Workers Vanguard No. 1169

7 February 2020


Attack on All Labor

$93.6 Million Verdict Threatens ILWU

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) has been ordered by a federal jury to pay $93.6 million in damages to a notorious union-busting stevedoring company, ICTSI, the previous container terminal operator at the Port of Portland. The verdict is a throwback to the days when unions were outlawed as criminal conspiracies endangering “free enterprise.” The ILWU is being held liable for ICTSI’s alleged loss of profits from 2012-17, which the company claims was due to the union’s actions in defense of its coastwide contract and safe working conditions. The ILWU is scheduled to appear in court on February 14 to ask that the payout to ICTSI be substantially reduced or dismissed altogether.

The shipping and stevedoring bosses of the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) smell blood. The maritime industry’s newspaper of record, the Journal of Commerce, gloated: “The possibility that the powerful ILWU and one of its locals may have to pay millions of dollars in damages for engaging in work slowdowns and other job actions is expected to have a powerful impact on relations between employers and longshore labor on the West Coast” (7 January).

The ILWU is in a tough spot. It may well be driven to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy, requiring it to disclose details of its finances and activities to the court and a “committee of creditors,” among them ICTSI, which could challenge the union’s expenses and potentially seize its assets. No matter what happens, the ILWU would be significantly weakened in the lead-up to 2022 coastwide contract negotiations.

This is not the first time the powerful West Coast longshore union has been under attack, and it is not just the ILWU’s neck that is on the line. The reverberations would be felt by all labor if one of the most powerful unions still standing in this country were reduced to bankruptcy. Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein observed that “more than a chilling effect,” the verdict could have “an Ice-Age level impact.”

The basis for the massive damages against the ILWU was the charge that the union had violated the ban on “secondary boycotts” under the slave-labor Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. The secondary boycott has a long history as an effective class-struggle tactic dating back to the 19th century. For example, Teamsters truckers, by refusing to transport goods of non-union enterprises, could compel these “secondary” employers to grant union recognition to their workers.

In recent decades, the bosses have gotten away with greatly expanding their definition of prohibited “secondary” activity. Last year, the courts blocked striking Ironworkers in California from even appealing to workers, employed by a different company at the same construction site, to strike. Court injunctions were also issued against striking UAW auto workers when they picketed third-party sites where their employer General Motors had stored inventory.

For decades, the union officialdom has submitted to Taft-Hartley’s diktats, hiding behind the bosses’ arsenal of anti-labor laws to argue that it’s impossible for workers to wage militant class struggle. They whine that honoring picket lines, carrying out solidarity strikes, refusing to handle scab cargo—the very methods that built the unions—are outlawed under Taft-Hartley. Throughout most of the history of this country, union militants have been imprisoned and taken other hits for standing up to the bosses. Nowadays, the union leaders take hits lying down, having done nothing.

The trade-union misleaders claim that the only way forward is to elect “labor-friendly” Democrats. They have sacrificed jobs, wages and the unions on the altar of support to the capitalist profit system, pledging fealty to a party that, no less than the Republicans, represents the bosses. The Democrats have shown they will not hesitate to hammer workers and their organizations. Take Harry Truman, who vetoed Taft-Hartley knowing that Congress would override him, and issued a (never fulfilled) vow to repeal the legislation in order to win re-election in 1948. Truth is, he had set the stage for Taft-Hartley by earlier quashing major strikes in rail and coal, and subsequently invoked it 12 times against striking unions. For their part, the pro-capitalist bureaucrats worked hand in hand with the Democratic Truman administration to enforce the “loyalty oaths” mandated under Taft-Hartley, purging the unions of reds and other militants.

Democratic presidents have issued two-thirds of Taft-Hartley “back to work” orders. And it was under the Barack Obama administration that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) went after the ILWU at the request of ICTSI, charging the union with violating Taft-Hartley. Obama’s Justice Department also launched a federal probe against UAW officials over alleged financial wrongdoing, which today threatens a full-scale government takeover of the union.

While so-called “progressive” Democrats like Bernie Sanders talk up their “pro-labor” credentials and garner endorsements from the union tops—as Sanders did from the ILWU in the 2016 primary—they are not qualitatively different from any other capitalist Democrat. As a representative of the class enemy, Sanders has loyally supported U.S. imperialist military adventures abroad while pushing chauvinist protectionism, which serves to set workers in the U.S. against their class brothers and sisters internationally. At home, Sanders can’t even choke out a call for the repeal of Taft-Hartley.

The labor movement’s devastating losses in recent decades have been the product of the servile legalism of the union tops and their loyalty to the capitalist profit system. The bosses’ relentless anti-union offensive underscores the need for a labor leadership that would mobilize the social power of the workers independently of and in opposition to the bosses, their state agencies and their political parties. Such a leadership would be committed to building a multiracial revolutionary workers party to fight for a workers government.

Union-Busting, Plain and Simple

Based in the Philippines, ICTSI is hated particularly in semicolonial countries for driving out unions, firing workers and instituting sweatshop conditions at its terminals. In 2017, it threatened to slash wages and contract out unionized jobs at two ports in Papua New Guinea. This was partially reversed only after a campaign of protest by the Australian longshore union and the International Transport Workers Federation. In Honduras in September 2013, port workers union leader Victor Crespo was targeted by death squad thugs for his efforts on behalf of workers at the ICTSI terminal at Puerto Cortés. Early the next year, Crespo’s elderly father was assassinated and his mother seriously injured outside their home.

When ICTSI began operating the container terminal at the Port of Portland in 2011, it had the ILWU in its sights. But in the U.S., ICTSI didn’t turn to military death squads. Rather, it relied on the courts and the NLRB, an agency which labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan aptly described as a “bloodless, bureaucratic death squad” in his 1992 book Which Side Are You On?: Trying to Be for Labor When It’s Flat on Its Back. In doing so, ICTSI followed a path well traveled by its U.S. cohorts, giving the lie to the labor bureaucrats’ portrayal of the American bosses as friendlier toward unions.

Now, the ILWU International leadership is throwing itself on the supposed mercy of the court, with President Willy Adams declaring: “We respect the process.” A union press release right after the jury verdict went so far as to concede that the ILWU “might owe some damages in the case.” According to the Journal of Commerce (7 January), the amount the ILWU tops have in mind is some $4 million! In short, the union leadership is prepared to plead its own members guilty of “illegal” labor actions. One thing that should be perfectly clear is that the union isn’t going to find justice in the courts, which defend the bosses’ rule and profits as part of the repressive capitalist state apparatus.

Sordid Jurisdictional Warfare

The whole showdown at the Port of Portland began in 2012 around a dispute over two jobs monitoring and maintaining refrigerated containers (“reefers”). For almost 40 years, these jobs had been worked by members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). According to the terms of the ILWU’s contract with the PMA, these jobs were to go to the ILWU when ICTSI took over the terminal. ICTSI refused, claiming that the IBEW workers were not its employees but rather worked for the Port. This subterfuge was obviously hatched in cahoots with the Portland port authorities.

Some elementary labor solidarity could have resolved the entire situation from the outset. But rather than stand together and work out an agreement in the mutual interest of the two unions, the ILWU and IBEW tops did the exact opposite, allying with their employers against one another. The ILWU International leadership filed a joint lawsuit with the PMA bosses, charging ICTSI with violating the contract and demanding the two “reefer” jobs. ICTSI then went to the NLRB, which ruled that the jobs belonged to the IBEW and hit the ILWU with the Taft-Hartley club.

When Hanjin, the major shipping company serviced at the ICTSI terminal, threatened to pull out, the IBEW made a dirty deal with the Portland port bosses at the behest of the Democratic Party governor of Oregon at the time, John Kitzhaber. The IBEW offered to release its jurisdiction over the two jobs in exchange for the ILWU restoring “labor productivity” at the ICTSI terminal. In other words, the IBEW demanded that ILWU workers speed up for the company, undermining safety.

In 2013, the ILWU split from the AFL-CIO labor federation amid this dog-eat-dog jurisdictional warfare, as well as over the strikebreaking role played by the Operating Engineers union during the ILWU’s 2011-12 fight against the EGT grain consortium in Longview, Washington (see WV No. 1030, 20 September 2013). In the letter of disaffiliation, then ILWU International president Robert McEllrath pointed to increasing attacks on the longshore union by other AFL-CIO affiliates, ranging from unfair labor practice lawsuits to outright scabbing. True enough. But the ILWU leadership’s hands were and are hardly clean when it comes to trying to poach the jobs of other unions at the ports. Indeed, the ILWU bureaucracy’s only answer to the PMA’s drive to increasingly mechanize operations on the docks has been to claim jurisdiction over maintenance and mechanical service jobs, a number of which are currently done by other unions.

The ILWU is the last bastion of the powerful maritime unions that organized workers in the West Coast shipping industry. Splitting from the AFL-CIO furthered the ILWU’s isolation, making the union more vulnerable to attacks. Moreover, the idea that the union’s preservation depends on capturing skilled jobs at the West Coast ports threatens to reduce it to little more than a craft union mainly representing mechanics and skilled equipment operators. What’s necessary is a concerted fight to rebuild the ILWU as a bulwark of industrial unionism. That means working with other unions to organize the tens of thousands of unorganized workers down the supply chain to and from the docks, from port truckers to workers at the vast warehouse facilities where containers are loaded and unloaded. Pursuing this course would commit the union to the defense of immigrant workers, many of whom toil under sweatshop conditions at these jobs. Waging such an organizing drive is, at bottom, a question of leadership.

The Class-Struggle Road to Power

The 1934 strike that forged the ILWU was fought in opposition to the craft, ethnic and racial divisions that were enforced by the labor misleaders of the time. It brought together seamen and other port workers in united struggle. Teamsters defied their union leaders and refused to move scab cargo. The workers didn’t bow before the bosses’ strikebreaking forces and their government. Instead, they fought it out against an army of company thugs, cops and military forces, culminating in the four-day general strike that shut down San Francisco.

The same year saw the victory of citywide strikes by Minneapolis Teamsters and auto workers in Toledo. These three battles would open the door to a mass upsurge of working-class struggle and the organization of industrial unions. As we wrote in our pamphlet Then and Now on the 1934 battles: “What made the difference was that the workers were politically and organizationally armed by leaders who understood that the only possible road to victory lay in mobilizing their power as a class against the capitalist class enemy.”

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 workers party can be built. Such a party will link the daily struggles of the workers against the capitalists to the fight for emancipation from capitalist wage slavery through socialist revolution. Aiming to establish the class rule of the multiracial working class, it would champion the cause of black freedom, immigrant rights and all those whose very lives have been written off under a system based on production for profit. Only when the means of production have been ripped out of the hands of the capitalist owners and made the collective property of society can this tremendous wealth, and further technological advances, be used to provide for the needs of the many as opposed to the profits of the few.