Workers Vanguard No. 894

8 June 2007


ILWU Longshore Workers Honor Antiwar Picket Line


OAKLAND—Three ships sat idle at the Stevedoring Services of America (SSA) terminals on May 19 as dock workers dispatched by International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 and clerks dispatched by ILWU Local 34 honored a picket line protesting the Iraq war. In an effort to keep people away from the picket called by the Port Action Committee (PAC), the Oakland police set up checkpoints on city streets leading to the port, preventing all vehicles except those with “valid business reasons” from entering the port. The determined demonstrators had to walk about a mile to the SSA gates. Despite the checkpoints, which resulted in the protest getting little coverage in the capitalist media, the picket line drew scores of demonstrators.

Longshoremen stayed out on the day and evening shifts. Asked by a TV reporter how he felt about missing a day’s work, one black longshoreman responded, “It’s for a good cause. I don’t like it, but I never did like the war.” This action was a measure of the deepening working-class anger at U.S. imperialism’s occupation of Iraq, although it was a largely symbolic use of union power.

Among the picketers was a union contingent from the Oakland Education Association (OEA). OEA members demanded that tax money from the port be used to fund Oakland schools. Dominating the protest were illusions that the Oakland city government under black Democratic mayor Ron Dellums, a liberal capitalist politician supported in the last elections by the ILWU, could be made to serve the interests of working people. A number of Local 10 officials were present at the morning protest, handing out a letter from Dellums that called for “an end to this war” and stated, “I believe that history will record that this war was the greatest foreign policy blunder in the history of America and the sooner we end it the better.”

Dellums and his fellow Democrats consider the occupation of Iraq a losing proposition at odds with the greater interests of U.S. imperialism. In fact, a large wing of the ruling class wants out of Iraq in order to better pursue its aims and interests in Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere and to pursue the huge prize of capitalist counterrevolution in the Chinese deformed workers state. Protesters’ demands to “Bring our troops home now” made crystal clear how the Port of Oakland action was confined to the framework of patriotic appeals to that section of the bourgeoisie calling to cut U.S. losses in Iraq. But you can’t deliver an effective blow to the imperialists and their predatory wars while supporting the capitalist Democrats, the other party of war and racism.

This is neither “our” government nor are these “our” troops. As our WV sales team pointed out to protesters and longshoremen on May 19, we revolutionary Marxists say that working people in the U.S. and internationally have a side—with the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan—against the U.S. occupiers. This does not entail the least political support to any of the competing forces of Islamic fundamentalism or to the nationalist remnants of the Ba’athists in Iraq, nor to the Taliban and similar reactionary forces in Afghanistan. The communalist bloodletting in Iraq is only exacerbated by the U.S. occupation. For the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan!

Workers and the Capitalist State

The increased repression that is the domestic reflection of the global “war on terror” directly targets immigrants, black people and ultimately all of labor. Longshoremen themselves face the immediate threat of criminal background checks required to get a Transportation Worker Identification Card from the Department of Homeland Security, posing a racist, anti-immigrant purge of the workforce. We opposed the government’s “war on terror” from the get-go. In Oakland on 9 February 2002, the Labor Black League and Partisan Defense Committee, which are politically allied with the Spartacist League, initiated the first labor-centered protest in opposition to the USA Patriot Act and the Maritime Security Act. Local 10 members were a key component of that demonstration.

In contrast, ILWU officials support the implementation of a range of “homeland security” measures on the docks and have encouraged the government to screen the largely immigrant and non-union port truckers more vigorously at terminal gates. Longshoremen have to recognize that the port truckers and intermodal facility workers, whose wages and working conditions are well below those of the ILWU, are their allies in the struggle against the port bosses. For full citizenship rights for all immigrants! Fight to extend ILWU wages and conditions to all workers in the ports!

In explaining the union’s decision to honor the picket on May 19, an ILWU official recalled an attack on a previous picket protesting the war outside the same SSA gates, announcing: “We don’t feel comfortable being escorted by the police because last time the police beat and shot people.” From dock workers gathered around him came shouts of “That’s right!” and “I don’t want to get shot!” On 7 April 2003, the Oakland Police Department under Democratic mayor Jerry Brown fired rubber bullets and other “non-lethal” projectiles against demonstrators and longshoremen who were standing by. Jack Heyman, the union’s business agent, was arrested, and a number of ILWU members and antiwar protesters were seriously injured. Those who were hurt in the 2003 attack were dragged through the capitalist courts for months before charges against them were eventually dropped. Similarly, earlier this year, police attacked antiwar pickets at ports in Tacoma and Olympia in Washington.

The ILWU bureaucrats studiously avoided any mention of the fact that the cops menacing the May 19 demonstration were Ron Dellums’ cops! As mayor, Dellums—a former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee—is an executive officer of the capitalist state. It is his role to defend the interests of the ruling class and, in particular, of the shipping bosses in Oakland, the country’s fourth-largest port.

The OEA’s prominent banner outside the gates at SSA read: “Use Port Money for Oakland Public Schools, Not for WalMart and Charters.” Other signs pleaded to “Stop War Shipments—Port Money for Community Needs.” The Oakland public schools, which many children of ILWU members attend, are indeed in deep financial crisis. But the priorities of the capitalist government are set by the ruling class it serves. This ruling class is going to invest all it can to maintain its sizable military advantage over its imperialist rivals in Europe and Asia. At the same time, in this epoch of capitalist decay, it has consciously starved education and health care and allowed basic infrastructure to erode. To wrest any gains from the capitalists, what working people need is some hard class struggle, not begging capitalist politicians to throw some crumbs at them. And short of overthrowing the rule of capital altogether, such gains are reversible.

Fight U.S. Imperialism Through Class Struggle at Home!

The Bay Area chapter of United for Peace and Justice, the bourgeois Oakland Green Party and the Northern California Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism endorsed PAC’s May 19 action. Despite the fact that ships calling at Oakland do carry some military cargo, it’s not clear that any war matériel was stopped that day. The PAC, whose major mover seems to be OEA executive board member Bob Mandel, claimed that stevedoring companies serving SSA and American President Lines also service the Concord Naval Weapons Station. What neither the Port Action Committee nor the ILWU bureaucrats wanted to point out was that ILWU members regularly work the military ships that are loaded at Concord Naval Weapons Station.

Longshoremen are in a position to inflict a direct setback to the imperialist war machine through political strikes and the hot-cargoing of military goods. But this tremendous power is kept in check inside the labor movement by its current leadership, which is tied by a thousand threads to the capitalist political parties and government. The union contract with the Pacific Maritime Association shippers and stevedoring companies commits ILWU members to handle essential military cargo even on holidays or during any other shutdown (a fact also not mentioned by the PAC). This is the legacy of Harry Bridges, under whose leadership the ILWU moved military cargo for the war in Vietnam, even though the union was on record in opposition to that widely unpopular, counterrevolutionary war.

If longshoremen were to stop military cargo at Concord or other ports, it would immediately throw the ranks up against the capitalist state—the armed bodies of men that protect and defend the system of production for profit. Concord’s own history is a case in point. The Naval Weapons Station is located at the site of the old Port Chicago terminal on the Sacramento River, 30 miles northeast of San Francisco. Port Chicago was the first pier in U.S. history built exclusively for loading and shipping ammunition, including dangerous explosives, overseas. In the midst of WWII in July 1944, a blast destroyed everything within a one-mile radius—including two ships, the pier and the dock—and massacred 320 workers and sailors, 202 of them black ammunition loaders. This was the worst domestic naval disaster in U.S. history. In response, black sailors at Port Chicago staged a spontaneous work stoppage, which was labeled a mutiny. Two hundred fifty-eight black men were imprisoned on a barge and threatened with mutiny charges punishable by death during wartime.

The “lieutenants of the capitalist class” running the unions understand that militant action would tear into their reactionary game of preaching reliance on the bosses’ state and political agents, particularly those in the Democratic Party. For labor to take the offensive against imperialist war will require a different kind of leadership, one guided by a program of class struggle and able to instill class consciousness, educating workers in how to defeat the bosses and their state. As this capitalist government turns the screws on working people at home, and the more it runs roughshod over peoples overseas, the fight to oust the union bureaucrats is linked to building a multiracial revolutionary workers party to fight for a workers government.

In Russia in 1917 such a party led the working class to victory in the October Revolution, which overthrew capitalist rule and established a workers state based on soviets (councils). The United States, among 14 capitalist nations, invaded Soviet Russia with the intent of overthrowing the revolutionary government. Working-class actions around the world against the imperialist intervention helped preserve the world’s first workers state. In 1919, a massive strike wave swept the U.S., fueled in part by sympathy for the Russian Revolution. Early that year, there was a general strike in Seattle in which a committee of union delegates ran the city for five days. Later that year, Seattle longshoremen refused to handle military goods destined for Admiral Kolchak, the leader of counterrevolutionary forces fighting the Bolshevik government in Siberia. 1919 also saw the founding of the American Communist movement.

The Bolshevik leadership understood the Russian Revolution to be simply the first step in the fight for a world socialist order. This revolutionary internationalist perspective was undone by the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution under Stalin beginning in 1923-24. The Stalinist bureaucracy preached the lie that socialism could be built in one country and that the USSR could peacefully coexist with imperialism. This meant repudiating the struggle for workers revolution internationally.

The fact that the Soviet Union was transformed from a backward, peasant-dominated country into an industrial and military powerhouse demonstrated the power of the planned economy, despite decades of Stalinist misrule. Counterrevolution in the USSR in 1991-92 was a huge defeat for working people all over the world and has meant a global capitalist offensive against workers and the oppressed while throwing back political consciousness among working people. The “post-Soviet” world is one of increased imperialist depredation around the world and racist, anti-immigrant and anti-labor attacks by the capitalist rulers. Today, the enslavement of Iraq is yet another price that the international working class and the oppressed peoples of the Third World are paying for the destruction of the Soviet Union.

The struggle against the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan must be a struggle against the capitalist system that breeds such wars. It requires a break with the Democratic Party and all other agencies of capitalist class rule and the forging of a new working-class leadership, like the Russian revolutionary leadership of 1917. U.S. out of Iraq, Afghanistan! Break with the Democrats—For a workers party! Down with U.S. imperialism! For class struggle at home!