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Workers Vanguard No. 1003

25 May 2012

Lessons of Longview: An Exchange


The following letter was sent to the Spartacist League on March 28.

Thank you for your article, “Protest State Vendetta Against Longview ILWU & Its Allies.”

My husband, Jeff Washburn, President of the Cowlitz Wahkiakum Labor Council and President of the Longview/Kelso Bldg & Construction Trades, was the very first person arrested near the Tracks on Sept. 7th, 2011, the day of the train delay. Today we will go to another pre-trial hearing, if the prosecutor does not ask for another postponement today, we will go to trial on Friday.

He is one of the very few folks that have not been coerced into pleading guilty. He is not a longshoreman and had very good reason to be there. His attorney is Chad Sleight from Vancouver, WA. Although admittedly it would have been easier on our family to plead and get it over with months ago, this had been very time consuming and stressful for all of us. However, someone has to stand up for what is right, it might as well be us.

Jeff was instrumental in getting our State Representatives together and tasking them to push the Governor to meet with the parties. He started coordinating these meetings way ahead, it took them that long to find common meeting times. I firmly believe that had it not been for Jeff, the parties would never have met with the Governor. The strategy was not headed in that direction when he called for the Executive meetings with our state Reps. Yet here he is defending himself when he is actually the “hero”.

You will find it interesting that the Cowlitz County Prosecutor has issued a pre-trial notice that she has determined “this is not a constitutional right issue.” I don’t have the exact language in front of me, but it is something our lawyer has not seen before.

Regardless of the final outcome, this will be a possible landmark case at the local level. This case could determine how future demonstration activities are handled here in Cowlitz and prosecuted with our tax dollars.

Furthermore, we thought it worthwhile to note, that as of today, it appears that the construction at the Kalama Grain Terminal will proceed exactly as EGT, using out-of-town-workforce to build, the same contractor has already walked the job, TE Ibberson and affiliates.

It wasn’t until EGT was already built that the longshoremen actually got on board, long after the local construction industry had missed out on all the construction.

I have photos of all the license plates from out of the area that worked on the EGT job. Now it is starting to happen again, just in Kalama, WA and we have no reason to believe that the construction of the facility will be any different than EGT. The longshoremen might get the final work, but as far as the rest of us, most likely we will again be left out in the cold. Meanwhile, the real story of resource exportation/exploitation in order to meet the rising asian food demand is the real story, and how these multinationals aim to do it the cheapest way possible is the other story.

For background reading:

Feel free to contact me directly.

Just the savelocaljobs blogger...

T. Washburn

WV replies:

We thank Washburn for her letter. It raises several central and ongoing issues coming out of the class battle that pitted the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and its supporters against the union-busting offensive by the giant EGT grain consortium and its allies—from the local and federal cops and courts to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and, in the end, an armed Coast Guard flotilla.

On March 30, Washburn’s husband Jeff was convicted of obstructing/delaying a train last September 7, slapped with a $243 fine and sentenced to 20 hours of community service. The day that Jeff Washburn—then president of the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Counties Central Labor Council—was arrested, a picket of some 300 ILWUers and other unionists, among them ILWU International president Robert McEllrath, was brutally attacked by cops wielding clubs, tear gas and guns loaded with rubber bullets. In the early morning hours of September 8, longshoremen from throughout the Pacific Northwest poured into Longview.

EGT, its security thugs and the local cops were given a taste of the power that lies in the workers’ collectivity, solidarity and, above all, their capacity to stop production and the flow of goods, which chokes off profits. This is what makes ILWU members and their union allies criminals in the eyes of the courts, cops and prosecuting attorney. Their anti-union vendetta serves to illuminate the purpose of the state in capitalist society. Far from some “neutral” body representing the interests of all classes, it is the instrument for the suppression of the working class in defense of the interests of its exploiters.

In the context of the increasingly glaring social inequality of this society, constitutional rights like freedom of speech and assembly are, indeed, being relentlessly undermined in order to strengthen the repressive powers of the state, centrally to put down working-class and other social unrest. However, the rights of the workers to organize, to strike, to picket and shut down production are not and have never been rights codified in the Constitution. This is for the simple reason that they are an attack on the only actual guaranteed rights in this society—the property rights of the capitalist owners, which are the foundation for the profits they extract through the exploitation of labor. Everything that the workers have won has been through hard-fought class battles against the employers, their state and all of its political parties and other agencies. And these gains can only be defended through such struggle.

It is a bitter, if hardly unusual, irony that Susan Baur, the Cowlitz County prosecuting attorney who is criminalizing those who fought to defend the ILWU, was supported in her bid for office by the local ILWU and other area unions as the Democratic Party “lesser evil” candidate. While the Republicans revel in bashing the unions, black people, immigrants and the poor, the Democrats lie and do the same thing under the cover of being the friends of labor. It is an old shell game, one that has served to subordinate the working class to a party which no less than the Republicans represents the interests of its class enemy. This was more than amply demonstrated in the battle against EGT, whose union-busting efforts were backed by Barack Obama’s NLRB and later the mobilization of the military forces of the Coast Guard to escort the first ship to be loaded from the EGT terminal.

While the state’s Democratic governor Christine Gregoire intervened to broker a deal between the ILWU and EGT, there should be no illusion that the motivation was the interests of labor. On the contrary. In the lead-up to the presidential election, the Democrats could ill afford a conflict unleashing the military might of the Coast Guard against the ILWU, other unions and Occupy forces who were mobilizing in protest. Such a confrontation could have endangered the Democrats’ support from organized labor, whose top officials provide both significant manpower and money to get out the vote.

In the end, the ILWU was able to hold the line against EGT’s union-busting offensive, preserving jobs the union has held for 80 years and maintaining its coastwide organization. But the contract is concessionary, making further inroads against hard-won union gains. These include seriously undermining the union hiring hall by giving EGT veto power over who will be allowed to work its ships, excluding ILWU clerks from work at the terminal and vastly expanding management prerogatives, including allowing the bosses to do longshore work. These concessions will not be lost on the other big grain companies when their contract with the ILWU is renegotiated this fall. And it is not just the ILWU they have been gunning for.

Washburn’s letter is right that the battle in Longview should have begun with labor action to defend union jobs when the EGT terminal was being constructed. But such a fight was never engaged at that time either by the construction trades unions or the ILWU. Instead, the call went out to “Employ Local Workers for Local Jobs,” a slogan on placards at ILWU protests. In fact, EGT did just that, bringing in local area workers from the Operating Engineers Local 701 as scabs against the ILWU. Indeed, EGT’s union-busting offensive provided plenty of “community jobs,” not for the workers but for the union-busting agents of the capitalist state, from the county sheriff to the cops and prosecuting attorney’s office! That they are funded by tax dollars merely demonstrates that this money is not “ours” but rather provides a general fund for the state to do its business. And that business is to defend the property and profits of the capitalist owners.

Now, as Washburn points out, other grain companies in the Pacific Northwest that are refitting and expanding their operations are following in EGT’s footsteps in keeping out unionized construction workers. What is urgently posed is mobilizing labor to fight for union jobs, including organizing the unorganized regardless of where they are from and bringing them into the unions with full union pay, benefits and working conditions. But the fight for union jobs is once again being derailed in the name of defending “local jobs.”

At the Port of Vancouver, Washington, immigrant workers brought in to pour cement for a new United Grain silo are subject to slave-labor conditions. Outside the terminal, protesters have carried signs reading, “Our Ports, Our Jobs” and “Tax Breaks to Import Low Wage Workers.” This plays right into the hand of the bosses, who use racial and ethnic hostilities to keep the workers divided and weak. Instead, labor must link the defense of union jobs to the fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants. Such a struggle can lay the foundation for workers to stand shoulder to shoulder against the employers, not only to preserve the existing unions but also to replenish the diminishing ranks of organized labor with new fighters.

The fact that the ports are not privately owned does not mean that they belong to the “public.” They are run by local government agencies whose purpose is to serve the interests of the grain, shipping and other companies that lease the land for their operations. Contrary to the myth of a united “community” fighting against a giant multinational corporation, the battle of Longview demonstrated the irreconcilable class divide between labor and capital. The town was torn exactly along this fundamental fault line. As American Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon explained in the aftermath of the hard-fought, 99-day maritime workers strike of 1936-37, which consolidated the power of the West Coast longshore union:

“A conflict between workers and employers is not a mere misunderstanding between two elements who have a common general interest. On the contrary it springs from an irreconcilable conflict of interest: it is an expression of a ruthless class struggle wherein power alone decides the issue.

“Viewed in this light, a dispute between workers and employers cannot be settled fairly by the government; the government is an instrument of one of the parties to the dispute—in this case the capitalists. The class conflict cannot be handed over to the ‘public’ to decide: the ‘public’ is itself divided into classes with different interests and different sympathies regulated primarily by these interests. The polemics of Karl Marx against the conservative labor leaders of his day answered all these questions. All the experience of the labor movement since that time, including the recent west coast strike, speaks for the position of Marx and against all conceptions which overlook the class struggle.”

—“After the Maritime Strike,” (February 1937), reprinted in Notebook of an Agitator (1958)

Writ large, the call to preserve local jobs echoes the cry for “American jobs for American workers.” The AFL-CIO bureaucrats have long promoted this demand as the way to defend union jobs against “cheap labor.” The result has been precisely the opposite. One need only look at the unions that have been destroyed, the strikes busted, the growing mass of unorganized workers and army of unemployed desperate for any kind of work at any wages. In the name of defending “American jobs,” the union misleaders have subordinated the workers’ interests to the profitability of American capitalism, profits which are secured through the increasingly brutal exploitation of labor at home and abroad. This class collaboration has not only pitted American workers against their class brothers and sisters internationally but has also vastly increased the supply of “cheap labor” in this country. Thus, the protests at the port of Vancouver in Washington state are targeting not only immigrant workers but also “out-of-state” U.S. workers being brought in for construction.

Washburn’s letter points to the expanding resource export developments in the region. These include constructing new coal terminals as well as revamping grain-shipping facilities in order to cash in on the growing market for trade with Asia. U.S. agribusiness, the world’s leading grain exporter, seeks to monopolize and control the market to keep prices as high as possible. Far from meeting the food demands of the populations of these countries, the U.S. grain giants condemn millions of working people and poor around the globe to starvation. Food exports are also wielded as weapons to ensure the subjugation of less-developed countries to U.S. imperialism. (See “Imperialism Starves World’s Poor,” WV Nos. 919 and 920, 29 August and 12 September 2008).

At the same time, in the midst of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, the growing export industry in the Pacific Northwest can serve as a lever for the workers in waging a real fight for union jobs. As the early battles in Longview showed, the power is there to shut down construction, production and shipping at these facilities, but only if the workers rely on their own independent strength. That means putting aside illusions in the “community” and Democratic Party representatives and mobilizing as a class in struggle against the class enemy. Above all, labor must understand that its fight is international—the workers of the world are allies in the class struggle.

Again we thank Washburn for her letter. It is important for the workers and their allies who fought with such courage and determination against EGT’s union-busting offensive to draw the lessons of this battle. Out of such hard-fought class struggle, a new leadership of the unions can be forged, one that fights not merely to defend and better the workers’ conditions but to abolish the tyranny of capitalist wage slavery. For this struggle, the workers need their own party, one that represents their class interests and that fights for the rights of all the oppressed. In a socialist America, the vast resources of this country will be used to provide for the needs of the many, not the profits of the few, and not just here but across the globe. 


Workers Vanguard No. 1003

WV 1003

25 May 2012


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Gay Rights and the Capitalist Electoral Circus

Defend the Separation of Church and State!


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Mobilize the Power of the Working Class!

(Young Spartacus pages)


Defend Anti-NATO Protesters!



U.S. Muslim Imprisoned for Translating

Free Tarek Mehanna!


Winning the Vast Majority Through Proletarian State Power

(Quote of the Week)


Vote No on EU Austerity Referendum!

Irish Rulers Push Attacks on Working People


Lessons of Longview: An Exchange



Solidarity with Longview ILWU and Its Supporters


Presentation by a Veteran Communist

Marxism and the Fight for Women’s Liberation

(Young Spartacus pages)