Call for Solidarity with Longview Longshoremenby Staff
The Internationalist, January 8, 2012
Mid January 2012, EGT is expecting its first ship to dock in Longview WA. The Occupy movement will be there.
-The Internationalist, November 2011 to read more.
Since early this year a bitter struggle has been waged in the small West Coast port of Longview, Washington. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) is fighting a vicious union-busting attack by a new grain shipping conglomerate, EGT Development. The battle got national attention when before sunrise on September 8, some 800 union supporters "stormed" the new Export Grain Terminal, as an AP dispatch and every subsequent article in the big business press put it. Media accounts said workers carrying baseball bats broke down gates, "overpowering" security guards, who cowered as 10,000 tons of grain were dumped on the tracks and railroad cars disabled. In short: the workers were taking care of business. That morning more than 1,000 longshoremen refused to show up for work, shutting down the ports of Seattle, Tacoma and Vancouver, Washington as well as Portland, Oregon. It all harked back to the militant union action that built the labor movement and which has seldom been seen in recent years. It gave a taste of workers' power that needs to be mobilized in sharp class struggle today.
This wasn't the first time the ILWU ranks mobilized massively in this struggle. The protesters who poured into Longview in the early morning hours were incensed over police attacks on unionists the day before. When EGT tried to bring in a mile-long train of corn from Minnesota to its scab facility on September 7, over 200 ILWUers initially held it off by occupying train tracks in nearby Vancouver, Washington just across the Columbia River from Portland. When later in the day the 107-car Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) train got through to Longview, it was met by 400 unionists, some with picket signs mounted on baseball bats. At the request of port officials, the local sheriff sent 50 or so riot cops, who arrested 19 picketers, tackling them and roughly throwing them onto the gravel track bed while clubbing and pepper-spraying others. The police picked ILWU International president Bob McEllrath out of the crowd and wrestled him to the ground, intending to arrest him. But the cops let him go as hundreds of outraged longshoremen surged forward. "I felt like they were going to overrun us," said one deputy.
Beginning in May of this year, ILWU Local 21 held mass pickets in Longview. On June 3, some 1,000 longshoremen rallied outside EGT headquarters in Portland. On July 11, 100 union protesters were arrested after tearing down a chain link fence around the terminal. In response to the arrests, on July 14, hundreds of workers blocked an attempt to bring in a grain train, leading BNSF to stop all rail shipments to EGT. When the company announced it was hiring members of the Operating Engineers local to staff the terminal, 100 ILWU pickets blocked the gates on July 22, forcing EGT to shut down. The company finally managed to unload the first grain train on September 21, but only after roughly arresting a dozen union supporters, mostly women who were sitting on the tracks along with Local 21 president Dan Coffman. A 57-year-old grandmother suffered a torn rotor cuff when police manhandled her, and two other union leaders were thrown down, handcuffed and then maced. An army of police from around the region occupied the area. This time the black-uniformed Robocops, looking like a squad of Nazi stormtroopers, arrived with a black armored car marked "Sheriff" with a gun turret mounted on top.
The Longview longshoremen, ILWU Local 21, are locked in a life-and-death struggle with the Export Grain Terminal corporation (EGT). EGT is a joint venture between three conglomerates: U.S.-based Bunge North America, Japan-based Tochu Corporation, and South Korean-based STX Pan Ocean. EGT just spent $200 million to construct a highly automated grain elevator at the Port of Longview. Although EGT signed a lease agreement with the Port promising that all cargo work would be done with ILWU labor, it won't honor that agreement. EGT tried to hire non-union labor and, when that failed, contracted with another union, Operating Engineers Local 701, that is willing to raid ILWU 21 and to cross their picket lines.
EGT is using tactics straight out of the coal field labor wars of the 1920s. They hired private "security" (Pinkerton-like goons). They've enlisted the local cops to stalk, harass, and assault ILWU members - tailing them around town and even dragging them out of their homes in the middle of the night.
Local 21 has fought back. In the course of the battle in Longview, ILWU members and their supporters have blocked trains from bringing grain to the terminal and organized mass pickets to disrupt its operations. 220 of the local's 226 members have been arrested. Both the Washington and Oregon state labor federations have passed resolutions supporting the Longview ILWU and condemning the Operating Engineers for raiding and for crossing ILWU 21's picket lines.
This ought to be a central priority for the AFL-CIO, because if EGT succeeds in locking out ILWU 21, it will set a precedent for union-busting up and down the coast. The AFL-CIO ought to provide material support to ILWU 21. It ought to tell the Operating Engineers to either end their raid or face censure and expulsion. And it ought to build towards a general strike against the union-busting. But none of this will happen. AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka won't take sides and he won't act. Trumka calls it a "jurisdictional dispute". Indeed, the AFL-CIO leadership - and not just the top leaders, but most local officials and staffers as well - have for decades bought into the "team concept" of collaboration with management. Fundamentally, they believe that there is no alternative to capitalism. Thus, when the system is in crisis, they try to coerce workers to passively accept austerity (cuts to jobs, compensation, pensions and social security, and public services). So instead of leading mass organizing drives, they raid each other's unions as union membership dwindles to barely one in ten workers.
A confrontation is imminent. EGT plans to bring in its first ship in mid-January. So with Trumka and the AFL-CIO sitting on their hands, what can be done? Here is where the Occupy movement can play a role. On December 17, Occupy Longview, which has close ties to ILWU 21, called for a mass convergence on Longview in January to block the loading of the EGT ship. On December 21, Occupy Oakland voted overwhelmingly (123 - 2) to respond to Occupy Longview's call by organizing a caravan to Longview. Occupy organizers are projecting well over 10,000 - perhaps as many as 25,000 - occupiers descending on Longview from around the West. And unlike ILWU International President McEllrath (who opposed the December 12 port shutdown by an "outside group trying to advance a broader agenda"), ILWU Local 21 President Dan Coffman welcomes support from the Occupy movement. This from Coffman: "On behalf of Local 21, we want to thank the Occupy movement for shedding light on the practices of EGT and for the inspiration of our members".
In addition to the convergence on Longview, Occupy can support and help propagate the call from ILWU rank and file militants who are urging the International to strike the entire West Coast when the EGT ship arrives - and, if McEllrath won't issue the call, then the locals and the rank and file need to organize a coast-wide wildcat. Let's recall that in significant - although admittedly infrequent - cases, ILWU locals (and, in still rarer instances, the entire West Coast ILWU) have acted in defiance of the contract and the law to shut down the ports, even without the spur of community ("outside") picketers. (To name such instances: the 11-day boycott of South African cargo famously saluted by Nelson Mandela; a one-shift West Coast shutdown to support Mumia; a one-day strike against the war; a shutdown in Los Angeles in solidarity with Australian longshoremen; and a Puget Sound ferry strike in defiance of injunctions.) Shutting down the big ports of Oakland, Portland, and Seattle got the attention of the world maritime industry. Shutting down the twin megaport of Long Beach / Los Angeles would deliver a heavy blow: Long Beach / Los Angeles handles 40% of this country's shipping, nearly ten times as much as the Port of Oakland.
So we believe that the ILWU can win this immediate battle. But it will take far more to win the long-term war. First of all, it will take identifying the true nature of that war. Today longshore is highly automated and longshoremen are the highest paid but one of the numerically smallest group of workers at the port. Meanwhile, the most numerous workers at the port - the port truckers - are by far the lowest paid, the most exploited, and are completely unorganized (forced to work as independent contractors). There cannot be a long-term victory for labor on the longshore without organizing the unorganized port truckers. But more than forty years ago, the ILWU agreed to deals around containerization / automation that guaranteed high pay, benefits, and job security in exchange for allowing gross attrition of jobs as workers retired. The ILWU has been far too content to rely on this arrangement, rather than reaching out aggressively to support and help organize the port truckers. So although Longview Local 21 is fighting militantly against EGT and is reaching out to Occupy for support, the ILWU International shows zero interest in organizing or otherwise fighting for the truckers. Such organizing remains essential. We ought not to look to the ILWU International to do it.
The Internationalist, November 2011
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