IG on ILWU and NYC Transit

Worthless Pilots in Stormy Weather

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 797, 14 February 2003.

James P. Cannon, the founding leader of American Trotskyism, once remarked that in debating leftist opponents who practice misrepresentation, literary forgery and outright lies, one felt more the need for hip boots and a shovel than a pen. This more than accurately describes our sentiment in having to respond to the manifestly fraudulent and dimwitted slanders that the Internationalist Group (IG) continues to hurl against our organization. But as Cannon noted, however distasteful it may be, such a task is in the line of our duty as Marxists. The fight to build a revolutionary leadership of the proletariat means struggling not only against the current misleaders in the labor bureaucracy but also against those who claim to offer a revolutionary alternative.

Ever since the tiny coterie of those who now head the IG defected from our organization, they have loudly proclaimed themselves to be the sole repository of our revolutionary heritage on the face of the planet. And this could be a point of confusion for those who are looking for a program of struggle against the depredations of capitalist imperialism.

In cyberspace, the IG issues thundering cries for the defeat of U.S. imperialism, more often than not investing forces very distant from Trotskyism, much less the proletariat, with the capacity to accomplish this task. To the unwary this could sound very enticing indeed. But as V.I. Lenin, the leader of the only successful workers revolution in history, noted in his article “The Revolutionary Phrase” (21 February 1918): “By revolutionary phrase-making we mean the repetition of revolutionary slogans irrespective of objective circumstances at a given turn in events, in the given state of affairs obtaining at the time. The slogans are superb, alluring, intoxicating, but there are no grounds for them.”

Currently, the IG is making much of its intervention at a “National Labor Conference Against Taft-Hartley and Union-Busting” held on December 7 in San Francisco as against the “demoralized outlook” of the Spartacist League. In an article titled “SL: Hard to Starboard” (The Internationalist, January-February 2003), they take us to task for not bellying up and forking over the $25-a-head to enter this conference and intervening from the floor. Asking “Was this abstention some kind of ‘ultraleft sectarianism’?” the article answers: “Far from it. In fact, the SL’s line on the longshore conflict is a telling example of its rapid motion to the right.”

But this conference had little to nothing to do with the conflict that saw the Bush administration come down against the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) with the slave-labor Taft-Hartley law in the name of “national security.” The IG itself admits that “overall the conference was a talk shop for union bureaucrats who wanted to blow off steam but opposed any real mobilization of the power of labor against Taft-Hartley and imperialist war.” Yet they go on to tout their participation in the “talk shop” as if they were in the trenches of the class struggle.

The Internationalist reprints the leaflet it put out specially for this event and the text of the remarks made by IG leader Abram Negrete. Strutting and fretting his five minutes on the stage, Negrete issued pronouncements calling on the ILWU to “hot-cargo” (refuse to handle) war matériel and strike against Taft-Hartley and for longshoremen to rip up the contract deal which, by the time of the conference, had been agreed to by the top union leadership (and which the membership had not even seen). It was truly a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing given that the instrumentality for implementing such demands, i.e., the ranks of the union, were in their overwhelming majority decidedly absent from this conference.

The IG contrasts this performance with the supposed “hard” right turn of the Spartacist League, a charge they try to substantiate by citing a 17 October statement written by...themselves! Titled “Defend Iraq—Defeat U.S. Imperialism!” the 17 October IG statement boasts that its members were “present on the dock workers’ picket lines in Oakland daily during the lockout” of the ILWU by the PMA shipping bosses in October. From here it goes on to declare that in contrast, “the SL was barely present at the picket lines and its propaganda ducked every single issue in which the dock workers’ struggle intersected the war!”

This statement was such a demonstrable lie to anyone who had read our propaganda that the IG dared not try to peddle it in two prior leaflets they handed out on the docks, where hundreds of longshoremen bought our paper from our members on the picket lines. The IG completely dropped the statement from its “Hard to Starboard.” Here, they simply cite the following, taken from their 17 October piece:

“The Spartacist League ‘failed to mention the issue of war materiel, much less call to boycott it.... Nor did the front-page article in Workers Vanguard (4 October) utter a word of criticism of union leader Jim Spinosa, who tried to introduce flag-waving “anti-terrorist” slogans...; nor, for that matter did it call on dock workers to defy the Taft-Hartley injunction which was clearly in the works, or urge that the rest of the working class undertake strike action against the slave labor law’.”

The article goes on to declare with feigned astonishment, “This silence is all the more striking because only a month beforehand, the Spartacist League had highlighted the issue of war materiel, criticizing the ILWU tops for ‘cynical empty words’ about the war on Iraq, because they ‘have sworn in advance that they will continue to load military shipments in the event of a strike’ (WV, 6 September).”

Actually we fought to mobilize the union against the government’s “war on terror” months before the contract battle began. A contingent of longshoremen were at the core of our labor-centered protest in Oakland last February 9, which was called around the demands “No to the USA-Patriot Act and the Maritime Security Act! Down with the anti-immigrant witchhunt!” This protest was a real, if modest, demonstration in action of a class-struggle program in opposition to the class collaborationism of the union bureaucracy and the racial and ethnic hostilities it foments that are a critical barrier to class consciousness and struggle. And as the hundreds of longshoremen who have bought our press know, this was exactly the program we put forward in issue after issue of Workers Vanguard throughout the contract battle.

Political Sanitation

For all its calls for militant “fightback” by the ILWU, the IG’s audience has not been the membership of the union, where WV readers would be quick to see through their lies. On the contrary, the IG peddled its wares in the shadow of the union bureaucracy and the swamp of the Bay Area reformist left at the Taft-Hartley conference, and otherwise to play to the uninitiated on the World Wide Web. Nonetheless we must, as Cannon put it, get out our shovel for the simple reason that we are serious about arming the working class with the consciousness, confidence and fighting spirit needed to wage real combat against the capitalist class enemy and winning a new generation of youth to this purpose. To that end we offer the following, albeit necessarily partial, record of some of our propaganda addressed to the ILWU contract battle:

“ILWU: Union Gains Under the Gun” (WV No. 784, 12 July 2002): “It could not be clearer that longshoremen must be mobilized in action to beat back these attacks. Instead the ILWU leadership has mobilized the rank and file to salute the flag, abjectly reassuring the capitalist rulers that the last thing they want is class struggle.... Spinosa & Co. closed ranks behind the ‘war on terror’ last fall, when they endorsed the call for increased security on the waterfront and proposed that longshoremen be its guardians.”

“ILWU Threatened by ‘National Unity’ Crusade” (WV No. 785, 9 August 2002): “At the same time that it’s on its knees before the PMA, the ILWU leadership pursues the utterly futile strategy of lobbying the capitalist Democratic Party.... In the midst of an economic recession and with an aggressively hostile government, the longshoremen are indeed in a tough position. But it is false to think that if you just keep your head down, they’ll leave you alone. There’s no hope if the union surrenders its power in advance. Every concession won by the workers took hard struggle against the bosses and their government. A prerequisite is to remove the roadblocks to class struggle, beginning by waging a political fight against the present labor leadership, which sees the world through the same lens as the ruling class and whose purpose is to ensure the subordination of the workers to the ‘national interests’ of the enemy class.”

“Bush Steps Up Threats Against ILWU” (WV No. 786, 6 September 2002): “Any move to use the military to break the ILWU could very well trigger a popular backlash in support of the union. The need would be posed to mobilize the entire labor movement in defense of the longshoremen.

“But this requires a fight against the policies of the labor misleadership that has pledged loyalty to the government’s ‘war on terror’ at home and abroad that serves as the pretext for the capitalists’ attack on the ILWU.... Thus Spinosa & Co. are directly aiding the capitalists who use jingoistic anti-immigrant racism to divide the workers along ethnic and national lines. We say: Full citizenship rights for all immigrants! Labor must organize immigrant workers!” (emphasis in original).

The IG points to our 4 October 2002 article headlined “Defeat PMA/Government Union-Busting! Victory to the ILWU!” as the smoking gun of our “capitulations.” Why? Because we didn’t call for defying Taft-Hartley before it had been invoked by the government! Instead, the article addressed the concrete reality then confronting longshoremen who had been locked out indefinitely by the PMA, arguing that “the entire labor movement must mobilize in solidarity with the longshore workers to ensure that nothing moves in or out of West Coast docks” (emphasis in original). When the Bush administration did impose Taft-Hartley, our article headlined “Labor: Defend the ILWU!” (WV No. 789, 18 October 2002) demanded: “The entire labor movement must come to the defense of the ILWU now and protest every attack on the union. Down with the slave-labor Taft-Hartley Act—Government hands off the ILWU!” (emphasis in original).

IG Caught with Pants Down

Dropping its own lies that our propaganda addressed to the ILWU had “ducked every single issue in which the dock workers’ struggle intersected the war,” the IG’s latest article argues, “When the showdown actually came, the SL dropped this subject like a hot potato.” To argue that we raised the question of military cargo before the lockout is hardly a very effective demonstration of our lack of revolutionary fiber. And what about during the lockout?

This was a defensive battle which was brought to the workers by the shipping bosses and behind them a particularly vicious administration in the White House. Throughout the lockout, the bureaucracy flaunted its commitment to moving military goods. For the union to have been mobilized for such a political offensive as hot-cargoing military goods, in the face of a government revving up for war and bent on dismembering anything that got in its way, would have required a tremendous leap in consciousness and, above all, a leadership armed with a program of class struggle. The IG’s oh-so-militant sloganeering has nothing to do with the fight to mobilize workers for a political confrontation with the forces of the capitalist enemy. Instead, the IG denigrates the fight to advance the consciousness of the proletariat and, by so doing, sows illusions in the capacity of the present labor misleaders to lead a fight against the bosses and their state.

The IG fulminates that in 1971, when Republican president Richard Nixon brought down Taft-Hartley to end a longshore walkout, we called to defy Taft-Hartley and for labor strikes against the Vietnam War. They go on to sneer, “That was then, this is now, we can already hear the SL say.” OK, we’ll say it: That was then, this is now. What agitational slogans are raised are not divorced from political context and social reality. In 1971, there was a longshore strike; the previous year postal workers had defied the law and staged the first strike ever against the federal government; the postal workers strike was followed by a Teamsters wildcat.

Big protests against the Vietnam War, largely by student youth, began in 1964. But we didn’t put forward the call for labor action against the war until 1967, when we raised the demand for an “antiwar Friday”—a one-day political protest strike. Unlike in Europe, where one-day political strikes are common (and most often are used by the labor bureaucracy to simply let the ranks blow off steam and to corral the workers into support for the mass reformist labor parties), in this country where the working class has little even elemental class consciousness, the call for political strikes is only a few steps short of calling for a proletarian insurrection. To have raised such a demand in the early days of the Vietnam War, when the working class overwhelmingly supported the war, would have been nothing other than phrasemongering, discrediting us among the more advanced workers who understand how serious such an action would be.

By 1967, opposition to the war was spilling over into the labor movement, and by the early 1970s there were enormous opportunities to actually mobilize class-struggle opposition to the war. It was after a number of militant economic strikes rocked the country in the early 1970s—intersecting increasing opposition to the war among workers—that we raised the call, “Labor strikes against the war!” Our calls for an antiwar Friday and for labor strikes against the war thus intersected a real and growing sentiment for such labor action. In other words, we were dead serious about genuinely fighting to lead a proletarian revolutionary opposition.

Like the IG, outfits in Europe such as the right-centrists of Workers Power can come up with all sorts of bombast calling on workers in munitions factories to “sabotage imperialist war production” and so on. While mindlessly agitating for the workers to fight to the last drop of their blood, on the ground Workers Power’s real program is calling to “lobby Parliament,” pleading with Labour Party prime minister Tony Blair not to join “Bush’s war.”

The IG’s “Militant” Fraud

Considerations such as the question of leadership, the balance of forces and the political consciousness of the proletariat—vital to any class battle—were evidently of little consequence to the “militant” blowhards of the IG. But such considerations were of consequence to longshoremen who were up against forces bent on the union’s destruction while saddled with a leadership allied with the class enemy. And they were to us because our purpose is to arm the proletariat with the consciousness and leadership necessary for combat with the forces of the capitalist class.

Even in the face of such a monumental historic defeat as the total obliteration of the former East German deformed workers state, the DDR, the program of the IG’s líder máximo Jan Norden, who was then editor of WV, was to agitate for a program of mass strikes by the devastated East German proletariat. As we noted following the departure of Norden and his two followers from our organization, “This posture of imminent ‘mass resistance’ negated the critical factor of consciousness which only a Leninist vanguard could introduce” (“A Shamefaced Defection from Trotskyism,” WV No. 648, 5 July 1996). But for Norden the leadership for his program of economic “fightback” was to come from none other than the geriatric remnants of the former Stalinist bureaucracy who had just finished selling out the DDR to the imperialists!

Today the IG chicken-baits us for not agitating that the ILWU engage in a similar program of fightback in a confrontation with a conglomeration of shipping magnates and the U.S. imperialist state. No we didn’t, for the elementary reason that what one advocates as a course of struggle cannot be separated from the instrumentality to carry it out. In other words, it requires taking on the class-collaborationist politics of the trade-union bureaucracy and making clear that in the course of their struggles the workers need to forge a new leadership.

The ILWU International leadership openly embraced the government’s “war against terror” and eagerly collaborated with the government in writing the new Maritime Transportation Security Act. What of the “progressive” ILWU tops, such as those in the leadership of Local 10 in the Bay Area? They were the ones we indicted for spilling cynical empty words at antiwar rallies while bragging that they had convinced the PMA to let longshoremen load military cargo during the lockout. And while the union was locked in a showdown with the capitalists of the PMA, all wings of the bureaucracy were out hustling votes for the capitalists of the Democratic Party. So just who was the IG looking to to lead the longshoremen in a confrontation against the union-busting laws and the military of the capitalist state?

Their claim that we did not “utter a word of criticism of union leader Jim Spinosa” is more than suspect as a cover for their own buddy in the Local 10 bureaucracy, business agent Jack Heyman. Heyman is a type familiar in the labor movement in this country since the 1930s—the onetime leftist who, having given up on the revolutionary capacity of the proletariat, makes a career as the house oppositionist in the trade-union bureaucracy. Heyman talked the talk about strike action, opposing Taft-Hartley and the bureaucracy’s sellout deals with the bosses. But he never waged the political fights necessary to implement these demands as against the pro-capitalist policies of the ILWU bureaucracy. Like the IG, he called on the ranks to “vote no” on the contract deal. And then what was the membership to do? “Longshore workers should reject this contract and send our negotiating committee back,” Heyman declared (Socialist Worker, 10 January).

Such trade-union opportunism is the real face behind the IG’s verbal radicalism. No wonder they made such a big deal out of the Bay Area Taft-Hartley conference, which was nothing other than a vehicle for phonies like Heyman to try to advance their careers. The IG postures as bold class warriors urging the ranks of the ILWU to strike now, defy Taft-Hartley, hot-cargo military goods, rip up the sellout contract. Why not? It’s no skin off their nose. And when it is, it is a far different picture.

Take on the capitalist state? Not when it’s their neck on the line, or even if it gets in the way of their own petty advantage. Take the IG’s Brazilian section for example, which it ballyhoos as the quintessence of class-struggle militancy. They ran an ex-cop as their candidate for president of a cop-infested union. They won, based on getting the votes of most of the cops in the union! Then when their positions were challenged by a crew of cutthroat opportunists—who had originally been part of their leadership slate—they went running to the capitalist courts, filing suits against the union in order to preserve their union sinecures. When that didn’t work, the IG simply declared that the union had become a “court-rigged outfit.” Indeed, and they helped make it that way (see “IG’s Brazil Cover-Up: Dirty Hands, Cynical Lies,” WV No. 671, 11 July 1997).

In Mexico, the IG can’t tell the difference between the capitalist state and the corporatist unions of the CTM, which they argue “represents the class enemy” (El Internacionalista/Edición México, May 2001). But not so the equally corporatist unions of the CTV in Venezuela, whose bureaucracy has served as a direct agency of Yankee imperialism and is currently allied with a cabal of bosses trying to bring down the Chávez regime. Here the IG, in a November 2000 Spanish-language article posted on its Web site, finds that the CTV unions “despite their sellout leaderships” are “workers organizations” (“Against Chávez, the Stock Market and the IMF—Venezuela: Mobilize Workers Power to Defeat the Anti-Union Referendum!”). As we wrote in “IG on Venezuela: Opportunism Makes Strange Bedfellows” (WV No. 787, 20 September 2002):

“Like gods on high, the little caudillos of the IG decree which unions are real on the basis of their opportunist whims of the moment. In Mexico, the targets of their affections are elements around the PRD [the bourgeois-nationalist Party of the Democratic Revolution]. In Argentina, they adapt to the mass protests against a burgeoning economic catastrophe. And one can only wonder who or what they’re chasing after in Venezuela.”

“I can call spirits from the vasty deep.” “...so can any man; But will they come?”

The same issue of The Internationalist that features its “Hard to Starboard” polemic against us reprints an IG leaflet addressed to New York transit workers on the eve of their December contract expiration. It too is full of “fightback” rhetoric—strike now, burn the injunctions, shred the Taylor Law. The IG declaims that while we “raised a series of demands on safety, health care, the Democratic Party, the Taylor Law,” we did not call for a strike until after the transit workers had voted in mass meetings of thousands to take strike action. That’s right. Our business is not phony agitation but fighting to arm the workers with a political program from which class-struggle tactics and strategy derive.

The American Trotskyists whose militants led the pitched battles on the streets of Minneapolis in 1934 that laid the basis for forging the Teamsters as a powerful industrial union did so not by screaming “strike now.” Rather they made a sober calculation of the forces of the capitalist class enemy and fought to build the consciousness, confidence and fighting strength of the workers to engage in battle. Three years later as the economy took another dive, American Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon, a seasoned class-struggle militant who played a critical role in the Minneapolis strikes, cautioned trade-union supporters in auto against agitating for strike action: “Watch your policy carefully, we mustn’t be too radical now with the slack season coming on. We must not holler too insistently about strikes and so on. We must direct the attention mainly to bureaucracy and reactionary policies in the union. But we must be very careful about agitating for strikes when the workers will be under such disadvantage.”

But when struggle was engaged, the Trotskyists stood in the front ranks with the workers and against the bosses. And when the transit workers voted to strike, our front-page article, headlined “For a Solid NYC Transit Strike!” (WV No. 793, 13 December 2002), argued:

“Behind the hysterical threats being directed at the TWU is the recognition that the union has the power to shut NYC down cold. The city manifestly cannot arrest 34,000 strikers or otherwise run the buses and subways in the face of a solid strike. You can’t run the subways with bayonets! Should the government invoke the Taylor Law, this should be met by strike actions mobilizing the power of the entire NYC labor movement. If the transit union proceeds with militancy and determination, in conjunction with other city unions, the labor movement could win a much needed victory that could put into motion a counteroffensive against the bosses.”

The IG points to a motion it “put forward in a leaflet” (whatever that means) at a December 4 meeting of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) Delegates Assembly in New York City calling on the union to join transit workers’ picket lines and to “help initiate an immediate citywide mobilization of all NYC workers” in solidarity with a transit strike. All well and good. Except that what passes without mention is the fact that backstabbing UFT president Randi Weingarten had openly denounced a possible transit strike, declaring that it “would effectively cripple our economy.” To be sure, that doesn’t mean that one doesn’t fight to mobilize the union. But to successfully prosecute such a struggle means fighting against the obstacles that stand in the road, foremost among them the labor bureaucrats whose class-collaborationist policies shackle the power of the unions.

As we have noted elsewhere of the IG’s phony agitational rhetoric: “One could posit that Norden and his sidekick Negrete have been so overcome by megalomaniacal delusions of their own grandeur that they actually believe that if they call for the workers to act they will. In fact, it is pure cynicism in the service not of combatting the current misleaders of the proletariat but of accommodating to them” (see “IG: Simple-Minded Lies and Simple-Minded Liars,” WV No. 785, 9 August 2002). And the more we expose their political accommodation to forces ranging from Latino nationalism to the Stalinist bureaucracy to “leftists” who stood on the side of capitalist counterrevolution, the more the IG invents new lies.

Thus, the IG now claims that we caved in to the union-busting offensive led by then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani against the transit workers union in 1999, which outlawed even the right to talk about strike action. “The SL followed the rules,” the IG declares, arguing that we dropped any call for strike action like a “hot potato.” In fact our 14 December 1999 leaflet, which the IG points to as its evidence, very clearly stated: “The TWU and the rest of the NYC labor movement have the power to roll back this assault on the unions through massive strike action.”

The IG’s slanders are merely a demonstration of its own political bankruptcy, witnessed in its inability to answer an ever-growing number of our recent polemics against them (see “IG Disappears Red Army Fight Against Islamic Reaction in Afghanistan,” WV No. 772, 11 January 2002; “IG: Simple-Minded Lies and Simple-Minded Liars” and “IG on Venezuela: Opportunism Makes Strange Bedfellows,” both cited above; “Cynics and Demagogues: An IG Provocation,” WV No. 789, 18 October 2002). Their current chicken-baiting of us over the showdown on the docks and the New York City transit workers union battle recalls nothing so much as the knight in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail who, having had both his arms and legs cut off, screams, “Come back here you coward!” To say that such a crew is hardly a force for even passing consideration as any kind of leadership for the proletariat is a vast understatement.

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