The Internationalist  
  March 2012  

Gofers for the ILWU Bureaucracy

SL’s Wrong Lessons of Longview

In a number of articles, The Internationalist has covered the explosive struggle of West Coast longshore workers focusing on the small port of Longview, Washington. We reported on the series of militant actions in the summer and early fall, when hundreds of union supporters occupied the EGT grain terminal being operated with scab labor. But we also noted how the leadership of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) backpedaled under the blows of capitalist state repression and heavy pressure from the bourgeois media and politicians.

When the Occupy Wall Street movement took up the cause, shutting down the port of Oakland, California on November 2 and then blockading Pacific ports on December 12 in solidarity with the workers of Longview (as well as the heavily immigrant port truckers), the ILWU tops took fright. While ILWU Local 21 in Longview welcomed the support, International president Bob McEllrath issued letters and memos warning against cooperating with Occupy or doing anything that might be interpreted as violating the Taft-Hartley Act.

This tension came to a head on January 6, when ILWU officials disrupted an Occupy forum in Seattle called to build solidarity with Longview. The bureaucrats’ wrath was directed mainly against the several ILWU speakers on the stage (see “January 6: An Outrage in Seattle,” The Internationalist, January 2012). Videos of the violent disturbance – including shouting, shoving and throwing punches – caused a commotion when they were posted on the Internet. Yet several left-wing groups grotesquely sided with the bureaucratic disrupters (“‘Socialist’ Excuses for Disruption of Labor Solidarity Forum,The Internationalist, February 2012).

Some of those were dyed-in-the-wool reformists, like the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Socialist Workers Party (SWP), just doing what comes naturally. But among the apologists for the bureaucrats was the Spartacist League (SL), which in classic centrist fashion combines “revolutionary” rhetoric with reformist deeds. Now the SL has published a lengthy article, “Lessons of the Battle of Longview” (Workers Vanguard, 17 February), spread out over five tabloid pages, to justify its shameful support for the pro-capitalist labor fakers. Like the ISO, the SL criticizes the Seattle forum from the right.

The first three pages are devoted to recounting the struggle, summed up as “ILWU Holds the Line Against Union-Busting.” But then it gets down to business in a section on “Substituting the Populist Occupy Movement for Class Struggle.” While the ISO tsk-tsked the bureaucrats for busting up the labor solidarity forum even as it supported the ILWU tops, the SL defends the attack on workers democracy. Referring to the shouting from the strong-arm squad demanding that a letter from McEllrath (warning against militant labor action) be read, according to WV, “In putting off the request by regional officials of the union under fire, the event organizers had invited such a confrontation.”

Ever since 40,000 people marched on the Port of Oakland and shut it down in response to the Occupy call for a “general strike” last November 2, the bourgeoisie and its labor lieutenants have been trying to counterpose the supposedly “radical” Occupy to the respectable union leaderships. The Workers Vanguard article fits right in that campaign. The WV account blaming Occupy for the bureaucrats’ attack never mentions that the solidarity meeting was held in the Seattle AFL-CIO’s Labor Temple, or that their beef was not so much with Occupy but with the five ILWUers on stage (four speakers and the moderator).  

WV goes on at length about how a blockade by Occupy is nowhere near as powerful as action by the workers themselves. Yet its article carefully avoids the main point of the ILWU tops’ letter that the local officials demanded be read: namely that any protest against EGT “is not a call for a shutdown of West Coast ports and must not result in one,” because the employers were threatening to sue on the grounds that “any disruption of work by the ILWU on the West Coast docks at the same time that the Union is protesting EGT constitutes a violation of Taft-Hartley.”

When that was read out, the ILWUers on the stage and union supporters in the audience chanted, “Repeal Taft-Hartley.” Later, as the bureaucrats continued their disruption, forum defenders repeatedly chanted “ILWU, ILWU” to make it clear that they were defending the union. None of this is reported by WV, which tries to portray the solidarity event as an Occupy attack on the union. It seeks to cover up the fact that the ILWU tops’ action was aimed at preventing the kind of action by the union ranks, not by Occupy, that the SL claims to be for.

Like the ILWU bureaucrats, WV focuses its attack on retired ILWU Local 10 militant Jack Heyman, plus it throws in the Internationalist Group, “which cheerleads for Heyman.” It portrays Heyman as “embracing” anarchist Barucha Peller of Occupy Oakland, while in fact he criticized her argument that trade unions are capitalist institutions, leading her to walk off the stage. Program and leadership are key: “You can have class-collaborationist leadership, that believes in ‘partnership’ with the employers, or you can have class-struggle leadership,” he remarked.

WV then makes a classic amalgam, equating Heyman and the IG with groups such as the Black Orchid Collective in Seattle who counterpose the Occupy movement to the unions, and then positively grooves on the bureaucrats’ attack on the solidarity movement. “Those like Heyman, the IG and others who promote the Occupy movement – whose politics in fact mirror those of the labor misleaders – as a substitute for the union reaped the fruits of their own grotesque opportunism at the Seattle meeting.”

In fact, not only has the Internationalist Group criticized the bourgeois populism that is the lowest common denominator of the Occupy “movement,” we repeatedly called for workers action to defeat the union-busting attack. While saying Occupy’s West Coast port blockade should be welcomed as solidarity from the outside, we called for a union occupation of the EGT scab facility (a very real possibility in Longview) and a coastwise port strike – exactly the class-struggle policies the ILWU leaders went all-out to prevent.

In reporting on the settlement at Longview, we headlined, “EGT Union-Busting Beaten Back,” but unlike WV we added, “At a Cost” (The Internationalist, 11 February). We noted that the agreement on legal issues gave up the requirement that EGT use ILWU members for all waterside work, or that it be required to use union labor or comply with prevailing wages for construction work. We also noted that the agreement that workers had to be hired from a pool “pre-qualified by EGT” was “a significant weakening of the union hiring hall.”

The contract with EGT, which the ILWU leadership tried to keep under wraps but has now gotten out, is even worse than initially reported. Not only will workers be required to work 12-hour shifts, this can be extended to 13 hours. In addition to a “no strike” clause it bans sympathy strikes, work stoppages, unauthorized stop-work meetings, slowdowns, boycotts, disturbances, as well as “collusive picket lines, jurisdictional picket lines, hot cargo picket lines, secondary boycott picket lines and demonstration picket lines,” and for sure “wildcat picket lines.”

It gets worse. Even when union members refuse to cross a “legitimate and bona fide picket line,” the ILWU agrees that “the Employer may utilize supervisors, subcontractors, and employees from outside the Dispatch Hall” – i.e., any kind of scabs it can find – “during any such absence of employees.” If there are three work stoppages, the employer is no longer required to go through the union hiring hall. And to top it off, “The Employer may remove employees from the Approved Lists for any reason at its sole discretion.”

It was already known that EGT had won its demand that management run the control room. Contrary to claims that scabs are out of the EGT facility, Maritime Workers Monitor (14 March) reports that Clerks Local 40, which had been picketing since Day One, was frozen out. Nor does the contract require that the ILWU-affiliated Inland Boatman’s Union, which refused to dock any scab grain ships, do the ship docking. Moreover, non-ILWU mechanics and a clean-up crew are in the mill. Not surprisingly, this contract hasn’t even been voted on by Local 21 members.

Most ominous of all is the inclusion of a clause saying that “this Agreement shall be in compliance with the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947” – i.e., the Taft-Hartley Act – and “if any clause, sentence, paragraph, or part of this Agreement shall, for any reason, be adjudged by any court of competent jurisdiction to be invalid,” the parties (EGT and ILWU) agree to amend the contract to be in “full compliance with said Act, as amended.” As every ILWU member knows, Taft-Hartley outlawed the union hiring hall and the “closed shop.”

No wonder the ILWU tops were intent on preventing any union action that could be deemed in violation of Taft-Hartley. They were negotiating a first-ever contract embracing the “slave labor law”! This unprecedented clause in the EGT contract is a dagger pointed at the heart of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Right after Taft-Hartley passed, in 1948 the employers demanded that the ILWU give up the hiring hall. At the height of the Cold War witch hunt against “reds” in the unions, the union waged a bitter 95-day strike that defeated the bosses.

Now the ILWU leadership under president McEllrath and Coast Committeeman Leal Sundet, responsible for the Pacific Northwest, have abandoned the union’s historic opposition to Taft-Hartley. All it would take is a decision by a court declaring the union hiring hall to be contrary to the federal labor law and the union has agreed in advance to rewrite the contract to be in compliance. It won’t take long before other grain shippers and the employers’ Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) demand similar clauses in their contracts.

The bosses and their government can be defeated, but it will take a class-struggle leadership prepared to mobilize the unions’ power to defy and defeat the capitalist laws. You won’t get that from the misnamed Workers Vanguard. Nowhere in the slimy article justifying bureaucratic disruption of a solidarity meeting does the SL call on the union to fight Taft-Hartley, which is hardly mentioned. This is not an accidental oversight.

The SL’s efforts to cozy up to the ILWU leadership and its refusal to fight Taft-Hartley are not new. During the 2002 PMA lockout, that occurred at the height of build-up for the invasion of Iraq, the IG agitated on the Oakland docks to “hot-cargo” military goods and for strike action against Taft-Hartley union-busting. In an article titled “SL: Hard to Starboard” (The Internationalist No. 15, January-February 2003), we criticized these former Trotskyists for dropping those long-held positions just at the moment when they were called for. In response, WV (14 February 2002) published another lengthy article (“IG on ILWU and NYC Transit: Worthless Pilots in Stormy Weather,” WV, 14 February 2003) devoted to justifying its latest abandonment of a long-held key positions. (That article also justified voting for the sellout contract negotiated by the ILWU tops.)

“Take on the capitalist state?” WV asked rhetorically, as if this were impossible. In “SL: Hard to Starboard,” we had quoted from the SL’s call for the ILWU to defy a Taft-Hartley injunction in the 1971 West Coast dock strike, adding: “That was then, this is now, we can already hear the SL say.” WV responded, “OK, we’ll say it. That was then, this is now.” But is it impossible for labor to strike against the government, particularly in wartime?

Nonsense. The ILWU did it, on May Day 2008, when it shut down all 29 ports on the West Coast to stop the war on Afghanistan and Iraq. The PMA sued it for violating Taft-Hartley with a clearly political strike, but the union prevailed because it mobilized its power. The SL response? It dismissed this first-ever labor strike against a U.S. imperialist war, organized over the opposition of the ILWU tops, who did everything to stop and then distort it, as nothing but “pro-Democratic Party pressure politics” (see “The Opportunist Left and the Port Strike Against the War,” The Internationalist No. 27, May-June 2008).

At Longview, Local 21 and the ILWU ranks fought valiantly against EGT union-busting and beat it back, with the important aid of Occupy solidarity actions. The bosses and the bureaucrats rightly feared a powerful union mobilization at the scab facility when the first grain ship came in. The federal government brought in military force, using the Coast Guard to prevent it. Such class-struggle action would have sent shock waves around the country and could have won a stunning victory. This is what class-struggle worker militants fought for.

Instead, Longview longshore workers are saddled with a concessionary contract and the ILWU as a whole faces a threat to the hiring hall, key to the union’s power, all due to a backstabbing union bureaucracy. Let the sellout “socialists” and even ostensible “communists” who supported the ILWU misleaders (ISO, SWP, SL) – including some (Socialist Action) who hailed the contract, sight unseen, as a “victory”! – savor the bitter fruits of their opportunism.

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com