US: The trade unions and the occupy movement

Mass struggle wins contract for dockers

Longshore workers and the Occupy movement won an important victory in Longview, Washington in February, defeating EGT, an international conglomerate of grain exporters that tried to open the first grain terminal on the west coast in 70 years without the labor of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

A dramatic yearlong struggle threatened to culminate in a massive mobilization by the labor and Occupy movements to greet the first EGT ship to load grain with a mass demonstration and blockade. After a year of militant protests and port shutdowns, EGT ultimately caved and agreed to a contract with the ILWU. This victory contains vital lessons for the labor movement, Occupy, and socialists who debated important strategic questions throughout the struggle.

This victory could not have been achieved without the heroic resistance of the longshore workers themselves, particularly those in Longview directly attacked by EGT. For an entire year, ILWU Local 21 and the Longview community waged a determined battle, putting their necks on the line against EGT, the police, the courts, the media – the entire establishment. After an attempt to block a train transporting grain ended in 19 arrests in September, including ILWU International President Bob McEllrath, longshore workers throughout Washington shut down ports in spontaneous wildcat strikes and dumped grain onto train tracks.

In response, the union was fined nearly $300,000, a judge issued an injunction limited picketing, and more than 200 ILWU members and supporters were aggressively arrested by police. The ILWU filed a civil rights lawsuit in response.

Then, longshore workers got a boost from the Occupy movement. Occupy groups and longshore workers shut down the Port of Oakland on November 2 and numerous ports up and down the west coast on December 12, partly in solidarity with Local 21. This led to the mass mobilization to blockade the first EGT ship that tipped the balance and forced EGT to settle.

The Role of Occupy

The Occupy movement’s militancy clearly helped win this victory. EGT felt a need to use the U.S. Coast Guard to escort its first ship, the first time the military would have been used against labor in decades. Obama, whose office oversees the Coast Guard, likely calculated he could not afford to bust a union this election year and arranged for Washington Governor Gregoire to pressure EGT to settle.

The Occupy movement also pressured ILWU leaders to wage a more determined struggle. But, after the ILWU was fined in September for their members’ militant actions, ILWU leaders sought to tamp down the militancy of the union’s rank-and-file members. The labor leaders decided to focus on a legalistic strategy – taking EGT and the police to court and limiting actions to what the laws permitted.

The Taft Hartley Act severely limits unions, for example, charging large fines for picketing companies not directly involved in a labor dispute. “It’s not by accident that the tactics that allowed the ILWU to defend itself from EGT are the same ones that earned it fines and injunctions,” explains Josh Eidelson on

However, the working class has always had to fight against a legal system stacked in favor of the richest 1%. If previous generations of workers had not defied unjust laws, there would be no unions today, and racist segregation laws would never have been overturned. Rather than acquiescing to corporate laws, previous struggles have shown that unjust laws can be defeated through massive mobilizations of workers’ power.

Occupy was exactly the bold, daring type of movement that showed that the police and establishment can be beaten back through massive determined action. But, the ILWU leadership did not entirely welcome the help of Occupy supporters, particularly because Occupy had shown itself willing to openly defy the law. The ILWU leaders issued public statements in the run-up to the west coast-wide port blockades, warning ILWU members that Occupy was “co-opting” their struggle. The ILWU leaders’ opposition to shutting down the ports was picked up and broadcast by shipping companies and the corporate media repeatedly.

Unfortunately, some very dedicated, well-meaning Occupy activists had mistakenly issued a public call to blockade the ports without making serious efforts to work through the democratic structures of the ILWU to obtain the union’s official backing. This made it easier for the union leaders to oppose the December 12 action by claiming it was called for undemocratically without the agreement of the longshore workers themselves. Yet a significant section of ILWU workers and port truckers clearly supported the action, especially in Longview and Oakland.

It would have been most effective if activists had requested the support of the ILWU’s elected leaders to shut down the ports while also campaigning to win over rank-and-file ILWU members. An essential part of this would have required clarifying within the ILWU that the strategy of union leaders’ was inadequate. Unfortunately, there was no group within Occupy or the ILWU large enough to organize people around this strategy.

Tensions culminated in a dramatic solidarity meeting for Local 21 in Seattle on January 6, where ILWU officials and their supporters shamefully instigated a shouting and shoving match to disrupt the event hosted by left-wing ILWU and Occupy activists. Following the meeting, ILWU Local 19 in Seattle voted overwhelmingly to disassociate itself from Occupy Seattle.

Debates within the Movement

The International Socialist Organization (ISO), who played a positive role in helping build solidarity for the ILWU, then published the article “The Solidarity We Need for Longview.” The article correctly criticizes some radical Occupy activists who mistakenly dismiss the union leadership and what they called their “dying structures” and attempt to prematurely declare the Occupy movement as the new leadership for the working class.

This approach can lead to the danger of substituting the actions of well-meaning Occupy activists for the necessary self-activity of the longshore workers themselves. Despite the weaknesses of the present union leadership, the union leaders still currently have far more authority in the eyes of rank-and-file union members at this stage than Occupy does. Therefore, Occupy activists have to make an effort to work within the democratic structures of the union to campaign for fighting policies.

However, the ISO article blames only Occupy activists for the tensions and completely lets the union leaders off the hook! The main reason the ILWU leaders issued statements opposing the Occupy movement’s actions was not because Occupy violated the ILWU’s democratic process but because Occupy and many ILWU rank-and-file members were pushing the struggle in a more militant direction.

The ISO article states the ILWU officials and members who disrupted the meeting were “simply” trying to read “a letter of solidarity” from the ILWU’s president. But this is not the full story. The ILWU President’s letter argues against shutting down the ports and defying the laws set up by the 1%. The letter states, “A call for a protest of EGT is not a call for a shutdown of West Coast ports and must not result in one… please take extreme caution when dealing with supporters of non-ILWU sanctioned calls to action relative to EGT.” The ILWU officials came not to offer solidarity but rather to disrupt the meeting and intimidate Occupy and left-wing ILWU activists from using a bold strategy against EGT.

Fighting Policies Needed

Despite the conservatism of the ILWU leadership, EGT was ultimately forced to settle. This was due to the heroic struggle of rank-and-file ILWU members, especially in Longview, and by linking up with Occupy. An even deeper development of this militancy will be needed to defeat the fierce attacks raining down on workers and unions.

The fact that EGT would brazenly attempt to break the ILWU – one of the most powerful unions in the U.S. – should serve as a stark warning to workers everywhere. As capitalism sinks deeper into crisis, no one is safe from the rapacious drive by the 1% to make working people pay for the system’s endemic crises.

While this struggle ended in an important victory, the union leaders accepted a number of concessions related to ILWU jurisdiction over a few EGT jobs, solidarity work stoppages, and, worst of all, a five-year long contract that is excluded from the powerful master grain agreement. Nonetheless, the union won on the key issue of ILWU jurisdiction over most EGT jobs. The next step is to campaign over the next five years to force EGT into the master contract, while ensuring that concessions made to EGT are not used to undermine existing ILWU agreements.

To defend workers from the relentless attacks by the 1%, union and non-union workers need to unite and build a mass movement which returns to the fighting traditions of the 1930s – mass pickets, occupations, sit-down strikes, general strikes, and defiance of crippling anti-union laws. These struggles will have to fight for far-reaching demands that will transform the lives of millions of workers and youth and inspire them into action. Out of these struggles, we can – and must – end the rule of the 1% by creating a new society democratically run by the working class.

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