Workers Vanguard No. 906
18 January 2008
Government Hands Off the Unions!
As 2008 Contract Negotiations Loom: Feds Target ILWU
In an ominous attack on the labor movement, the federal Department of Labor (DOL) took over recent elections in the San Francisco Bay Area’s International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10. The DOL intervened into Local 10 just as the West Coast ILWU’s contract negotiations with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) are due to begin. There can be no mistaking the government’s aim: to weaken the ability of this powerful union to defend itself against the employers.
At the same time, the government is ratcheting up “anti-terror” measures against longshore and maritime workers through the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) program. With its mandatory immigration and criminal background checks, TWIC will victimize workers in the name of “securing” the nation’s ports. The Feds are also seeking to get their mitts on the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), which covers the East and Gulf coasts. In December, the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York filed a revamped lawsuit alleging a conspiracy between the Mafia and the ILA, the latest installment of a decades-long attempt to bust the union through “anti-corruption” suits. This time around, the Feds demand control of union benefit funds and the removal of four ILA officials.
In unleashing its agencies against the ILWU and ILA, the capitalist government is going after workers who have tremendous potential social power. Due to the massive increase in foreign trade and the dependence of most U.S. manufacturing on “just in time delivery,” any dock strike by workers fighting to defend themselves against the bosses’ attacks would have a huge effect on the entire economy. Trade through the West Coast ports alone has increased fourfold in the last two decades; some 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product is tied to the loading and unloading of goods at these ports. The entire labor movement must demand: Government hands off the ILWU and ILA!
Workers must oppose any intervention by the capitalist government into the unions on principle. The state, as Marxists have argued and as history has shown, is not a neutral body standing above classes and the class struggle. From its battery of anti-union laws to its strikebreaking cops and courts, the capitalist state is a repressive apparatus that protects the rule and profits of the bourgeoisie against the working class and the oppressed. Key to unleashing labor’s power to struggle in its own interests is the fight for the independence of the working class and its organizations from the capitalist state. That requires combatting the union bureaucracy’s program of class collaboration, which is based on the falsehood that the interests of labor and capital can be reconciled. This outlook is expressed politically in the union tops’ support to the Democratic Party and the “national interests” of U.S. imperialism.
In the Los Angeles area, the ILWU misleaders’ class collaborationism is undermining the ability of the union to fight against the recent proliferation on the docks of hangman’s nooses—the symbol of lynch mobs that killed thousands of black people in the century after the Civil War. As we wrote in “ILWU: Fight Racist Noose Provocations at L.A. Ports!” (WV No. 905, 4 January), it is the PMA bosses “who stand to gain from the fostering of poisonous racial and ethnic divisions within the workforce, especially with the union heading into negotiations for a new contract.” Instead of mobilizing the membership in action to halt the racist provocations, the ILWU bureaucrats have encouraged workers to pressure the PMA to take action. The PMA will only intervene to the extent it can weaken the union. The union must clean its own house!
Feds Run Local 10 Elections
The Labor Department’s pretext for intervening into Local 10 was so flimsy as to smack of provocation. It was based on the complaints of Local 10 members Trevyn McCoy, who went to the DOL after being disqualified from running for office in the 2005 election, and Odra Dunn, who filed a complaint after he was refused a position on the ballot in 2006. Whether or not they were bureaucratically barred by the union leadership, running to the bosses’ government is an act of class treason. Upheld by an October decision by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court, the Feds took over the union elections on the grounds that the rules under which the two were disqualified were not at that time explicitly laid out in Local 10’s constitution. McCoy’s suit was filed in August 2006; it can hardly be an accident that the court decision came down in late fall 2007, on the eve of the 2008 contract year.
The court order in favor of the DOL was met with surprise and outrage by many Local 10 members. The two Local 10 members who opened up the ILWU to the class enemy deserve the scorn and contempt of every defender of the union. It is a damning indictment of the local leadership under outgoing President Tommy Clark that the only course it offered the membership was collaboration with the Labor Department. The union tops complied with the Feds’ demand that the Local 10 Longshore Bulletin be opened up so that McCoy and Dunn could justify their actions to the membership. In the upshot, McCoy won election to the 35-member Local 10 executive board, while Dunn came in 36th, which means he could be drafted as an alternate.
The danger of government intervention over “union democracy” and “fighting corruption” is seen in the decades-long vendetta against the powerful Teamsters union, which included imprisoning Jimmy Hoffa after he negotiated a national Master Freight Agreement in the 1960s. In 1987, the Teamsters were sued under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. Two years later, the Teamsters brass signed onto a consent decree that laid the basis for government administrators to run the union. Ron Carey, who was installed as union president under government auspices in 1991, had his re-election voided by the government immediately after leading the widely popular 1997 UPS strike.
Carey was backed by the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a “rank-and-file” opposition that openly collaborated with the government. The Spartacist League denounced the traitorous machinations of the TDU, which provided the legal brief inviting the government into the union. In stark contrast, the International Socialist Organization, Socialist Action and other reformist groups have acted as cheerleaders for the TDU and other union-suing outfits, promoting out-bureaucrats and opposing the program of class struggle.
The labor bureaucracy, abetted by the reformist left, fosters the illusion that the “democratic” capitalist state can be pressured to serve the interests of workers. Especially criminal is the ILWU and ILA tops’ embrace of the “war on terror,” the rulers’ rationale for the brutal occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and for a series of repressive laws targeting immigrants, blacks, the trade unions and the rights of the populace as a whole. In their current bid for the White House, the Democrats have been trying to outdo Bush in the “war on terror,” especially when it comes to port security.
Notably, the ILWU International leadership agreed last year to early “good faith” negotiations with the PMA for the 2008 contract, no doubt aiming to save Democratic presidential candidates the problem of labor turmoil on the waterfront. The Republicans are the in-your-face enemies of labor, black people, immigrants and the poor. The Democrats try to fool working people and the oppressed with soothing words while keeping their hands on the same big stick. The bottom line for both parties (as well as for the small-time bourgeois Greens) is defense of capitalist interests, at home and abroad.
There must be a fight for a class-struggle leadership of the unions committed to breaking the political chains binding workers to the bosses and their government. The working class needs its own party, one that would mobilize labor’s power—at the point of production and on the streets—against the class enemy. In racist America, where black oppression is central to the capitalist profit system, such a party would champion the cause of black freedom. To cut through the poisonous chauvinism that ties workers to their exploiters, it would raise the banner of international labor solidarity and fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants. We fight to forge the workers party that is necessary to lead all the exploited and oppressed in socialist revolution, ushering in a society where those who labor rule.
On a small scale, the way forward was shown by the February 2002 united-front demonstration in Oakland initiated by the Labor Black League and Partisan Defense Committee demanding: “Down with the Anti-Immigrant Witchhunt! No to the USA-Patriot Act and the Maritime Security Act!” Endorsed by ILWU Local 10 and AFSCME Local 444 among others, the rally brought out some 300 trade unionists, socialists and youth who chanted, “National Unity is a lie—Bosses profit, workers die!” A determined core of 30 mainly black ILWUers joined the Filipino Workers Association and the largely Latino immigrants of the San Francisco Day Labor Program in a break with the widespread sentiment, fostered by the capitalist rulers, that blacks and immigrants are competitors for crumbs at the bottom of this society.
TWIC Threatens Racist Purge
The ILWU was an early target of the government’s drive for “national unity” following September 11. During the 2002 contract negotiations, then “Homeland Security” chief Tom Ridge phoned the ILWU International president to warn that a strike would “threaten national security.” A recent video produced by the ILWU, Eye of the Storm, reveals that the White House established a special task force to deal with the negotiations. Worried that a disruption of cargo movement would hamper the imminent invasion of Iraq, Bush threatened to use federal troops in the event of a strike.
Yet the ILWU International—with Local 10 officials trailing closely behind—signed on to the national security campaign. Then ILWU president James Spinosa bragged in his March 2006 Dispatcher column, “We have established the ILWU as a major player in the national debate on port security and will continue to press our position to protect our jobs, ourselves and our communities.” When the Democrats scream for the inspection of all shipping containers entering the U.S., the ILWU’s Dispatcher is right behind them.
That “port security” means attacks on workers and blacks is demonstrated by the case of Aaron Harrison and Jason Ruffin. In August, these two black Local 10 longshoremen were beaten and arrested for contacting their union after port security guards invoked maritime security regulations in demanding to search their car (see “ILWU Rally: ‘Drop the Bogus Charges Now!’,” WV No. 900, 12 October 2007). The ILWU must continue to rally in defense of Harrison and Ruffin, who still face charges of obstructing a police officer.
The implementation of the Transportation Worker Identification Credential program vastly increases the government’s ability to police the workforce on the docks. TWIC ID cards, with encoded biometric data, were mandated by the 2002 Maritime Transportation Security Act. After years of delay, the Transportation Security Administration announced in the fall that it would begin screening workers, who by September 25 will be required to have a card to enter port facilities. The government does not yet have a prototype for a machine that can read the biometric data (fingerprints). But the criminal background checks required for the card are being implemented now and will be ongoing during the ILWU’s contract negotiations, acting to intimidate the workforce.
The ILWU leadership’s “opposition” to criminal background checks has amounted to negotiating with the government over the terms and limits of the TWIC program. The Dispatcher (October 2006) brags that the union won “major gains” by lobbying their Democratic friends in Congress. Who are they trying to fool? Under TWIC, workers who have been convicted within the last seven years (or released from prison in the last five years) for “interim disqualifying criminal offenses” will be denied cards, and therefore the right to their livelihoods, until those periods elapse. The offenses include possession with intent to distribute controlled substances, identity fraud, robbery and unlawful possession of firearms.
Black and Latino workers who have been victimized by the racist cops and courts, especially through the “war on drugs,” will be disproportionately purged. In late 2006, some 70 mostly black Chicago rail workers were fired under Homeland Security regulations barring ex-felons from such jobs (see “Protest ‘War on Terror’ Firing of Rail Workers!”, WV No. 884, 19 January 2007). We call for the decriminalization of drugs and defend the right of the people to bear arms. No to gun control!
Roughly 750,000 maritime and port workers are eventually supposed to be covered by TWIC. According to initial government papers, TWIC is a prototype for a broader program. This could be a step toward a national identity card, which the government would use as a means of control and regimentation of the entire population.
ILWU officials have already turned over the union’s membership list to the government to check immigration status and whether anyone is on its “terrorism” database. The non-union, heavily immigrant port truckers are going to be especially hit by TWIC’s requirement that they prove citizenship or legal immigration status. The ILWU tops have despicably pointed the finger at the truckers as the “real” security threat. What the union should be doing is helping to organize the port truckers and mobilizing its power to fight anti-immigrant attacks.
Now the chickens are coming home to roost as longshoremen are being subject to background checks right along with port truckers. Involvement in a “transportation security incident”—defined as “a security incident resulting in a significant loss of life, environmental damage, transportation system disruption or economic disruption in a specific area”—is grounds for permanent TWIC disqualification. According to the Dispatcher, the ILWU was responsible for language ensuring that a “work stoppage, or other nonviolent employee-related action” not be included in this category. The Dispatcher fails to mention that the history of the labor movement is filled with cops and company goons busting strikers’ heads while workers are called “violent” and railroaded through the courts for defending their union. TWIC cards will have to be periodically renewed, threatening workers who defend their picket lines with being barred from working on the waterfront.
ILWU Tops’ Tradition of Class Collaboration
Today’s “war on terror” is not the first time the government has trumpeted “national security” in order to purge the ILWU and other unions. In 1948, at the outset of the imperialists’ Cold War against the Soviet Union, the West Coast waterfront bosses insisted on the eve of a strike that ILWU president Harry Bridges sign an anti-Communist affidavit or give up leadership of the union, as mandated by the Taft-Hartley Act. Bridges, who led the 1934 strike battles that forged the union, refused, and longshoremen backed him in a referendum by 20 to 1. The bitter strike lasted 98 days. Although the companies were forced to settle with the union and Bridges kept his post, the bosses won a major concession—a “no strike pledge” and binding arbitration clause in the contract.
Two years later, the government instituted a port security program seeking to drive Communists, Trotskyists, Socialists and other labor militants and leaders out of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) unions. By the end of 1956, Coast Guard screening had denied security clearances to 3,783 waterfront and maritime workers; 243 of them were members of ILWU Local 10, and two-thirds of those were black. Of the eleven unions expelled from the CIO in 1949-50, only the ILWU and UE electrical workers survived intact, although UE was severely weakened by an anti-Communist split. In December 1953, Local 10 members shut down the waterfront to protest the witchhunting House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which was holding hearings in San Francisco. This was a significant action against the stultifying hold of McCarthyism on U.S. society.
While Harry Bridges was a prominent target of the red purges, he was in fact a labor bureaucrat whose tradition is overwhelmingly one of class collaboration, not class struggle. Loyal to the Communist Party’s Stalinist policy of support to a “progressive” wing of the ruling class, Bridges accepted the framework of the capitalist system and generally supported the Democratic Party. The 1948 contract he negotiated ushered in more than two decades of labor peace on the West Coast waterfront. He negotiated the Mechanization and Modernization contracts of the 1960s that allowed the PMA to slash longshore jobs by more than half (see “Harry Bridges and the Communist Party,” WV No. 66, 11 April 1975). Despite the union’s many paper resolutions against the Vietnam War, Bridges ensured that military goods continued to flow to the U.S. imperialist war machine even during the ILWU’s 1971 strike.
It is this tradition of class peace that runs deep in the Local 10 bureaucracy. In his Maritime Worker Monitor (12 November 2007), Jack Heyman, a member of the Local 10 executive board, correctly opposed the Labor Department intervention. Citing the “militant” and “democratic” practices of the ILWU “back in the day,” Heyman aptly claims the Bridges tradition, a method that has long served Heyman and the ILWU tops by providing a “militant” cover for class collaboration. Thus Heyman spouts “anti-imperialist” verbiage as a cover for his treacherous support to the drive for port security, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle (5 March 2006): “Real port security means inspecting all containers offloaded and ending imperialist wars abroad that spawn terrorists, not stifling the free-speech rights of those who work in the ports.”
The road forward for those militants who want to fight to turn around the ILWU lies not in reclaiming the Bridges tradition. As we wrote in “Government Hands Off ILWU Local 10!” (WV No. 903, 23 November 2007): “The anger of Local 10 members at the government’s takeover of their union elections should be directed into a fight for the political independence of the working class from the exploiters, their political parties and the capitalist state. That means a struggle to build a workers party that fights for a workers government.”