Workers Vanguard No. 1030
20 September 2013
As 2014 Contract Battle Looms
ILWU Splits from AFL-CIO
On the eve of the recent AFL-CIO convention, the 42,000-member International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) split from the federation. In his August 29 letter of disaffiliation, ILWU International president Robert McEllrath pointed to increasing attacks on the longshore union by other AFL-CIO unions, ranging from the filing of unfair labor practice lawsuits to outright scabbing. These charges are all too true and then some. But the ILWU leadership’s hands are hardly clean in the sordid game of jurisdictional warfare that pits union against union in a scramble to defend their turf. McEllrath complains of the “compromising” policies of the AFL-CIO in “going along to get along” with the Obama administration. But the ILWU bureaucrats are equally culpable in subordinating the unions to the political fortunes of the Democratic Party, even if they have been disappointed with the hoped-for payoff for such treachery.
Today, the very existence of the ILWU in grain handling in the Pacific Northwest is on the line. Its members have been locked out for months by United Grain in Vancouver, Washington, and by Columbia Grain in Portland, Oregon. Scabs, protected by the latter-day Pinkertons of J.R. Gettier & Associates, are doing jobs held by the union for decades. Alongside the grain conglomerates’ drive to break the ILWU stand the shipping company bosses of the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), who are preparing for war with the union when its coastwide contract expires in July 2014.
Splitting from the AFL-CIO in the lead-up to this battle, the ILWU stands to be further isolated and risks making an even more open enemy of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy, led by Richard Trumka. It is already reported that the ILWU will not be granted “solidarity charters,” which were awarded to the affiliates of the Change to Win coalition when they broke from the AFL-CIO in 2005. Instead, the ILWU is to be expelled from all regional and city labor councils. Despite the formation last year of a “Maritime Labor Alliance” composed of the ILWU, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA)—which organizes East and Gulf Coast ports—and four other unions, the ILWU can hardly bank on solidarity from the leaders of the ILA. At the AFL-CIO convention, the ILA announced it would stay in the AFL-CIO. Its president, Harold Daggett, was rewarded with a seat as a vice president of the federation, even as he gave more lip service to standing behind the ILWU.
In his letter to the AFL-CIO, McEllrath recounts the ILWU’s “long and proud history of militant independence,” from its roots in the Industrial Workers of the World, early pioneers of industrial unionism, to its role in the formative years of the CIO. But the CIO was born out of the militant class battles of the 1930s to organize the millions of workers in U.S. industry who were disdained by the craft-based AFL, which was led by sworn enemies of socialism and often outright racists. In these battles, workers mobilized their power as a class to shut down production through mass, militant picket lines, sit-down strikes and solidarity actions. They didn’t bow before the capitalist anti-labor laws but fought it out in opposition to the bosses and their cops, courts and security goons. Against the poisonous racial and ethnic hatreds so ably wielded by America’s rulers to divide and conquer the workers, the organizing drives in auto, steel, meatpacking and other industries brought thousands of black workers into the new industrial unions.
Such is not even the remotest perspective of the pro-capitalist labor tops today, from the Trumka bureaucracy to the ILWU leadership.
The Fall of the “House of Labor”
At its convention, the AFL-CIO outlined what is described as a “strategic shift” away from collective workplace organizing. The federation proposes to replenish its diminishing ranks by allowing workers to join as individuals through its “Working America” organization. It also will open its doors to the community-based workers’ centers that have sprung up around the country. These new members will provide more money and bodies for the bureaucrats’ “get out the vote” and lobbying efforts. The name of the game has become building coalitions with student labor activists and other “community” groups in order to beg the capitalist rulers to throw a few more crumbs labor’s way.
This scheme is a striking example of what not to do to build the unions. But it is a natural step for the labor misleaders, who have long refused to wage the class battles required to organize the mass of unorganized workers. For years, the AFL-CIO tops have argued that their hands are tied in waging any such struggle by myriad anti-union agencies and laws, from the National Labor Relations Board to the Taft-Hartley Act. The truth is that labor has never won anything of value playing by the bosses’ rules. The unions themselves were once outlawed as criminal conspiracies.
The attempt to turn the AFL-CIO into a labor-centered version of MoveOn.org is premised on and can only serve to reinforce the supposed obsolescence of organizing drives that bring to bear the unique social power of the working class to withhold its labor and cut off the flow of profits. It also further undermines any understanding of the workers as a distinct class, dissolving them into the mass of “the people.” As early American Communist and, later, Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon observed of a plan by a New York central labor council to bring various perceived “friends of labor” into its ranks over 90 years ago:
“Civic bodies, church forums, ‘non-labor organizations’—the elements who go to make up such groupings are poor props for the unions to seek to lean upon. They may ‘feel’ for organized labor, but the organized workers never feel it in the shape of substantial support in their fight....
“The working class has the power not only to defeat the effort to destroy the unions, but to end the system of exploitation altogether. The principal thing lacking for the quick development of this power is the mistaken point of view illustrated by the program of the New York central body.”
—“Who Can Save the Unions?” 7 May 1921, reprinted in James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism (Prometheus Research Library, 1992)
Labor: Stop the Backstabbing!
Today, the few private-sector unions left standing are often at each other’s throats to preserve their jurisdictions. McEllrath cites one of the more notorious examples, pointing to the strikebreaking role played by the Operating Engineers union during the ILWU’s 2011-12 fight against an all-out union-busting offensive by the EGT grain consortium in Longview, Washington. Trumka stood by these scabs, ordering the Oregon AFL-CIO to rescind a motion condemning the Operating Engineers. More recently, members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) have been crossing ILWU picket lines at United Grain. An ILWU motion condemning this scabbing did not even make it to the floor for discussion at the July convention of the Washington state AFL-CIO.
Taking on this backstabbing in his president’s report in the July/August issue of the ILWU newspaper, the Dispatcher, McEllrath writes that the “ILWU sees the honoring of picket lines as a fundamental principle that can’t be compromised.” It is hard to imagine any other top union leader in this country even recalling this principle, much less being able to choke it out. But as the great Irish writer and wit Oscar Wilde famously put it: “Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.”
For decades, the ILWU tops have invoked the struggles that forged the union to convince the ranks that the ILWU remains the last remaining bastion of labor militancy. The union’s founder, Harry Bridges, is eulogized as the epitome of fighting unionism. All this is belied, of course, by the actual history and practice of the ILWU leadership. The last coastwide ILWU strike was in 1971, more than 40 years ago. That strike was largely forced on Bridges by a membership seething over the massive loss of jobs under the 1960 Mechanization and Modernization (M&M) Agreement he negotiated and rammed down their throats.
Today, the ILWU bureaucracy’s answer to the PMA’s drive to increasingly mechanize operations on the docks is to claim jurisdiction over maintenance and other mechanical service jobs, a number of which are currently done by other unions. In Portland, for example, the ILWU filed a joint lawsuit with the PMA bosses to claim the equivalent of two jobs servicing refrigerated containers that have been worked by the IBEW for over 30 years. As a result, the ILWU has incurred the animosity of the IBEW, a union well versed in the dog-eat-dog world of jurisdiction.
The ILWU is an increasingly isolated outpost of organized labor at the ports, surrounded by tens of thousands of unorganized workers, from the port truckers to workers at intermodal rail facilities and the vast inland warehouse empires. Little to nothing has been done to organize these workers. In disaffiliating from the AFL-CIO, McEllrath pointed a finger at the Trumka bureaucracy’s “immigration reform policies,” in particular its support to a bill that “favors workers with higher education and profitability to corporations, as opposed to the undocumented workers such as janitors and farm workers who would greatly benefit from the protections granted by legalization.”
Many such workers are among the thousands of overwhelmingly immigrant port truckers. Yet far from championing citizenship rights for these workers or even a “pathway to citizenship,” the ILWU has, at best, turned a blind eye to their plight. At worst, as recounted by many of the drivers who recently walked off the job in protest against the grueling conditions they face at the Oakland port, they are treated with chauvinist contempt by many ILWU members. The solidarity of the truckers will be critical in the upcoming ILWU contract battle with the PMA, as the ILWU leadership no doubt recognizes on some level. Unlike in 2008, when the Bay Area Local 10 tops told longshoremen that the truckers’ picket lines were not “bona fide,” this time they called to honor the pickets, at least at the Stevedoring Services of America terminal.
In his Dispatcher column, McEllrath demands an end to the “ugliness of racial bigotry.” In particular, he pointed to reports of longshoremen on the picket lines at grain terminals in the Pacific Northwest hurling racial epithets at scabs and Gettier security guards. There is no question that these strikebreakers serve the class enemy. But it has nothing to do with the color of their skin. They are hirelings of companies that, in the tried-and-true practice of this country’s capitalist rulers, play the race card to further their aims. If the ILWU actually used its muscle, mobilizing its supporters to build picket lines that no scab would dare to cross, it would be in a position to turn the tables on the bosses. But not only has there been no such struggle, the ILWU in Portland and elsewhere embraces the regular port security guards as fellow union members. It is hard to fight an enemy that is welcomed into your own house!
McEllrath recounts that Bridges “made racial integration and anti-discrimination a cornerstone” of the union’s organizing strategy. Indeed, he did in the Bay Area, but in the name of “local autonomy” he left discrimination mostly unchallenged in the Pacific Northwest as well as at the San Pedro docks in Los Angeles. Thus, racial fault lines were built into the union from the beginning. Today, the deadly poison of racism is a threat to the very existence of the ILWU, with the potential to detonate divisions between the still overwhelmingly white Pacific Northwest, the largely black membership in the Bay Area and the majority Latino L.A./Long Beach local.
Racial and ethnic chauvinism has been further fueled by the “loyal to America” patriotism of the ILWU International leadership. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the ILWU bureaucracy lined up behind the “war on terror” on the docks, pointing a finger at port truckers as a potential “security threat.” Now the ILWU tops present the fight against the union-busting grain companies as one in defense of the “American grain industry” against Japanese and other foreign competitors. To this end, McEllrath & Co. uphold the concessionary deal they made with the U.S.-based TEMCO grain company, amid contentious negotiations with the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, as supposed evidence of TEMCO’s commitment to the well-being of its workers.
The lie that workers and their exploiters have common interests disarms labor in the face of the virtually unchallenged offensive by the bosses and their government to gut the unions in this country. If the unions are not only to survive but to become actual battalions of working-class struggle, they must champion the cause of black freedom and full citizenship rights for immigrants as part of a class-struggle fight to bring the masses of unorganized workers into the unions. As is particularly demonstrated in longshore, where work is dependent on world trade, the workers’ fight is international. Labor must repudiate the red-white-and-blue patriotism of its misleaders, who have shackled the unions to the interests and profitability of U.S. imperialism. The kind of leadership that labor needs is one that inscribes on its banners Marx and Engels’ call in the Communist Manifesto: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries unite!”
Build a Class-Struggle
The present crisis is not the first faced by a weakened American labor movement. Throughout the 1920s, the AFL union leadership did little to organize the millions of workers who did the backbreaking work in the mills and on the assembly lines. In the four years after the October 1929 stock market crash, unemployment skyrocketed to over 12 million, so that virtually any worker could easily be replaced. The working class was confronted not just by joblessness but homelessness and starvation. By 1933, AFL membership was less than half of what it had been in 1920. But the next year, citywide strikes in Minneapolis, San Francisco and Toledo—led by Trotskyists, the Stalinist Communist Party (CP) and left-wing socialists respectively—set the stage for an outpouring of working-class militancy and laid the basis for the formation of the mass CIO industrial unions.
The gigantic class battles of the 1930s carried the American trade-union movement to unprecedented heights and advanced class consciousness in the working class. The most advanced elements were receptive to the idea of forming a workers party in opposition to the capitalist parties, Democratic as well as Republican. But the very leaders of the new industrial movement, including the social democrats and the CP, crippled it through their political support to Democratic Party president Franklin D. Roosevelt. Harry Bridges was among this number. During World War II, he imposed a no-strike pledge and other measures that served to increase the exploitation of ILWU members in order to advance the war aims of predatory U.S. imperialism.
In 1949-50, eleven unions associated with the CP, including the ILWU, were expelled from the CIO as part of the Cold War red purges. Driving out the key leaders and fighters for industrial unionism, the purges consolidated the labor bureaucracy that has presided over the steady erosion of union power to the point where today less than 7 percent of manufacturing and other industrial workers are organized. Aptly described over a century ago by early American socialist Daniel De Leon as the “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class,” the union officialdom, then and today, shares the exploiters’ belief in the inviolability of the profit system. This belief is concretized by their prostration before, and integration into, the capitalist Democratic Party.
The Obama administration is far from a disinterested observer of the upcoming contract struggle between the ILWU and the PMA. The union has enormous social power. With the offshoring of much manufacturing and the just-in-time delivery system, a strike would quickly paralyze whole sectors of the U.S. economy. It is precisely because longshoremen have their hands on the choke points of international commerce that there has been an offensive against their unions around the world. That Obama will stand with the PMA shipping bosses is as obvious as the flotilla of armed Coast Guard ships and helicopters his administration mobilized during the ILWU’s Longview battle to ensure that the first shipment of scab grain out of the EGT terminal met no interference. Today, Coast Guard ships again patrol the Columbia River to ensure the passage of grain worked by scabs in Vancouver and Portland. Meanwhile, with the PMA aiming to gut medical benefits, Obama’s health care “reform” will further roll back these hard-won gains by levying taxes on so-called “Cadillac” union health care programs.
The ILWU is in a tough spot. But there is no immediate hope if the union continues to surrender its power. Nor does splitting from the AFL-CIO open the way for the union to struggle. The road forward lies in the fight to forge a new, class-struggle leadership of the unions that will wage the battles out of which a revolutionary internationalist workers party can be built. Such a party will lead the “final conflict” to get rid of a system in which profits are reaped through the brutal exploitation of labor. When those who labor rule, the means of production will be taken out of the hands of the rapacious capitalist owners and made the collective property of society. The tremendous wealth of this country will then be used to provide for the many as opposed to profiting the few.