Workers Vanguard No. 1015
11 January 2013
Playing by the Bosses Laws—A Losing Game
Longshore Unions Under the Gun
Heading into the last week of December, the nearly 15,000 members of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) on the East Coast were poised to wage their first Maine-to-Texas strike in 35 years. On the West Coast, some 3,000 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) in the Pacific Northwest locals voted down by a resounding 93.8 percent the “last, best and final” contract offer by grain export companies. Amid the union-busting devastation that has reduced industrial unions in this country to a mere shadow of their former strength, the two longshore unions are among the few remaining bastions of the power of organized labor.
A battle that brought both unions out on strike could have galvanized workers across the U.S. against the wholesale war on their jobs, wages, working conditions and very means of survival. But this potential has for now, once again, been squandered by the labor misleaders’ allegiance to the Democratic Party and prostration before the anti-labor laws and strikebreaking forces of the bosses and their government.
Two days before the December 30 strike deadline for the ILA, a federal mediator announced that the union tops and the employers’ United States Maritime Alliance (USMX) had agreed to extend the contract until January 28 (since extended to February 6). On the West Coast, the ILWU International submitted to the grain companies’ ultimatum that longshoremen work under the terms of the contract that they had just overwhelmingly rejected or be replaced by scab labor. While announcing that they would be “reviewing” the companies’ latest dictates, the ILWU bureaucrats lamented that the bosses “have not bargained in good faith.”
ILWU Coast Committeeman and co-chair of its grain negotiating team, Leal Sundet, had earlier described the union’s counteroffer as one that “equalizes the playing field on all points that matter.” Sundet went on to complain in protectionist terms that “foreign-based grain merchants intend to risk the U.S. export market to try to break the union.” Far from putting U.S. grain exports at risk, increasing the rate of exploitation of labor (and hence profits) by trying to break the back of the ILWU is in the interests of all the conglomerates—only some of them foreign-based—that control the international grain trade. The grain goliaths who own the Northwest terminals are now literally making a killing, using drought conditions to drive up grain prices, threatening even greater starvation for peoples around the globe.
On the East Coast, the ILA leadership has similarly sung a patriotic tune, tying the workers’ interests to those of American capitalism. This is the second time they have pulled the plug on possible strike action. The original contract deadline was September 30, which coincided then with the expiration of the ILWU’s master grain agreement in the Pacific Northwest. Only two weeks earlier, the two unions had announced the formation of a Maritime Labor Alliance together with four other smaller unions with the purported purpose of having each other’s backs. But higher loyalties prevailed, and in the words of ILA president Harold Daggett, he extended the contract “for the good of our Country and Our President.” Indeed, and it wasn’t different this time around.
Giant retailers like Walmart and others were breathing down Obama’s neck, demanding that he invoke the Taft-Hartley slave labor law to stop the ILA from striking. But the president was saved the trouble by his allies in the labor bureaucracy lest his intervention damage their lie that the Democrats, who no less than the Republicans represent the capitalists’ interests, are the “friends of labor.” As reported in the Wall Street Journal online (28 December): “The contract extension is a relief for the White House, now negotiating with Congress about 2013 income tax rates and federal spending and borrowing limits. A ports strike could have loaded new worries on an already fragile economic recovery.” That is, the profits of the shipping companies and retail giants were rescued while the working class and poor face being pushed off the “fiscal cliff” into further misery and destitution.
The Bosses’ Rule Book
The federal mediator heralded the agreement “in principle” between the ILA and USMX over container royalties. Beginning in the 1960s, the ILA leadership accepted a deal in which jobs were sacrificed in exchange for royalty payments based on container cargo tonnage. Having decimated the workforce (which went from 35,000 in the 1960s to 3,500 today at the Port of New York and New Jersey alone), the shipping outfits are out to ultimately eliminate this compensation. Yet to be resolved are USMX’s demands for sweeping changes in work rules and manning scales.
On the West Coast, the contract being imposed by the grain exporters is a frontal assault on union work rules and safety conditions, gains which were won over decades in the struggles and at the cost of the very lives of longshoremen in this dangerous industry. As part of this package, the bosses are also aiming to undermine the union hiring hall—the key gain of the 1934 West Coast longshore strike that forged the union—by allowing the companies to approve which ILWU members can be dispatched to work in their terminals. These conditions are modeled on the deal made with the Export Grain Terminal (EGT) consortium in Longview, Washington, last year.
Longshore workers and their allies fought a bitter battle with EGT, whose aim was to drive the ILWU out of its new, high-tech terminal in Longview and replace it with scab labor. They didn’t succeed in this. But as we wrote in “Grain Export Bosses Gunning for ILWU” (WV No. 1010, 12 October 2012): “In preserving jobs it has held for over 80 years in Longview and its coastwide organization, the ILWU lived to fight another day. But fight it must, or the EGT contract will become the standard for the ILWU’s bulk grain handling work in the region.” But rather than preparing the ranks and their allies for battle, to date the only “forces” the ILWU International has called out are the union’s lawyers.
Playing an elaborate game of legal machinations, they are trying to wield to the union’s advantage the very anti-labor laws and agencies, like the NLRB, which came down with strikebreaking injunctions and lawsuits against the union in Longview. The union membership has overwhelmingly been left in the dark and is understandably fearful of what potentially lies in wait. Meanwhile, the grain bosses were mobilizing their forces for all-out war against the ILWU.
An advance team of professional strikebreakers from the Delaware-based J.R. Gettier and Associates has been on the scene for months. As the deadline for the union vote on the contract drew near, hotel rooms in the area were filled with scabs. On the Willamette River, three tugboats manned by strikebreakers and protected by armed guards were moored near the Portland ILWU Local 8 union hall. Their purpose was to ensure that grain ships were taken in and out of the docks. Behind them, the big guns of the capitalist state were mobilized by the Obama administration, with the Coast Guard deployed to create “safety buffer zones” to prevent the union from stopping ships carrying scab grain. While the ILA was not facing anywhere near such a strikebreaking armada, according to the industry mouthpiece, the Journal of Commerce (28 December), USMX had been discussing countering a strike, which the union had announced would cover only commercial container shipping, with a lockout of all ILA members including auto and breakbulk work as well.
Better to Fight on Your Feet Than Die on Your Knees
There is no question of the stakes faced by the longshore unions, particularly now the ILWU. But one thing is for sure: playing by the bosses’ laws is a losing game. The whole reason these laws exist is to outlaw labor from mobilizing its social power based on its collective strength to stop the flow of goods and shut down production. But this truth is obfuscated by the bureaucrats. Instead, they have whipped up fear that if the union goes on strike, the law would permit the companies to permanently hire the scabs. By these lights, it is better to accept a company lockout that supposedly precludes such a union-busting outcome.
It’s not the bosses’ laws, but the relative strength and determination of the opposing forces that decide who wins and who loses in any strike, as in any conflict. By working the rejected contract terms, the ILWU is creating “facts on the ground” that will be harder to reverse.
As we wrote some 30 years ago in the wake of the union-busting juggernaut that was launched with the 1981 destruction of the PATCO air traffic controllers union:
“The future of the unions is on the line. And while the capitalists are grabbing every gun in their closet, the union bureaucracy is handcuffing the workers with the bosses’ laws.... No decisive gain of labor was ever won in a courtroom or by an act of Congress. Everything the workers movement has won of value has been achieved by mobilizing the ranks of labor in hard-fought struggle, on the picket lines, in plant occupations. What counts is power. The strength of the unions lies in their numbers, their militancy, their organization and discipline and their relation to the decisive means of production in modern capitalist society. The bosses are winning because the power of labor, its strength to decisively cripple the enemy, has not been brought to bear.”
—“Labor’s Gotta Play Hardball
to Win!” WV No. 349,
2 March 1984
Although a taste of the union’s potential power was seen in late November when 450 ILWU office clerical workers went on strike at the L.A./Long Beach ports, it was a relative skirmish compared to what the ILWU is up against in the Pacific Northwest. Ten thousand ILWU longshoremen, clerks and walking bosses honored the clerical workers’ picket lines. Engaged under the “legal” sanction of an arbitrator, the action effectively shut down work at ten of the 14 terminals in the largest port complex in North America. After eight days, the strike was settled as both the Los Angeles mayor and the Federal Mediation Service intervened to force a settlement.
On November 20, some 2,000 ILWU longshoremen in the Port of Oakland defied an arbitrator’s ruling and honored picket lines set up by port maintenance and clerical workers. Effectively shutting down the nation’s fifth largest port for one shift, the action was enough to force the port bosses back to the bargaining table. In the end, 500 workers organized by the Service Employees International Union and three other unions won a contract that defeated the port’s demands for major concessions in pensions and health care.
There is no question that the grain export bosses have a gun to the head of the ILWU. Behind them stand the West Coast container and cargo shipping bosses of the Pacific Maritime Association, whose contract with the ILWU is up in 2014. But there is no hope if the union surrenders its power in advance playing by a rule book written by the capitalist class enemy.
The outcome for either the ILA or the ILWU in their current contract battles has yet to be decided. The bottom line is that their continued existence as powerful industrial unions will take a fight against the bureaucracy’s class-collaborationist policies that have shackled the power of the workers to the interests of the capitalist exploiters. It is not easy to win in the face of the union-busting forces of the bosses and their state. But only through struggle can the tide be turned on the bosses’ one-sided class war and a new leadership of the unions emerge. Out of such battles a multiracial revolutionary workers party will be built capable of leading the fight against this entire system of capitalist wage slavery and establishing the class rule of those who labor.