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Workers Vanguard No. 986

16 September 2011

Longshoremen Play Hardball in Longview, Washington

ILWU Fights Deadly Threat

SEPTEMBER 13—For decades the unions in this country have been taking it in the teeth, their leadership lying down in the face of a union-busting juggernaut launched when the PATCO air traffic controllers were smashed in 1981. But on September 8, in the port town of Longview, Washington, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and their allies in other unions mobilized the kind of militant labor action that built the union movement in this country.

In the early hours of the morning, a picket of more than 500 unionists massed outside the newly built $200 million grain terminal of the giant EGT Development conglomerate, which wants to keep the ILWU out. Police who had earlier clubbed and pepper-sprayed picketers decided to take a hike. Faced with hundreds of longshoremen, the Longview police chief said, the cops had “used the better part of discretion.” The company’s security guard thugs also fled under police escort. Now EGT is complaining that grain cargo aboard a 107-car Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) train that had pulled into the terminal earlier was dumped on the tracks and that the train’s brake lines were cut. Later that day, a federal judge who had brought down a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) injunction against “aggressive picketing” in Longview complained that he felt “like a paper tiger.”

For months, ILWU Local 21, which has controlled all work loading and unloading ships in Longview for more than 70 years, has fought the EGT union-busters. In mid July, a mass picket of hundreds of ILWUers and other unionists stopped a BNSF train from delivering grain to the terminal (see “ILWU Battles Union Busters,” WV No. 984, 5 August). BNSF suspended service to the terminal. Then, on September 7, the company tried to move in a train carrying grain from Minnesota. At the port of Vancouver, Washington, just up the Columbia River from Longview, the train was blocked by 200 picketers occupying the tracks. While the unionists temporarily prevailed, later that day the train was on the way to Longview, where 300 longshoremen and their allies massed on the tracks to stop it.

Attacked by riot-equipped cops wielding clubs, tear gas and guns loaded with rubber bullets, the picketers stood down. ILWU International president Bob McEllrath was brutally manhandled by a gang of cops. Calling on the workers to disperse for now, he argued, “You can get maced and tear-gassed and clubbed” or wait for the backing of other longshoremen. ILWU members were outraged by pictures of McEllrath being roughed up and detained by the cops—an attack reminiscent of PATCO leaders being led away in shackles. The ports of Seattle, Tacoma and Everett were shut down as union members walked off the job early on September 8.

Hours later, there were reinforcements on the Longview picket lines. EGT, its hired thugs and the cops got a real taste of union power. Even the New York Times (9 September) acknowledged: “The longshoremen’s actions were a rare show of union militancy, reminiscent of labor actions a century ago.” Today it was reported that two pro-union protesters have been arrested, one of them on four felony charges, with the police threatening more arrests. All labor must back the ILWU and demand that all charges against the unionists and their supporters be dropped.

The stakes in this battle are high. Negotiations for a new Northwest Grainhandlers Agreement between the ILWU and the giant conglomerates that dominate the grain business begin this month. EGT—a joint venture between St. Louis-based Bunge North America, the Japanese Itochu Corp. and the South Korean shipping giant STX Pan Ocean—is Bunge’s first foray into the Pacific Northwest. If EGT gets away with keeping the ILWU out at Longview, it will be a declaration to other grain companies that it’s open season on the union. A defeat at Longview would be a body blow against this powerful union, whose core longshore division contract is up in 2014.

Behind EGT stands the power of the capitalist state. In August, the NLRB filed for an injunction seeking to stop “aggressive picketing” at the Longview terminal and challenging the ILWU’s right to the jobs at EGT. On the afternoon of the September 8 action, a federal judge made permanent the injunction requested by the NLRB, although he refused the NLRB request that all picketing be banned. Carrying fines of $25,000 per violation, the injunction was extended to cover the entire ILWU. The union now faces a “contempt of court” hearing. Nationwide, the hired pens of the capitalist media have unleashed a rabid, labor-hating barrage against the ILWU, slamming it as a pack of “thugs.”

The ILWU demonstrated the power of labor that lies in its collective organization, discipline and above all its capacity to shut down the flow of goods. Working people around the country, whose unions, jobs, wages and working conditions have been ravaged in a one-sided class war that has hit especially hard during the current economic crisis, cheered the ILWU’s action: Finally, a union is standing up and fighting back! To be sure, it is not easy to win in the face of the forces of the capitalist state. But it is better to fight on your feet than die on your knees! And when an important strike is won, it can dramatically alter the entire situation. In 1934, the San Francisco general strike that forged the ILWU and the mass strikes in Toledo and Minneapolis—all led by reds—set the stage for the 1937 Flint sitdown strike against General Motors and the rise of the CIO.

Labor Traitor Trumka Stabs ILWU in the Back

The ILWU must not stand alone! Unions must be mobilized in concrete actions of solidarity, beginning with the Teamsters-affiliated Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen who drive the BNSF trains. Nothing should move in or out of the EGT facility! The International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), which organizes longshoremen on East Coast and Gulf ports, issued a statement of solidarity with the ILWU, condemning the police attack on McEllrath and other union members. The Washington Federation of State Employees (AFSCME Council 28) did likewise, condemning “the management actions to break the ILWU at Longview or any port along the West Coast.” It’s going to take more than words to stop the EGT union-busters.

Outrageously, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka has come out in opposition to the defense of the ILWU! Instead, Trumka is peddling the lie that what’s involved in Longview is a “jurisdictional dispute” between the ILWU and International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 701, whose members are scabbing on the ILWU. Trumka’s “jurisdictional dispute” line is the same one being pushed by EGT as a fig leaf for its union-busting. While the company went through a show of negotiating with the ILWU, it’s been clear from the beginning that EGT wants a non-union facility.

In January, EGT filed a court suit against the provision in its lease with the Port of Longview mandating that the company employ ILWU Local 21 members, arguing that “the lease did not impose any obligation whatsoever upon EGT to utilize union labor at the terminal” (our emphasis). After longshoremen shut down the BNSF grain shipment in July, EGT turned around and hired a subcontractor which employs Local 701 labor. Ever since, these scabs have been crossing the ILWU’s picket lines, while EGT cynically boasts that it is providing “local, family-wage” union jobs. Only a company dupe could buy this line.

The executive committee of the Oregon AFL-CIO passed a resolution condemning the IUOE “scab labor actions” at Longview despite the attempt by state federation president Tom Chamberlain to rule it out of order. In August, Trumka sent a letter backing Chamberlain, arguing that “the resolution should be considered void, and no action should be taken by the state federation under the resolution.” Trumka wants the ILWU to call off its fight and submit to a complicated hearing under the AFL-CIO’s provision for jurisdictional disputes. The only “jurisdictional” dispute in Longview is between capital and labor! And Trumka has taken the side of the bosses.

While the ILWU was fighting for its life in Longview on September 8, Trumka was a guest of honor at Barack Obama’s “fight for jobs” speech to Congress. The AFL-CIO president is especially concerned that militancy at Longview could ignite a class battle that would threaten Obama’s re-election. The Wall Street Journal sees the same possible outcome. In a September 9 editorial headlined “A Union Goes Too Far,” this mouthpiece for the corporations and bankers declared: “If ILWU shops begin slowdowns in sympathy with the union in Washington state…the events yesterday will become a national issue demanding the attention of a President who is desperately trying to hold his union base together. This one is worth watching.”

The price that has been paid for the bureaucrats’ subordination of the unions to the Democratic Party—which less crudely than the Republicans represents the interests of the capitalist class—can be seen in decades of broken unions and busted strikes. Such class collaboration is a central obstacle to the workers waging the kind of class battles needed to defend their interests. The AFL-CIO officialdom’s commitment to the Democratic Party is equally shared by the ILWU International leadership. But with the very existence of the union on the line, McEllrath has been propelled into an episode of the class struggle that is inevitable in a society based on the exploitation of the many for the profits of the few.

“There Are No Neutrals There”

The ILWU’s battles in Longview have starkly laid bare the irreconcilable class divide between the workers and the capitalist class enemy. But this is obscured by presenting it as a fight of the Longview “community” against a giant multinational conglomerate. The refrain of the old coal miners’ Harlan County fighting song asks: “Which Side Are You On?” This question is being increasingly posed in Longview, where shopkeepers are under pressure to remove signs supporting the ILWU from their windows. The local newspaper ran an appeal from Cowlitz County sheriff Mark Nelson to turn in union militants involved in the September 8 struggle. Defense of the “community” has fed “outside agitator” baiting by the cops, directed against ILWU members from outside Longview, including McEllrath.

Illusions that the cops are just regular community folks are suicidal. The job of the police is to “serve and protect” the interests of the corporations, as was more than amply demonstrated in their brutal assault on ILWU picketers. Every hard-fought labor struggle in the history of this country has been a pitched battle with the capitalists’ strikebreaking thugs, from cops and company goons to National Guardsmen and other scabherders. Behind them stand the courts and other state agencies. These are all part of the machinery of the capitalist state, whose purpose is to defend the property and profits of the capitalist owners through the suppression of the working class.

This machinery includes the NLRB, which was created under the Democratic Party administration of that “friend of labor” icon, Franklin Roosevelt, to head off and co-opt the class battles of the 1930s. The NLRB exists to tie the unions up in endless legal machinations in order to prevent workers from using their collective power to organize, stop work and stop the flow of profits. Today, the suit against the ILWU by the NLRB—two of whose three current members were appointed by Democrats—is a brief for EGT union-busting.

The lie peddled by the union tops that the state can be pressured to serve the workers’ interests is matched by their promotion of the interests of American capitalism against its overseas competitors. In a press statement, ILWU spokeswoman Jennifer Sargent said that the purpose of militant actions by longshoremen in Longview is “to stand up to a foreign company that’s trying to get a foothold in Washington and undermine the grain industry.” Agriculture is big business in America, and one of the few where the U.S. has a competitive advantage. But anyone who thinks that this has benefited U.S. agricultural or other workers is severely deluded. No less than their foreign counterparts, American corporations are in business for one reason only, and that is to generate profits. The workers have no interest in promoting the profitability of their “own” capitalist rulers, which is purchased through the increasingly brutal exploitation of labor. U.S. grain bosses are just as eager as EGT’s non-American components to bust the ILWU.

For longshoremen whose very jobs are dependent on foreign trade—both imports and exports—to wave the red-white-and-blue “made in the U.S.A.” banner is particularly ludicrous. Unlike the Trumka leadership of the AFL-CIO, the International Transport Workers’ Federation has issued a statement in support of the ILWU. Whether or not the ILWU wins this battle might well depend on support actions by port and maritime workers throughout Asia refusing to handle scab EGT grain shipments. The ILWU isn’t going to win such support by waving the flag of U.S. imperialism, which is soaked in the blood of countless workers and oppressed masses around the globe.

Break with the Democrats! Build a Workers Party!

With their backs against the wall, the ILWU leadership has taken some bold action. The fight has been engaged and there’s no going back. The strength of the union lies in its multiracial coastwide membership. The Pacific Maritime Association bosses have long tried to pit one port against another, playing the overwhelmingly white Pacific Northwest locals, the largely black San Francisco local and the largely Latino membership in Los Angeles/Long Beach against each other. It is crucial that the union stand as one and fight to galvanize the rest of the labor movement in struggle behind it.

Trumka’s treachery vividly illustrates the role of the labor bureaucracy as the bosses’ agents in the unions, in which they serve as a central obstacle to working-class struggle. In 1921, in the face of an “open shop” offensive that was decimating the unions, James P. Cannon, then a leader of the Communist movement and later the founder of American Trotskyism, described the political program necessary to reforge the labor movement:

“The ‘open shop’ campaign is one of the manifestations of a state of war that exists in society between two opposing classes: the producers and the parasites. This war cuts through the whole population like a great dividing sword; it creates two hostile camps and puts every man in his place in one or the other….

“Let the unions put aside their illusions; let them face the issue squarely and fight it out on the basis of the class struggle. Instead of seeking peace when there is no peace, and ‘understanding’ with those who do not want to understand, let them declare war on the whole capitalist regime. That is the way to save the unions and to make them grow in the face of adversity and become powerful war engines for the destruction of capitalism and the reorganization of society on the foundation of working class control in industry and government.”

— “Who Can Save the Unions?” (7 May 1921), reprinted in James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism (Prometheus Research Library, 1992)

In 1934, Cannon and his party would provide the leadership for the series of strikes in Minneapolis that forged the Teamsters as an industrial union.

There is massive discontent at the base of American society that can be galvanized through class battles like that at Longview. But to realize this potential poses the question of leadership. The current labor misleadership must be ousted and replaced with workers’ leaders who link the fight to defend the unions to building a multiracial revolutionary workers party. The Spartacist League/U.S. uniquely puts forward the program to build such a party, the necessary instrument to lead the working class in the fight to do away with the entire system of capitalist wage slavery through socialist revolution.


Workers Vanguard No. 986

WV 986

16 September 2011


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