conglomerate, EGT Development. The battle got national attention when 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. It all harked back to the militant union action that built the labor movement and which has seldom been seen in recent years. It gave a taste of workers’ power that needs to be mobilized in sharp class struggle today.

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

This wasn’t the first time the ILWU ranks mobilized massively in this struggle. The protesters who poured into Longview in the early morning hours were incensed over police attacks on unionists the day before. When EGT tried to bring in a mile-long train of corn from Minnesota to its scab facility on September 7, over 200 ILWUers initially held it off by occupying train tracks in nearby Vancouver, Washington just across the Columbia River from Portland. When later in the day the 107-car Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) train got through to Longview, it was met by 400 unionists, some with picket signs mounted on baseball bats. At the request of port officials, the local sheriff  sent 50 or so riot cops, who arrested 19 picketers, tackling them and roughly throwing them onto the gravel track bed while clubbing and pepper-spraying others. The police picked ILWU International president Bob McEllrath out of the crowd and wrestled him to the ground, intending to arrest him. But the cops let him go as hundreds of outraged longshoremen surged forward. “I felt like they were going to overrun us,” said one deputy.

Beginning in May of this year, ILWU Local 21 held mass pickets in Longview. On June 3, some 1,000 longshoremen rallied outside EGT headquarters in Portland. On July 11, 100 union protesters were arrested after tearing down a chain link fence around the terminal. In response to the arrests, on July 14, hundreds of workers blocked an attempt to bring in a grain train, leading BNSF to stop all rail shipments to EGT. When the company announced it was hiring members of the Operating Engineers local to staff the terminal, 100 ILWU pickets blocked the gates on July 22, forcing EGT to shut down. The company finally managed to unload the first grain train on September 21, but only after roughly arresting a dozen union supporters, mostly women who were sitting on the tracks along with Local 21 president Dan Coffman. A 57-year-old grandmother suffered a torn rotor cuff when police manhandled her, and two other union leaders were thrown down, handcuffed and then maced. An army of police from around the region occupied the area. This time the black-uniformed Robocops, looking like a squad of Nazi stormtroopers, arrived with a black armored car marked “Sheriff” with a gun turret mounted on top.

Since the September 8 “storming,” Longview police and sheriff’s deputies have been on a rampage. Beginning in July there have been more than 200 arrests of ILWU members and supporters, more than 50 were jailed and later released, while ten face felony charges. Local 21 members have been arrested at night in their homes as their families watched. A number, including several women, have been arrested more than once. Denouncing these “made for TV arrests,” the 200 members of Local 21 and 40 “Women of the Waterfront” showed up at the Cowlitz county courthouse on September 16 with picket signs to turn themselves in. Although a riot squad was hiding inside the building, no arrests were made. Later that day, however, Local vice president Jake Whiteside was arrested in a church parking lot in front of his children. In contrast, the district attorney did nothing to prosecute a scab who drove a truck straight into a picket line in August, sending a picketer to the hospital, and then drove off: a clear hit-and-run, all of it caught on video seen by thousands on the Internet.

Meanwhile, EGT has hired a professional strikebreaking company, SRC (Special Response Corporation), which supplies ex-military and ex-cops to deal with labor conflicts. An ad on the SRC web site offers “A Private Army When You Need It Most.” It features a uniformed agent with riot shield and gas mask, boasting that it can provide up to “200 specially trained professionals, equipped with the latest in security technology,” including “specially designed vehicles that enable employees to cross picket lines….” In addition to this private army of union-busting mercenaries, federal agents showed up threatening to up the ante on arrests, with rumors that longshoremen could lose their Transport Workers Identification Credential (TWIC) if arrested, buying the EGT claim that picketing grain trains is “blocking interstate commerce.” To top it off, Fox TV is calling to prosecute the ILWU for “terrorism.” But while the company, government authorities and right-wing reactionaries are on the warpath against the union, workers nationally were energized by the Longview workers’ militant defense of their rights.

To win this battle will require an all-out mobilization of union power, and not just by one small ILWU local. The shipping bosses will think again if the whole coast is shut down to support Longview workers, even more so if faced with a first-ever national port strike. Facing a vicious, union-busting attack, workers must hit the bosses where it hurts. But the struggle must also be fought politically. The escalation of repression came as a result of a federal injunction issued by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Since Obama appointees took the reins last year, pro-Democratic Party union bureaucrats have hailed the Labor Board as pro-labor for the first time in decades, while conservatives have denounced it as “Marxism on the march.” Yet it is Obama’s NLRB that requested an injunction against the ILWU for “aggressive” picketing. On September 7 and 8, union supporters courageously defied the federal injunction. They will have to do so again, even more powerfully. And to defeat the “bipartisan” war on the working class, labor must break with the capitalist parties to build a class-struggle workers party.

Longview longshore workers have braved arrest in order to defend their jobs and those of union workers everywhere. Their example has already inspired other workers, including the Tacoma, Washington teachers fighting against a school district demand to do away with seniority, who walked out September 12 shortly after the ILWU action. They stayed out for two weeks, with solid popular support and in defiance of a court injunction, until they won a contract that at least for now left the seniority system intact. The labor movement must mobilize to defend the ILWU, demanding all charges be dropped, and to win this all-important class battle.

A Must-Win Battle Against Union-Busting

Cowley County sheriff’s riot squad protects grain train (above), with armored car guarding EGT scab terminal in background (below).
(Photos: Bill Wagner/The Daily News; Don Ryan/AP)

Although only a few dozen jobs are involved at the EGT terminal, the showdown here is over the future of waterfront unions in this country. In Philadelphia last year, Del Monte broke its contract with the East Coast International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) and set up a new port staffed with workers from a company union.  In Longview, the ILWU has held the contract for bulk grain loading for over three-quarters of a century, going back to 1934 when the union was founded. EGT’s lease agreement to set up the facility specifically referenced the port’s Working Agreement giving the ILWU jurisdiction. If EGT is able to rip up that contract, other grain handlers will certainly try to follow suit. Last month, the employers negotiated a one-year contract, instead of the previous six-year deals. Stevedoring companies, terminal operators and ship owners on the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf Coasts are watching the outcome of the battle of Longview like sharks. This is a must-win battle for all of labor.

And we can win this battle. The ILWU is a powerhouse of labor, but now is the moment it must use its tremendous industrial power … or lose it. The struggle in Longview comes in the context of growing resentment against capitalist titans of commerce, industry and finance who have been making out like bandits, giving themselves billions in bonuses while upwards of 25 million working people are jobless. More than 19 million homes are empty due to foreclosures and lack of buyers, while the numbers of homeless are escalating month by month. Meanwhile, workers’ rights, wages and “benefits” are under full-scale attack. The anger over this war on working people finally boiled over in Wisconsin earlier this year, as union supporters occupied the state capitol for weeks to protest the governor’s union-busting bill. Over 100,000 marched repeatedly, a general strike was posed. But the end result was a defeat for workers: the labor bureaucracy, fearing that real class struggle could “get out of hand,” diverted the unprecedented mobilization into a campaign to recall Republican legislators (and elect Democrats). Yet both Democrats and Republicans were for cutting workers benefits.

In Longview, one of the most popular T-shirts worn by ILWU supporters read, “No Wisconsin Here” – and they mean it. An article in the Journal of Commerce (19 September), titled “Labor’s Long View,” recalled the ILWU’s history and noted that in this battle, “the union took militancy to a higher level because its members were literally fighting to protect their jobs and to prevent the erosion of the ILWU's exclusive bargaining authority at all West Coast ports.” This is what “makes the ILWU one of the most powerful unions in the United States,” it stressed. The fight is not limited to the ILWU. Two weeks later, the paper reported that with the East Coast International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) contract with the USMX shippers cartel coming up next year, “some shippers already are starting to explore contingency plans,” adding: “But any talk of breaking the longshore unions’ hold on containerized cargo at major U.S. ports is wishful thinking” (“ILA, ILWU Not Going Away,” Journal of Commerce, 3 October).

EGT is a recently formed consortium of Bunge North America, based in St. Louis, the Japan-based Itochu International and South Korea-based STX Pan Ocean. The huge (36 silo) $200 million Longview facility is the first new gain terminal built in the U.S. in almost three decades. It is run by Bunge Limited, an international food conglomerate headquartered in White Plains, NY, which is one of the Big Five monopolies that control the grain trade worldwide. In addition to shipping grain, it is the world’s largest soy processor and supplier of bottled oils to consumers, earning $2.4 billion in profits in 2010. Bunge has made a high stakes gamble, seeking control of Pacific grain shipping while taking on the ILWU. “EGT would like to be the Walmart of the grain business,” said the president of the Tacoma ILWU local. But unlike so many unions in recent decades who half-heartedly fought crucial battles, or simply folded, the historically militant longshore union has stepped up to the plate. Facing a ruthless employer out for blood, it has to play hardball to win.

Longview longshoremen during standoff over grain train, September 7. In Wisconsin, union tops sold out workers' struggle to  back Democratic Party. Oust the bureaucrats, break with the Democrats, build a class-struggle workers party. (Photo: Don Ryan/AP)

From the outset, EGT made clear it sought to operate a scab terminal, importing low-wage non-union construction workers to build it and suing the Port of Longview to be exempted from the contractual agreement with the ILWU. As the battle heated up, however, it tried to pull a fast one in mid-July by turning to General Construction, a subsidiary of Kiewit, one of the largest contractors in the world, to operate the terminal with workers from International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 701. This way EGT could cynically pretend it was just a squabble between two unions. The fiction didn’t fool Pacific Northwest labor. Washington and Oregon state labor councils denounced EGT’s attempt to set one union against another, and the Oregon Building Trades Council condemned Local 701 for working in collusion with the union-busting employer against the ILWU on the Longview docks. But shamefully, national AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka sided with EGT, saying it was a “jurisdictional dispute”! This is the same faker who posed as a labor militant in Wisconsin, calling on unions to take solidarity action, and who now hails Occupy Wall Street.

ILWU Local 10 was the only union in the country to respond to the AFL-CIO’s call for real solidarity action, shutting down Bay Area ports on April 4. But Trumka never came to its defense when it was sued by the employers for that action. To win the battle of Longview, it will be vital to mobilize a solid front of labor in defense of the ILWU. Trumka must be confronted and sharply denounced for aiding and abetting union-busting. There should be an effort to reach rank-and-file members of Local 701 to overturn this disgusting scabbing. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (part of the Teamsters) issued a statement in support of ILWU Local 21 against EGT and offering “any help we can provide.” It would certainly help if the BLET would stop the grain trains to EGT.  If those trains are manned by union railroad workers, that is outright scabbing. If, as some in Longview believe, they are driven by management, one way or another, members of BLET Division 758 in Vancouver, Washington can and should stop them. And if EGT attempts to load a grain ship, union supporters in the area should come out in the thousands to stop the scab operation, and the ILA and ILWU should shut down every port in the U.S.

From that moment on, waterfront unions everywhere should refuse to touch any Itochu or STX Pan-Ocean ship or any Bunge cargo. After noting the ILA’s pledge of support to the West Coast dock workers after the attempted arrest of ILWU president McEllrath, the Journal of Commerce (19 September) warned: “The bigger concern for EGT, however, could be the close connections the ILWU maintains with dockworker unions in Asia, where most of its grain will be exported. The ILWU and its Asian counterparts in the past have coordinated job actions on both sides of the Pacific against vessels involved in labor disputes at U.S. and Asian ports.”  Already on October 14, the Doro-Chiba rail workers union held a protest outside the headquarters of the Japanese shipping company Itochu demanding “Hands Off ILWU!” In March 2003, Doro-Chiba struck for three days against the war on Iraq and against emergency legislation preparing for imperialist war on North Korea. On October 21, Australian dock workers in the port of Newcastle rallied and delivered a message to the Korean ship STX Jasmine vowing “retaliation around the world” over the attack on the ILWU.

The Fight for a Class-Struggle Leadership

Labor’s gotta play hardball to win. Longshoremen held off police on September 7. (Photo: Don Ryan/AP)

The stakes couldn’t be higher in the battle for Longview. It is clear to everyone – to the workers, the bosses and the bosses’ government – that the outcome will vitally affect the future of waterfront and maritime unions and all labor in the United States, and around the world. It could take on the importance of the PATCO air controllers strike in 1981, a fight by a relatively small, conservative union whose defeat set the stage for a decade of lost strikes and the sorry state American labor is in today. Yet the official AFL-CIO leadership knifed those strikers in the back, calling for the empty gesture of a consumer boycott while airline maintenance workers (Machinists), fuel truck drivers (Teamsters) and others scabbed, daily crossing PATCO picket lines. Like the ILWU today, the air controllers faced a bi-partisan capitalist attack: the government of Republican Ronald Reagan (who was endorsed by PATCO) carried out a union-busting plan drawn up under the administration of Democrat Jimmy Carter. This underscores the need to forge a class-struggle leadership prepared to take on and defeat both capitalist parties.

Bosses rightly fear power of international workers solidarity. (Above) Maritime Union of Australia dock workers demonstrate in solidarity with Longview dock workers as STX ship docked in Newcastle, October 21. (Below) Japanese rail workers of Do-ro Chiba union protested outside Itochu corporate headquarters in defense of the ILWU, October 14. (Photos: MUA; Do-Ro Chiba)

The shipping companies are no doubt hoping that EGT can do to the ILWU what maritime bosses did to dock workers unions in England in the mid-1990s. In 1995, a hard-nosed port company in Liverpool fired the entire workforce of 500 dockers for refusing to cross a picket line. This touched off a fight for the workers’ reinstatement in which maritime unions around the world staged boycotts in solidarity with their British comrades. In 1997, ILWU Local 10 in the San Francisco Bay Area refused to unload the Neptune Jade, a ship carrying scab cargo loaded by a subsidiary of the Liverpool harbor company. When the ship tried again to offload its cargo in Vancouver, Canada, dock workers there boycotted it. So did Japanese longshoremen in Yokohama and Kobe. The attempt by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) to saddle the unions and union members with crippling fines over the Neptune Jade action was defeated. But the Liverpool union was smashed, as were dock unions in the other British ports, because the workers movement as a whole did not mobilize its industrial power early on.

Even so, the Liverpool workers and the struggle over the Neptune Jade reignited workers solidarity worldwide, seriously shaking the maritime bosses. If EGT owners are dreaming of another Liverpool, they could instead face the nightmare of another Charleston. In January 2000, a Danish shipper, Nordana, hired a scab stevedoring outfit in the port of Charleston, South Carolina. When union pickets showed up, they were met by 600 heavily armed riot cops with armored cars, helicopters, police boats, snipers and attack dogs. Five members of the overwhelmingly black ILA Local 1422 were hit with federal “felonious riot” charges (see “Defend the Charleston Five,” The Internationalist No. 10, June 2001). In response, ILWU Local 10 in the Bay Area called a one-day work stoppage in solidarity. Meanwhile, the International Dockworkers Council (IDC) through its Spanish affiliate delivered a message when the ship with scab cargo arrived in Barcelona that “they are ready to stop any of Nordana’s vessels at any port in Europe anytime,” as the port agent warned his home office. Nordana signed with Local 1422, although the unionists were under house arrest for months. (See Suzan Erem and E. Paul Durrenberger, On the Global Waterfront: The Fight to Free the Charleston 5 [Monthly Review Press, 2008].)

Jack Heyman, who recently retired after three decades as a militant in the ILWU (and before that in the now-defunct National Maritime Union), published a recent op-ed article in the San Francisco Chronicle (27 September), titled “Longshore Workers Make a Stand for All of Labor,” writing: “A line has been drawn on the waterfront of this country.” Heyman has been in the forefront of numerous solidarity actions on the West Coast docks, including “hot cargoing” (refusing to handle) ships bound for Pinochet’s Chile and carrying munitions to the death squad junta in El Salvador in the late 1970s and early ’80s, the 1984 boycott of the Nedlloyd Kimberly from South Africa in solidarity with the anti-apartheid struggle, as well as the ’97 Neptune Jade boycott and the 2000 port shutdown for the Charleston dock workers. After two trips to Longview in recent weeks, speaking at an October 20 forum in New York sponsored by the Internationalist Clubs of the City University and Class Struggle Education Workers, Heyman noted that “it’s a make-or-break situation for the ILWU,” that in resisting the employers and the capitalist state, “the biggest obstacle is the trade-union bureaucracy,” which has been applying the brakes on militant mobilization since September 7.

ILWU president McEllrath certainly got support for standing with the ranks on the railroad tracks that day. ILA president Harold Daggett fired off a letter pledging the East Coast dock union’s “full support of our ILWU brethren.” In San Francisco, ILWU Local 10 voted a motion sending $10,000 to Local 21 and calling for a coastwide port shutdown over the union-busting  in Longview. Shutting down West Coast shipping would put the screws to EGT, and even more so taking Daggett at his word and carrying out a serious, first-ever shutdown on all three coasts. This would make it clear to all that the maritime unions intend will use their power to bust the union-busters. But the ILWU tops are clearly dragging their feet, as McEllrath tells locals to “take no action without specific authorization from me.” Instead, the labor bureaucracy is looking to the capitalist courts, particularly since the federal judge handling the case ruled that EGT was “acutely aware” of the Longview Working Agreement with the longshore union. But at the same time, the judge fined the union over $300,000 for “illegal picketing.”

ILWU International president Bob McEllrath as sheriff's deputies attempted to arrest him on railroad tracks in Longview, September 7. Hundreds of ILWU members forced the cops to let him go. Cops and courts, hands off the ILWU! (Photo: Dawn Des Brisay/Flickr)

Its defeatist strategy is nothing new on the part of the ILWU International:

  • Last year, Boron miners in the Warehouse Division were locked out and replaced by scabs. Hundreds of scab containers were sent through the port of Los Angeles/Long Beach, but none were stopped. The ILWU International leadership directed Boron miners not to picket the port, then three months later claimed a victory in the pages of The Dispatcher. Yet scabs continue to work the mine and seniority was ripped apart in the new contract. Some “victory”!
  • This devastating loss was followed by the strike of the ILWU’s Office and Clerical Unit (OCU) in L.A. Longshoremen and clerks respected the OCU picket lines until an arbitrator ruled against them. The Coast Committee then told ILWU workers to cross the ILWU picket line!! The OCU clerks still have no contract, and now the employers are hitting the L.A./Long Beach Local 13, the largest in the union, with a robotics clause in the last contract, in order to sharply cut jobs.
  • When Local 10 shut down Bay Area ports on April 4 in solidarity with Wisconsin workers, making it the only union in the country to take real job action, there was no mention of this in The Dispatcher. Nor has the union paper defended the Local against the PMA’s suit over this. On the contrary, the International told Local 10 to agree to a PMA arbitrator’s decision that this was an illegal job action.

The union tops try to put a clamp on the ranks because they fear militant class struggle “like the plague.” The labor bureaucracy does not represent the ranks, its job is to control them. In order to defend the unions, we need to sweep away this privileged layer, beholden to the capitalist system, which chains the workers to the bosses, centrally through support to the Democratic Party. And to do so we must militantly resist every attack, going from resistance to a struggle for power.

The ruling class as a whole is “acutely aware” of the “threat” posed by the ILWU’s refound militancy. The Wall Street Journal (9 September) published an ominous editorial titled “A Union Goes Too Far.” “So what’s too far?” Jack Heyman asked at the October 20 forum. “‘Too far’ is ensuring that picket lines mean don’t cross. That’s how unions were built in this country.” Federal judge Ronald Leighton said “he felt like a paper tiger” because the unions were ignoring his injunction. Heyman noted, “The last time I remember defiance of an injunction by a federal judge was in 1978 when [Democrat Jimmy] Carter was president and he issued a Taft-Hartley injunction against the miners, and they defied it.” Today the ILWU has organized mass pickets, roving pickets, blocked train tracks, even temporarily occupied the scab grain facility. Many union leaders say you can’t go up against the government. Yet when the ILWU shut down West Coast ports on May Day 2008 to stop the war on Iraq and Afghanistan, the PMA sued the union for violating Taft-Hartley, and the ILWU won, making the contract depend on dropping the suit.

Jack Heyman spoke of Longview ILWU struggle at Occupy Wall Street events in New York, October 29. (Internationalist photo)

In his New York talk, Heyman pointed to the observation by Leon Trotsky in his 1940 essay “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” that a common feature of “the degeneration of modern trade union organizations in the entire world… is their drawing closely to and growing together with the state” (see the Internationalist Group Class Readings bulletin, Trotskyism and Trade-Union Struggle [December 2005], for the complete text). In recent years, while militants opposed the Maritime Security Act and the imposition of the TWIC card, the ILWU leadership took the position that you can’t fight it. Now the police are trying to intimidate Local 21 workers by photocopying their TWIC cards, suggesting they could lose them (and lose their jobs) if they get arrested again. But at the height of the McCarthyite witchhunt in the early 1950s, ILWU Local 10 fought the clauses of the Taft-Hartley Act banning communists from union leadership positions, taking it to the Supreme Court and winning. And it fought the waterfront screening that mainly affected blacks and reds.

 As the dramatic struggle in Longview shows, the ranks of labor are ready and willing to fight – they know their livelihoods and their whole future are at stake. They will “take care of business” if they know we’ve got their backs. The proud ILWU men and women of Longview are on the front lines, but this fight affects all labor and everyone suffering the effects of the world economic crisis. Workers and all defenders of workers’ rights must stand with the ILWU and demand that all charges against it and its supporters be dropped, from President McEllrath to the dozens of Local 21 members facing the threat of jail. The way to defend them, and to win the battle against the EGT union busters, is to mobilize union power. At the same time, the key to defeating the concerted attack on the maritime unions is to build a leadership with the political program and guts to take on not only the government but the capitalist system, which is relentlessly destroying union gains won through hard struggle in the past. We need to oust the bureaucrats, break with the Democrats and forge a class-struggle workers party, and we need to get started now. Show the maritime bosses who controls the hook!

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