Longview struggle shows the way forward

On February 10, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 21 and the Export Grain Terminal (EGT) conglomerate announced that the company had finally agreed to recognize the union’s right to represent workers at the company’s new grain port in Longview, Washington. The announcement followed a concerted struggle by longshore workers in this normally quiet corner of the Pacific Northwest, who were accompanied by mass solidarity pickets organized by the Occupy movement.

This is an important victory with lessons for the entire labor movement and Occupy activists. Summed up, the lesson is this: we can fight back and win only on the basis of a class struggle approach to trade unionism. This means recognizing that the workers’ interests are diametrically opposed to the interests of the bosses and their state. This means standing up to the police and even the military, ignoring court orders, and above all, mobilizing the power of the entire working class to stop all work at the point of production.

The ILWU began a campaign of “non-violent disruption” beginning in June 2011, after EGT opened the Longview grain terminal, and a subcontracting company hired members of the Operating Engineers union to work the terminal. The massive, state-of-the-art facility, while employing less than 50 longshore workers, is capable of servicing trains carrying as much as 15,000 tons of grain at a time, while loading cargo ships carrying hundreds of thousands of tons in just 24 hours. At older ports, the same process takes as long as a week.

While the sheer volume of grain moved would be enough to guarantee the EGT bosses huge profits, they intended to keep the ILWU out of the terminal in order to boost their profits even more, and above all, to undermine the strength of the union in the West Coast. Unlike many ports on the Gulf and the East Coast, longshore workers on the West Coast are almost entirely unionized. If the ILWU had not challenged EGT, this would have allowed the bosses to play the ILWU and the Operating Engineers off of each other, to the bosses’ benefit. The Operating Engineers were effectively scabbing on the ILWU, while the AFL-CIO officials took a “hands off” approach, refusing to demand that the OE remove the scabs.

In September, ILWU members, supporters, and family members from across Washington state converged on Longview. But unlike “normal” disputes, the local didn’t just stage an informational picket, with numbers of picketers kept low and off company property to remain “within the law.” Instead, members physically blocked trains attempting to enter the terminal, climbed (and tore down) fences, and went into the terminal, where they confronted company security guards and scab workers. They also removed the “plugs” on several grain cars, dumping many tons of grain from the trains. The number of ILWU members who participated in the September disruption was high enough that the ports of Tacoma and Seattle were shut down for one day.

The ILWU continued the campaign despite the State and Federal governments coming down hard. ILWU President Mike McEllrath still faces criminal charges for leading the blocking of a train. According to the magazine Labor Notes: “Indeed, the Cowlitz County district attorney still has actions pending against more than 100 ILWU members and supporters, from among more than 200 who were arrested. Some have entered guilty pleas to minor charges in exchange for community service assignments and small fines.”

“The International took risks as well, while at the same time trying to block actions by supporters it couldn’t control. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines imposed by the U.S. District Court judge in Tacoma remain in effect, though they may be appealed.”

Even before the grain dumping in September, Democratic Washington state Governor Christine Gregoire had sent state police to Longview, to bolster the local police who were already present to “serve and protect” EGT’s property. The police presence increased after the Occupy movement on the West Coast mobilized for a “general strike” to shut down ports on November 2, which was sparked in part by the ILWU’s struggle at Longview. The support from the Occupy activists across the country emboldened the longshore workers to continue their struggle to defeat EGT’s union busting. Another round of partial port disruptions, again largely spurred by Occupy, this time explicitly in solidarity with Local 21, took place on December 12.

The “straw that broke the camel’s back’” came when the ILWU and Occupy began planning a land and water blockade to prevent the grain ship MV Full Sources from docking at Longview in early February. National Guard troops were sent to Longview, and President Obama authorized a group of armed Coast Guard ships to escort the ship into the terminal.

This would have been the first use of the U.S. military as strike breakers since the PATCO strike in 1981. The ILWU and Occupy had already shown in September, November, and December that they would not be intimidated by security guards, prison sentences, or police, and apparently decided that they would not be intimidated by the Coast Guard either. EGT then agreed to resume talks with Local 21.

While the contract details have not emerged, it is clear that the ILWU will represent Longview workers. The ILWU recognition victory is a victory not just for longshore workers, but for all workers, and also the many enthusiastic Occupy activists who turned out across the West Coast to support Local 21.

The support given to EGT by the Democrats—Governor Gregoire and President Obama—not in words, but in deeds, in the form of sending in the police and military, needs to be addressed by the unions as well. This is just one more example of why the unions must break with the Democrats and form a mass party of labor, which would be able to mobilize and act as a pole of attraction for the working class as a whole. If such a party had representatives at the federal, state, county, and city level, they would be able to expose the collusion of the “labor-friendly” Democrats with the bosses, and fight to prevent the sending of police and the military against striking workers.

The struggle at Longview was undoubtedly watched closely by the Pacific Maritime Association, the industry group of West Coast port owners, which has for decades been trying to undermine, and ultimately break the ILWU. The ILWU has represented longshore workers on the West Coast since its birth following the West Coast Waterfront strike and the four-day-long San Francisco general strike of 1934, when the union was led by militant leaders such as Harry Bridges, who was a member of the Communist Party.

The methods used by longshore workers in the struggle at Longview: stopping the movement of goods; fighting back despite government repression; mobilizing—and being further mobilized by—support from working people not in the unions, were a clear, positive return to the best the traditions of American labor’s militant history.

Despite being weakened by the bosses’ attacks over the last few decades, the ILWU has managed to keep the West Coast ports organized. This means that its 60,000 members have the ability to completely shut down all the movement of goods to and from the Pacific. This underlines the huge potential power the working class has. If longshore workers wanted to do so, they could cost the biggest corporations literally hundreds of millions of dollars a day, as goods remain bottled up in ports. The same is true for UPS workers, for truck drivers, and for rail workers.

The working class as a whole has the ability to bring the gears of the economy to a halt. But this ability is only potential unless the working class is aware of this power, and has a leadership that is willing to mobilize the class to use it to defend and improve our wages, conditions, and right to a union. The Longview struggle showed what shutting down the flow of goods—and profits—at the point of production can do.

The rank and file showed a truly inspiring tenacity and willingness to fight, despite the ILWU’s International leadership, which at several points tried to keep the struggle within “safe” and “legal” confines. Take, for example, a statement issued by the ILWU International leadership in the run-up to the showdown over MV Full Sources. While they asserted that they would continue mobilizing members to protest at Longview, they also assured the powers-that-be that no other West Coast ports would face strikes or slowdowns. It also urged local unions to follow the direction of the International leadership alone, not “outside sources.” This was a clear reference to the West Coast Occupy movement, which was in its own way following the lead of the ILWU rank and file!

The ILWU rank and file have managed to keep alive the history and traditions of their union’s roots in pitched struggle with the bosses. For example, the union has had a long tradition of one-day strikes. The union shuts down the ports every July 7 to mark the anniversary of “Bloody Thursday,” the day in 1934 when Nick Bordoise and Howard Sperry were killed by San Francisco police during the general strike. More recently, there were one-day shutdowns to protest the Iraq War in 2008, and the November 2, 2011 shutdown.

However, the Taft-Hartley Act, enacted during the Truman administration, makes more serious action more difficult. Among other anti-union provisions, Taft-Hartley outlaws solidarity strikes and strikes that threaten “national security.” The law was infamously used by Reagan to smash the PATCO’s air traffic controllers in 1981. Until now, the ILWU leaders have balked at mobilizing the membership along the West Coast for shutdowns longer than one day; “just enough” to keep the union within “safe” proximity of the law. But at a certain stage, one-day strikes will not suffice. As the struggle at Longview showed, if we want to fight and win, workers must go beyond the narrow confines of “legality.”

If striking workers build support of the rest of the labor movement, including workers and youth outside the unions (such as Occupy activists), they can fight back en masse and disregard the laws written in the favor of the bosses. If workers have the support of other unions, up to and including solidarity strikes and general strikes, then injunctions, criminal charges, and the victimization of union activists by the bosses after a strike ends can become a dead letter. Every law on the books is simply a reflection of the balance of forces between the classes at the time it was written. The living balance of those same forces will determine whether the bosses and the state can enforce them.

The unions need to return to the traditions of class struggle that were born in the 1930s. This is not due to “sentimental” or “romantic” reasons, but because these methods recognize the collective power of the working class, and they work. The class war is not an abstract concept. It is the reality of every day of our lives, both inside and outside of work. Every job lost, every factory or school shut down, every health care premium or productivity quota raised, is a salvo by the bosses against the workers in this war. It is high time that the American working class, following the lead of our brothers and sisters in Longview, start fighting back and winning.

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