Another look at the ILWU Longview strike

Real victories in today’s labor movement are few and far between. Indeed, there are none over the past 40 years or so, especially in the U.S., that were powerful enough to stop the crisis-ridden system of exploitation and oppression in its tracks and open the door for a labor offensive capable of inspiring millions to take on the bosses head on and win.

The very modest “victories” that we have seen have been at best partial. Most have consisted of defensive battles aimed at preventing the worst of the ruling-class efforts to roll back the major advances of the past and keep a semblance of the hard-won gains that were codified in union contracts.
To challenge the worldwide and all-pervasive capitalist offensive today requires a qualitatively higher level of working-class organization, solidarity, and leadership than currently exists or has ever existed. But history demonstrates time and again that, while no one can predict where or when the first major battles will take place, when they do break out they will involve a fundamental break with the past—including the formation of new working-class organizations, new alliances with the oppressed, a qualitatively revitalized and expanded trade-union movement born of splits and unifications, and the emergence of a new and fighting leadership armed with a program to win and dedicated to taking on the boss class and all its institutions.
The hammer blows inflicted today will inevitably give rise to an unprecedented fightback, which will shake the very foundations of the capitalist system itself. In the meantime, it is essential that socialists prepare the organizational and political ground to help lead the 99 % when their growing consciousness of the source of their misery begins to crystallize and real victories are within reach.
It is in this context that a second look is in order at the hard-fought battle of Washington state ILWU Local 21 members to defeat the concerted union-busting efforts of multi-billion-dollar grain exporters, local and state police, reactionary courts, and an Obama-ordered Coast Guard military mobilization.
“ILWU Local 21 Victory! Longview port workers set an example for the entire labor movement” was the headline of an account by this writer of Local 21’s heroic struggle that ended in late February 2012 with a union contract. Unfortunately, when we went to press, the terms of the contract were still unknown. We did know that ILWU Local 21 had won a contract—one that the boss class sought to deny them as part of their long-term effort to challenge the unionization of West Coast ports. We knew that all scabs had been removed from the new $200 billion, state-of-the-art ENG Corporation’s grain facility in Longview and that the intended scab ship, its scab tug boat, and Obama-ordered Coast Guard escorts had departed from the region. We knew that Local 21 members were to be hired at the previously scab-operated facility.
Most important, we knew that this was achieved beginning with the mobilization of Local 21’s ranks, a small group of some 250 members, only some 40 of whom were slated to work at the new plant. ILWU members from the unionized ports in Seattle, Portland, and other nearby areas aided them.
These courageous workers gave an accounting of themselves that inspired sections of the labor movement and its allies. In pitched battles, scab-operated trucks and trains loaded with grain from the nation’s heartland were challenged and/or stopped dead. Tons of grain were dumped onto the tracks. The forces of repression were challenged head on, and sometimes with firm “movement away to safety” by the fighting union ranks. In court the employers later called this “kidnapping.”
The boss retaliated with mass force, arresting hundreds. Fines exceeding $1 million were levied. The workers responded with appeals sent nationwide for support and solidarity. Labor councils throughout the immediate area and beyond responded with reinforcements and financial aid, as did the ILWU top leadership—the latter mostly in toothless proclamations whose militant language often masked stern warnings against extending the Longview struggle to all West Coast ports.
Local 21’s fighters were given critical boosts when the Oakland Occupy movement twice shut down the Oakland port in solidarity and successfully mobilized to close ports in other cities as well. About 20,000 mobilized by Occupy Oakland closed that port for a day. The combination of union and Occupy forces, especially in Oakland, Seattle and Portland, proved to be decisive when a national mobilization was, in effect, jointly called to meet the government-escorted scab ship sent to load grain from the Longview facility.
It was only at this point that Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, who had rejected union efforts to mediate some dozen times, decided, obviously in collaboration with the Obama administration, that it was not to their advantage to risk the spectacle of thousands of workers and their allies confronting federal, state, and local police and related militarized forces. In the context of an angry working class, with a clearer focus than in decades on the culpability of the ruling rich in their misery, government officials, headed by Gregoire, decided that their chances of inflicting a major blow against the ILWU were greater at the bargaining table than on the picket lines. In that manner, a negotiated “settlement” was reached.
It took weeks for the terms of the settlement to become widely known, and indeed, the details continued to be negotiated long after scabs were ordered from the plant, the union pickets were taken down, and the government’s forces of repression were removed.
The final contract, approved by the ranks (by all reports) under threat of reprisal from the ILWU bureaucracy should it be rejected, were quite different than most workers and their allies had expected. ILWU Local 21 was recognized as the bargaining agent, and a contract was signed, but it was far different and qualitatively weaker than the contracts of most ILWU locals in the grain handlers’ industry.
While most ILWU locals have a union hiring hall to dispatch workers in seniority order to the workplace, the contract was not at all clear about where final authority on this issue resided. The contract excluded ILWU members from working in the new facility’s central control room, a contract provision previously insisted on by Local 21.
The hated 12-hour or perhaps 12 1/2-hour shift was included in the new contract. While some locals had already acceded to this shift, it was far from the norm in the industry. Equally important, the new contract did not include an “amnesty clause,” the traditional agreement in ILWU contracts that all company charges against union members would be dropped. Worse still, the contract’s expiration date was set so as to not coincide with ILWU locals in the same industry. Thus, the bosses achieved their first fracturing of the bargaining unit. This always operates to the detriment of any union local because it is compelled to negotiate without the combined power of the entire union behind it.
The above concessions were extracted from Local 21 members under pressure from their “international” leadership, whose role in the long battle more often than not was to thwart the full mobilization of the ILWU ranks—citing their “obligations” under the “slave-labor” Taft Hartley law—in support of Local 21. This included warnings and threats of reprisals against ILWU locals that collaborated with Occupy groups. Some ILWU local officers went so far as to act as thugs in efforts to break up or disrupt Portland and Seattle Occupy meetings that had been called to mobilize solidarity for Local 21 when the scab ship was expected to arrive.
What Local 21 and its leadership had achieved on the picket lines up and down the state, and in Longview, was in significant part undone by ILWU’s hidebound bureaucracy. In the end, the significantly demobilized Local 21, threatened with million-dollar fines that the ILWU tops implied or stated would not be paid, saw no alternative but to accept the settlement, in great part negotiated by the international in collaboration with the anti-union Washington governor.
One of Local 21’s proudest and most courageous rank-and-file fighters, Mike Fuqua, was invited to be a keynote speaker at the recent Stamford, Conn., conference of the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC). The hundreds of activists in the hall accorded Fuqua a standing ovation. Virtually everyone saw him as the expression of a union local that had stood firm against great odds and at great risk to the bosses’ offensive. Fuqua, one of the few Local 21 activists who voted against the contract, was a living example of working people who stand up to challenge the insults that are inflicted daily, and who fight to win.
Fuqua termed the settlement a “partial victory,” stemming not so much from of the terms of the contract, but because of the fighting spirit and unity of the ranks, which was transmitted across the country. It was far better to have fought a good fight and lost than to have not fought at all—a maxim that will ring true in the initial skirmishes today that will lead to the major class battles ahead.
> The article above was written by Jeff Mackler, and first appeared in the May 2012 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.