Workers Vanguard No. 916

6 June 2008


Down With Racist “War on Terror”!

For a Class-Struggle Fight to Organize Port Truckers!

OAKLAND—With skyrocketing diesel fuel costs slashing their already miserable earnings, overwhelmingly immigrant port truckers in California initiated strikes from Stockton to Oakland to the Los Angeles-Long Beach ports over the past month. On May 6, a 100-strong picket with signs in Punjabi, Spanish and English blocked the truck entrance to the huge SSA marine terminal at the Oakland port until the cops forced the strikers to disperse. A week later, 100 port truckers from Stockton protested at the state capital in Sacramento demanding lower prices for diesel. Last week, truckers picketed shipping and transportation companies on the L.A.-Long Beach docks, and several were fired for refusing to move cargo. All waterfront workers should support the truckers and join in a fight to reinstate those who were fired.

Spartacist League and Labor Black League for Social Defense supporters went to the port truckers’ picket lines in Oakland, while Spartacus Youth Club activists did well distributing Workers Vanguard at the Sacramento protest. The drivers gave us graphic descriptions of the hideous exploitation and racist discrimination they face on the job. Mostly independent “owner-operators,” nearly half of their earnings go to maintain and service their rigs and to pay off insurance premiums and bank loans. Under constant pressure for speed-up, working long hours, with many more unpaid hours waiting in line or bob-tailing (deadheading) back for the next drop, the truckers scramble to clear more than $25,000 a year. In the current recession, this has sunk to $800-$900 a month with no paid sick or vacation time, health care or pensions.

The situation cries out for a class-struggle fight to unionize these drivers, who are a vital and powerful part of the port workforce. The fate of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which is becoming the last bastion of union power on the West Coast docks, is inextricably linked to the fight to unionize the truckers as well as the many low-wage, non-union workers in the ever-growing chain of world trade, from the warehouses and intermodal facilities to the mammoth cargo ships. The ILWU will either take up the fight to extend union rights and union-scale wages, benefits and conditions to these workers or it will sooner or later face government-backed union-busting by the capitalist employers without union allies on the docks.

In December 2001, the Teamsters and the ILWU, together with the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) on the East and Gulf coasts, announced an alliance to make the ports “100 percent union.” To date, none of these unions have undertaken a serious campaign to organize the port truckers. Since the outset of the racist “war on terror,” when ILWU International president James Spinosa vituperated against “unknown truck drivers” being “allowed free access to our work environment,” the ILWU tops have despicably pointed the finger at the truckers as a “security threat.”

The Teamsters and ILWU tops’ support for “national unity” with the class enemy in the name of the “war on terror” puts the unions at risk. By signing on to “anti-terror” port security measures, even if seeking to ameliorate certain provisions, the ILWU International has facilitated the government’s crackdown on all dock workers. The threat to labor posed by beefing up security was brought home last August when two black ILWU Local 10 longshoremen were beaten and arrested after security guards at the Sacramento port invoked maritime security regulations in demanding to search their car (see “ILWU Rally: ‘Drop the Bogus Charges Now!’” WV No. 900, 12 October 2007).

Today, implementation of the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) program, which includes criminal background checks, is vastly increasing the government’s ability to police the workforce on the docks. Black and Latino workers victimized by the racist cops and courts, especially through the “war on drugs,” face being disproportionately purged and barred from the waterfront. TWIC is also a prescription for an anti-immigrant dragnet, which will especially redound against the port truckers. Outrageously, ILWU officials have turned over the union’s membership list to the government to check immigration status and find matches to its “terrorism” database.

It is a further indictment of the union tops that they advocate support to “friends of labor” in the capitalist Democratic Party, whose politicians are among the loudest cheering on the “war on terror.” Earlier this year, the ILWU International endorsed Barack Obama in his bid to run bloody U.S. imperialism. This underlines the need for a political struggle within the trade unions to break them from the Democrats and build a class-struggle leadership that is based on the understanding that the interests of labor and capital cannot be reconciled and that champions the cause of black freedom and immigrant rights.

American Chauvinism—Poison to Working-Class Solidarity

The port truckers strikes drew inspiration from the ILWU’s shutdown of West Coast ports on May Day, called to protest the U.S. occupation of Iraq (but not of Afghanistan). Coming amid ongoing contract negotiations with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), this action was a powerful display of union muscle to the shipping bosses. But it was wrapped in red-white-and-blue American chauvinism by the ILWU International bureaucracy. At the San Francisco May Day rally, which was politically dominated by Democratic Party speakers and their junior sidekicks in the capitalist Green Party, an ILWU Local 10 official read out a statement from International president Bob McEllrath declaring that “big foreign corporations that control global shipping aren’t loyal or accountable to any country” while painting longshore workers as the best “loyal to America” patriots.

This vile “America first” chauvinism was a pledge of allegiance to the bloody U.S. occupiers against the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan and an outrageous affront to every foreign-born worker on the docks, spitting on the May Day tradition of international workers solidarity. It was particularly a kick in the teeth to the largely immigrant port truckers, a number of whom turned their rigs around on May 1, refusing to cross the picket line set up by Direct Action at the Union Pacific intermodal facility at the Oakland port in solidarity with the port shutdown.

In the lead-up to the port shutdown, Local 10 bureaucrat Jack Heyman, who authored the motion calling for the work stoppage, declared in a KPFA interview that the ILWU action was integrally linked to the defense of immigrant rights and pointed to the port truckers. The poster for the S.F. rally also demanded “End Sweat Shops On Wheels.” Indeed, the fight to organize the port truckers is bound up with the defense of immigrant rights, as the trucking companies prey on the desperation of foreign-born workers, many of whom are refugees from the brutal depredations of U.S. imperialism, to enforce poverty wages and wretched working conditions.

But Heyman was only giving a left cover to the flag-waving chauvinism of the International (see article, page 2). The appeals to immigrant rights for the May Day action were little more than empty words, as was demonstrated only five days later when the truckers went on strike. Longshoremen worked the affected terminals in the Bay Area and L.A. as the union tops did not instruct ILWU members to honor the truckers’ picket lines, on the grounds that these pickets were not “bona fide.”

The ILWU leadership—which often uses the slogan “An injury to one is an injury to all!”—abided by government-dictated contractual provisions that argue that workers who have no union have no “bona fide dispute over wages, hours or working conditions.” This is a repudiation of the entire history of the battles to found the unions in this country, which were born out of hard-fought struggles over wages, hours and working conditions. For the ILWU to refuse to honor picket lines while its own contract negotiations are under way strengthens the hand of the PMA and gives a pass to the vicious exploitation of the non-union workers in the ports.

Longshoremen would do well to remember that their picket lines in 1934 were also not considered to be “bona fide” by their then-union leaders in the ILA. The 15,000 West Coast ILA members went on strike in defiance of their leadership. The strike soon grew to include 25,000 workers, including many sympathetic union seamen. Truckers honored the picket lines, ensuring that no cargo was moved, which was critical. It took the four-day 1934 San Francisco General Strike and several other port strikes through 1936 to win the union hiring hall, a coast-wide contract and decent wages and benefits.

Before the union hiring hall, the longshoremen themselves were reviled as derelict “day laborers” who got in line for the “shape-up,” hired for the day by gang bosses based on favoritism and kickbacks. Militant workers who stood up for their rights were blacklisted. The fight against oppression, exploitation and degradation united workers of many ethnic and immigrant backgrounds in opposition to the employers’ efforts to wield racism and anti-immigrant chauvinism to keep longshore workers divided and enslaved to the gang bosses.

Organizing the 60,000 port truckers nationwide, no matter which union does it, would be a blow to the capitalists’ divide-and-conquer schemes and open the road to uniting all dock workers into one industrial waterfront union coast to coast. The port truckers have tremendous social power, which has been enhanced by the introduction of lean inventory and “just in time” delivery. This power was shown on May Day 2006 when immigrant drivers shut down the huge L.A.-Long Beach port complex as part of a national day of action in defense of immigrant rights.

The way forward is hard class struggle. The shipping companies and capitalist courts deem port truckers, as owner-operators, to be independent businessmen subject to federal price-fixing laws prohibiting unionization. Such union-busting schemes hark back to the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act, ostensibly directed against capitalist monopolies but used for decades to break strikes. In Vancouver in 2005, a 38-day strike by 1,200 mainly East Indian port truckers, two-thirds of whom were non-union, shut down much of the port. As 25,000 containers piled up on the docks, the Canadian government lifted its antitrust laws, compelling the shippers to sign a port-wide contract.

During the Great Depression, independent owner-operators appeared in large numbers on America’s roads. Many of these truckers joined the Teamsters on the heels of the Trotskyist-led 1934 Minneapolis citywide strikes, which paved the way for organizing the Teamsters as a powerful national union. The Minneapolis Teamsters strikes demonstrated the ability of labor to prevail against the union-busting bosses and the capitalist state. Guided by their revolutionary Marxist program, the Trotskyists who led these strikes fought for the independence of the working class from the capitalist state and engaged in mass struggle, mobilizing the city’s proletariat and its allies. This strategy was carried over to the hugely successful national truck drivers organizing campaigns led by Trotskyists until they were purged from the union during World War II through the collusion of the Teamsters International bureaucracy and the Roosevelt administration.

Deregulation and Union-Busting

It is a common myth in the ILWU that port truckers are the makers of their own fate because they “opted out” of the Teamsters union in the late 1970s. This in turn serves to justify the contempt with which these workers are often treated today. In reality, when militant Teamsters strikes coincided with independent truckers’ protests in the late 1970s, the government pushed through deregulation to drive down shipping and transportation costs and strangle union power in the industry. This allowed the bosses to replace Teamsters drivers with non-union owner-operators in the ports. Twenty years ago, 60 percent of truck drivers nationwide were unionized; by 2000 it was less than 25 percent.

Deregulation of the trucking industry was introduced under Democratic Party president Jimmy Carter with the Motor Carrier Act of 1980. It was also Carter who laid the groundwork for busting the PATCO air traffic controllers union, which was carried out by Ronald Reagan in 1981. Coming amid U.S. imperialism’s Cold War II against the Soviet Union, this union-busting offensive was part of American capitalism’s drive to restore its rate of profit and shore up its position as the dominant imperialist power against its rivals in West Europe and Japan.

Michael Belzer’s Sweatshops On Wheels (2000) notes that between 1977 and 1987, truck drivers’ real mileage wage rates declined by 44 percent. The capitalists’ drive for ever-greater profits has put at risk the country’s freight infrastructure. With fuel costs rising and the economy slowing, owner-operators are being forced out of the industry, with over 45,000 trucks having disappeared from the roads since early last year.

Working conditions for port truckers have also rapidly deteriorated. Aging rigs turned into rolling accidents waiting to happen. The amount of cancer-causing soot or black carbon found in port trucker cabs is about 2,000 times greater than the level typically considered acceptable by federal environmental agencies, according to Diane Bailey of the Natural Resources Defense Council. These diesel fumes have also taken their toll on the overwhelmingly poor and minority areas surrounding the ports. At the same time, the enforcement of ecologically “clean” trucking could force even more of the increasingly impoverished port truckers out of their jobs.

Exploiting the issues of air pollution and “port security,” the Teamsters have been lobbying harbor commissions and port authorities to end the “owner-operator” chaos and establish employer-employee provisions that would lift the antitrust laws. The reorganization of the port truckers along industrial lines would eliminate the one-on-one competition that contributes to their financial straits and break down the atomization and petty-bourgeois consciousness that go together with being owner-operators. But rather than fighting to defend and organize the existing port truckers by mobilizing their collective social power in struggle against the shipping, cargo and trucking companies, the Teamsters bureaucrats are petitioning the bosses and the state and offering themselves as “national security” policemen on the docks.

In his April 2006 testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Teamster president James Hoffa railed:

“Drivers operating illegally in our ports, or operating in or near bankruptcy, are vulnerable to blackmail and bribery. They are susceptible, knowingly or not, to people who would harm our country. They are in a position to smuggle contraband—or God forbid, a weapon of mass destruction….

“The system we have now is bad for our ports and bad for America. Once Congress forces the industry to clean up its act, you will have a workforce that can pass background checks. A workforce that will be trained, efficient and productive. A workforce that will be the eyes and ears of our ports—one that will make America more secure.”

This is nothing other than a call for a racist purge of the port truckers and any others who can’t pass the state’s “background” checks.

This same Hoffa has organized chauvinist, racist demonstrations against “unsafe” Mexican truckers in the name of opposing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Against the labor tops’ protectionist calls to “save American jobs,” what is necessary is international class solidarity. Workers on both sides of the border must join in common class struggle against NAFTA, a neocolonial “free trade” rape of Mexico by the U.S. imperialist bosses.

The fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants, no matter how they got here, is crucial to organizing the largely foreign-born port truckers. As part of fighting against a racist purge of the workforce on the docks under TWIC, labor must also champion the cause of restoring citizenship rights to ex-felons: the right to work, vote, avail themselves of government services and carry firearms. The rights of workers, immigrants and black people will either go forward together or fall back separately. For the unions, the only significant racially integrated organizations in the U.S., to become battalions of struggle against this racist capitalist order requires a political fight to oust the chauvinist misleaders of the labor movement and replace them with a class-struggle leadership. This is integrally linked to the forging of a multiracial revolutionary workers party to lead the battle for the eradication of this increasingly depraved system of exploitation and racist reaction through a victorious socialist revolution.