The solidarity we need for Longview

January 19, 2012

Seattle activists Sam Bernstein, Darrin Hoop and Dan Trocolli look at a controversy over the Occupy movement's role in building support for longshore workers.

LONGSHORE WORKERS in the small city of Longview, Wash., are in a life-or-death struggle for their livelihoods and community against multinational conglomerate EGT Development.

The 200 members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 21 have been escalating their struggle to force EGT--an international consortium of several Fortune 500 companies that has built a new $200 million state-of-the-art grain terminal in Longview--to honor a nearly 90-year-old commitment to union longshore labor working the West Coast ports.

In the course of the struggle, ILWU members and their supporters have organized mass pickets of hundreds to block trains from bringing grain to the terminal. The union rightly maintains that it is protected by the First Amendment right to protest on public, port-owned property.

The company and the state have taken a hard line. Local 21 is up against multiple global corporations, heavily militarized police and private security, the National Labor Relations Board, and another union--Operating Engineers Local 701--which is providing scab labor. Some 75 of Local 21's members have been arrested. The local has been fined more than $300,000. Its members have faced injunctions, pepper spray and relentless police harassment and brutality.

ILWU members picket on the docks in Longview, Wash.
ILWU members picket on the docks in Longview, Wash.

As the date for the first operational ship to be loaded at the EGT terminal nears, labor and Occupy activists are planning for mass protests in Longview. The rise of the Occupy movement has provided a perfect opportunity for wide layers of working people to mobilize in support of, and in solidarity with, Local 21 and their struggle.

On January 2, the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Counties Central Labor Council--the umbrella union body for the Longview area--adopted a resolution calling for "friends of labor and the '99 percent' everywhere to come to the aid of ILWU Local 21, and to support them in any way possible in their fight against multinational conglomerate EGT." The labor council call requests "that anyone willing to participate in a community and labor protest in Longview, Washington, of the first EGT grain ship do so when called upon by this body."

The following day, ILWU International President Robert McEllrath, who was arrested last September as part of a protest that blocked a train headed to the terminal, issued a letter calling for action when the ship arrives: He wrote:

When the time comes, [we will] publicize action that supporters of the ILWU can take to advance the cause against EGT and protest government collusion to protect commerce at the expense of workers and community...We welcome outside support for our efforts against EGT.

Occupy activists up and down the West Coast have responded to the call for solidarity and are in the midst of preparing for caravans to Longview when the first ship comes in.

However, a minority of Occupy activists are putting this potential unity in jeopardy through attitudes and tactics that are hostile to the ILWU and organized labor. This came to dramatic head at a Longview solidarity meeting held in Seattle on January 6.

ACTIVISTS IN Seattle had responded to a call from Jack Heyman and Clarence Thomas, ILWU Local 10 members from Oakland, Calif., to organize public solidarity meetings to help build the mobilization for Longview and support for Local 21's struggle.

The resulting January 6 event at the Seattle Labor Temple brought out 150 people to hear a panel of speakers, featuring a rank-and-file union member from Local 21, as well as Occupy Seattle activists, an Occupy Oakland activist, Heyman, Thomas, a rank-and-file ILWU member from Portland, a fundraising pitch and musical entertainment.

One hour and 45 minutes into the program, some ILWU officials and rank-and-file members from Seattle's Local 19, Portland's Local 8 and other ILWU locals, grew impatient waiting for the question-and-answer section of the event and interrupted the meeting, demanding that McEllrath's letter be read.

A shouting match ensued between those ILWU members and some people from the Occupy movement. Not long after the shouting began, shoving broke out between the two sides. Accusations that ILWU members threw punches and made sexist and derogatory comments toward female activists have been aired.

Any use of sexist and derogatory language or of force to disrupt a meeting of rank-and-file union members and supporters is reprehensible. While these actions shouldn't be seen as representing the entire ILWU, the chaos that ensued did tarnish the image of the ILWU in the eyes of some activists in attendance.

However, the way the event was organized--as well as the message coming from event organizers--had angered and alienated some members of the ILWU, as well as other unionists, even before the meeting took place.

In outreach materials used to build for the Longview solidarity panel , this minority of Occupy activists declared that "the Occupy movement has become a new type of movement of unemployed, low-waged, and casualized workers, both in the workplace and outside of it. We are the 89 percent of the U.S. working class that is not unionized."

In so many words, the organizers of the January 6 event were claiming that they had greater authority than the ILWU to determine how the Longview struggle should be conducted.

Furthermore, in a statement regarding the December 12 West Coast Port shutdown, the event organizers argued that it is no longer possible for established labor unions to meet the needs of today's workers in standing up to the 1 percent--and that it's time for the Occupy movement to take over:

While the union leaders, stuck in their old ways of thinking and obeying the rules of the 1 percent, are unable to support the activity of large numbers of non-unionized workers, we, as the Occupy movement, have shown that we carry none of that legalistic baggage. We are the new phase of the workers' movement.

To start with, this is factually untrue. The Occupy movement is far from an organization of unrepresented workers at this point. Moreover, such arrogance, inflammatory and insulting language, and hostility to unions only served to increase labor skepticism of the Occupy movement at a time when unity between the two struggles is so important.

A key strength of the Occupy movement--and one reason why it gained huge support so quickly--is the way it has given voice to the 99 percent in society, including members of organized labor. Union members have been at the heart of the Occupy in cities all over the U.S. Unions have provided valuable financial and material support, and labor activists were central to defending the Occupy encampments from police--for example, in Zuccotti Park in New York City--until the evictions were finally carried out.

These links between organized labor and the young, usually nonunion workers participating in Occupy highlight the potential to build a fighting working-class movement. The 1 percent has always sought to pit unionized workers against non-unionized workers in a race to the bottom for both. The Occupy movement, along with key struggles like that of Local 21, have brought class politics back into the mainstream political dialogue and motivated both rank-and-file union members and non-union workers to fight back together against the attacks of the 1 percent.

THAT IS why the anti-union politics of some Occupy activists in Seattle is so destructive. It has undermined the real potential to build greater ties between the Occupy and labor movements. This played out concretely in two ways in relation to the Longview solidarity meeting in Seattle.

First, the organizers of the panel never invited ILWU Local 19 in Seattle to participate in an event that was supposed to build solidarity for a crucial longshore struggle.

It's important to remember that Local 19 members had already shut down the Seattle ports on September 8 in solidarity with Local 21. Inviting a Local 19 official to speak on the panel could have gone a long way toward strengthening the relationship between the local longshore union and Occupy Seattle in the process of collaborating to build solidarity for Local 21.

Local 19 might have declined the offer, but this would have at least provided the local with the opportunity to speak as panelists if it chose to. Instead, ILWU Local 19 officials saw the solidarity meeting as something happening outside of their union, rather than an opportunity to work with Occupy to support the Longview workers' struggle.

Second, the ILWU members were simply asking that ILWU President McEllrath's letter be read--a letter that calls for solidarity efforts and a mobilization to Longview. Yet the organizers of the solidarity event refused to allow this until the discussion started--more than two hours after the meeting began. Once the letter was finally read, the situation de-escalated, and most ILWU members left the hall.

Allowing ILWU members to read the letter immediately may or may not have prevented the conflict from escalating. But this much is certain: There was no good reason not to allow it to be read. The letter, after all, is an official call to action from the democratically elected president of the ILWU. On the contrary, giving union officials the podium to read the letter would have made it easier to organize the widest possible official labor support for the Longview workers.

Instead, the meeting organizers assumed from the outset that ILWU officials would be antagonistic at the meeting--which became a self-fulfilling prophecy once they were refused a chance to read their letter.

Some organizers of the January 6 meeting have used the altercation that took place to not only to condemn ILWU officials, but unions in general. In a statement about the disruption of the meeting, a minority of Occupy activists in a group called the Black Orchid Collective (BOC) declare, "They were goons, doing what exactly the bosses want them to do. The leaders of the most militant union in this country, was [sic] acting like company goons."

The BOC statement goes on to argue:

Narrow-minded, parochial tunnel visions held by bureaucrats and their loyal followers will only destroy class struggle...The problem is that old forms of struggle that gave birth to the unions no longer work in this globalized world, and the union leaders are sending goons to prevent us from building something new that actually would work; they are trying to prevent us from transcending their dying structures, and they are insisting that we all go down with the ship.

Using a term like "goons"--a description of union members typically used by the right--is a reflection of the anti-union politics of the BOC. Certainly such a term does nothing to address the legitimate debate going on within the ILWU about how best to build solidarity for Local 21.

ALSO, THE BOC claim about the obsolescence of "old forms of struggle that gave birth to unions" is simply not true. In fact, the direct actions led by Local 21 members, the September shutdowns of Northwest ports by ILWU members in solidarity with Local 21, and the solidarity efforts between some ILWU members and the Occupy movement contrast sharply with the typical labor-management "partnership" model that has led to a near record low in the percentage of workers in unions. It is worth noting, once again, that ILWU President McElrath has put himself on the front lines in Longview, something rarely seen from top labor officials.

But the organizers of the Seattle solidarity meeting ignore all this. Instead, they see the disruption of the event as a confirmation of their theory that unions are an obstacle to struggles for change. This allowed some in the ILWU to point to these activists' anti-union attitudes--and their refusal to allow McEllrath's letter to be read--as vindication of a cautious approach toward the Occupy movement.

Thus, following the disrupted meeting and the BOC's statement about it, Local 19 members overwhelmingly passed a resolution breaking all ties with Occupy. It stated, in part:

Whereas: we support the general critiques of the "Occupy" movement on our government and the economy, we object to their interference with our union's democratic process and in our struggle with EGT in Longview. The "Occupy" movement has tried to substitute themselves for the membership in our struggle with EGT, and has attempted to subvert the ILWU.

This vote is a blow to the solidarity effort around Longview in particular, and to relations between Occupy and the unions in general. That's why it's important for Occupy activists to make it clear to ILWU members that forces like the BOC are a minority of the Occupy movement. While the BOC may like to think it represents the struggle, there are many Occupy activists in Seattle, both union and non-union, who disagree sharply with its views.

In fact, the January 6 solidarity meeting wasn't an official Occupy event. It was sponsored by some activists within the Occupy movement. Had there been more time to democratically plan out the solidarity meeting, it's likely the chaos could have been avoided.

Instead, the way the meeting was organized reflected the politics of the BOC--politics that weaken the potential to unite the labor movement with Occupy, to rebuild and strengthen the unions, to organize the unorganized, and to contribute to a new labor upsurge.

Now, with a ship to transport scab grain expected in Longview soon, the task is to ramp up the solidarity effort and build the caravans to Longview for a rally called by the ILWU. Solidarity action against EGT and its corporate backers is being planned in other cities as well.

Together, labor and Occupy can mobilize thousands of union members and supporters to Longview to protest EGT's first ship. That message of unity and solidarity would show EGT and the 1 percent exactly what they're up against--and could inspire working people across the U.S.

Whether the ILWU wins or loses in Longview, this struggle will play an important role in shaping the future of the dockworkers' union, organized labor and the struggles of all workers. It is imperative that the Occupy movement works with the union movement to ensure that our side wins.

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