The ILWU has drawn a line

October 11, 2011

Jeff Johnson is president of the Washington State Labor Council. He is part of the effort to build solidarity for the struggle of longshore workers against EGT Development, a multinational joint venture that refuses to honor its contract and use International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) labor at a new grain terminal at the Port of Longview.

On September 29, more than 1,000 people rallied at the Civic Center Park in Longview, Wash., in support of ILWU Local 21. Here, Johnson talked to Darrin Hoop about the significance of this modern-day labor war--for workers in Washington and around the country.

WHY IS this struggle in Longview important for workers in the U.S. to be paying attention to?

I THINK it's important for several reasons. The ILWU has drawn a line in the sand, saying to this corporation that we're tired of being disrespected by companies that throw their money around. That disrespects the traditions, history and culture of a local community. Longshore has had a contract with vendors at the port since 1934 here in Longview, and everyone has respected that contract, but for EGT and their arrogance.

I think in the context of the global attacks on labor, working folks, immigrants, the elderly and students, this struggle has also drawn a line that we don't buy this bullshit about debt ceilings, deficits and austerity budgets. Just like the corporations have the money and could afford the contracts, they also have the money to pay the taxes that they're not paying right now, so that we wouldn't be in the situation we're in right now.

WHAT DO you think about the police brutality that's taken place? So far, there have been 135 arrests during the struggle in Longview.

Members of ILWU picketing in July at the Port of Longview
Members of ILWU picketing in July at the Port of Longview

I THINK it's outrageous. I think it's incredibly disrespectful. I think they are disrespecting people's First Amendment rights. I've done civil disobedience enough, and I've been arrested enough in my career to know that law enforcement needs to be respectful of those folks expressing their opinions.

There's no reason to yank a 57-year-old woman's arm so hard that she tears a rotator cuff. There's no reason to jam another woman's face down into the gravel of the railroad bed. They weren't resisting. They certainly weren't resisting violently.

You just go along with it. You allow them to do what they need to do to express their rights, and the police do what they have to do. Basically they have been brutalizing and intimidating workers in the name of private property. This is nuts.

ILWU PRESIDENT Bob McEllrath made a sharp statement in a letter to longshore members about the role of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in trying to limit the number of pickets. What do you think about the role played by the NLRB and the courts in this struggle?

THE NLRB and the courts can say whatever they want. The thing is people are going to do what they feel like they need to do. They can say only six people on the picket line, but at some point, if we aren't being heard, there will be 36 people on the line. There's going to be 360 people on the line. They can do whatever they want, but folks are going to say, "Listen to us and do something."

IN THIS battle, some of the high points have involved tactics that are debatable as to whether they're legal or not, with massive civil disobedience involving hundreds of people blocking the railroad tracks. Do you have any thoughts on that sort of mass direct-action civil disobedience for the labor movement?

I THINK that the labor movement will increasingly use these tactics--more and more civil disobedience, more and more arrests. At this point, since we have no control over corporate media and it's very difficult to get our message out beyond a thin layer of activists, we're going to have to do more and more public forums, more and more public education sessions, more and more civil disobedience to send our message: We stand for fairness.

FOR OTHER union workers and unions around the U.S., what concrete things can they do to support ILWU Local 21?

AT THIS point, we've been working closely with the longshore leadership, including ILWU International President Bob McEllrath and Local 21 President Dan Coffman. We've been doing the things that they want right now. They've been clear that they don't want side actions going on. We've offered a number of things to them and lots of resources, we're waiting on them to tell us what they need.

However, organizations passing resolutions in support of the longshore workers is always helpful. We can get that out into the community down here so it sees that it's getting attention, not only in the state, but outside the state. I just got a resolution from Tim Paulson, executive director of the San Francisco Central Labor Council, that they passed in support. More and more of this is going to happen.

DO YOU think there's a connection here with what happened in Wisconsin? That there's a sense among workers in the U.S. that their backs are against the wall, and they have no choice but to fight? Do you think workers here are learning from Madison?

THIS IS Longview's Madison moment. They saw what happened in Madison, and what happened in Ohio. The ILWU, like many of our other unions, sent folks to the Midwest to help fight.

I think some of the lessons we learned from Madison are that the labor movement is a lot larger than unions. That's what they're learning down here as well. The ILWU has a lot more members out there who don't have union cards, but want to support them. It's another one of those moments that's applicable all across the country and the world right now. Workers and the community are standing and saying, "Enough is enough."

WHAT WILL it take to win?

THE SOLIDARITY that we felt at this rally needs to be multiplied tenfold, a hundredfold in this community itself, never mind the folks from outside this community. That will make the difference.

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