ILWU officials shouldn’t get a pass

January 23, 2012

Bay Area labor activist Dana Blanchard responds to a recent article about a debate in the wake of a Seattle meeting to build solidarity with the struggle of the ILWU.

I AM writing this in response to a article titled "The solidarity we need for Longview." I am a member of the ISO in the Bay Area, a unionized teacher and an active member of the Occupy Oakland Labor Solidarity Committee.

I believe the article--which takes up a controversy over the Occupy movement's role in building support for the struggle of longshore workers in Longview, Wash., and a solidarity meeting in Seattle where this controversy came to a head in a physical conflict--misses the mark in terms of its tone.

The article is not critical enough of what the ILWU International is doing right now with regards to the struggle in Longview. It points out that the union's International president participated in a blockade of train tracks in Longview in September. But it doesn't address the fact that in the past few weeks since issuing a letter of support for a caravan to Longview when the multinational EGT Development attempts to load its first scab grain ship, ILWU officials have been organizing to limit action in Longview.

I think we need to have a much more dynamic look at the role of union leadership in this struggle and how it can change, depending on the pressures of the rank and file and the outside movement.

I also think the article is not specific enough in its critiques of some tactics used in the Occupy movement that actually make it hard for us to build relationships with organized labor. We have some serious debates within the movement, and the best way to have out these debates is to be very clear and specific about what tactics we disagree with at a given moment.

FIRST, WE need to be clear about what happened at the January 6 meeting in Seattle. The behavior of the people who identified themselves as ILWU officers and used physical violence against Occupy activists at that meeting should be outright condemned. The use of sexist slurs and the assault of women physically is particularly alarming and disgusting. As a female union activist who has experienced sexism in labor struggles before, I believe this is something we need to have zero tolerance for in our movement. The article does say that, and I agree--it is reprehensible, and there is no excuse.

While I agree for the reasons stated in the article that the people organizing the January 6 event should have let the letter from ILWU President McEllrath be read, there was not enough emphasis on the damaging behavior of ILWU officials who broke up the meeting--and who, by some accounts, were sent there to do so by the International.

Beyond the January 6 meeting, I think ILWU International officers right now are moving backwards in this struggle and trying to distance themselves from the Occupy movement. Specifically, Local 21 in Longview has faced tremendous pressure from the International because of the militant actions it has organized against EGT and the broader community support the local has been building.

The position of union leaders is a contradictory one: they have to earn respect from the rank and file to be elected, but they do not want the rank and file acting independently from their leadership.

This is not something new--even in a union with very radical traditions like the ILWU, we know from history that union officials can vacillate in their positions. The same people, like International President Robert McEllrath, who stood in front of trains in September because he was pressured to do so by the rank and file, may now, when EGT brings in its scab ship to load, attempt to limit the protests in Longview to a rally, rather than take more militant action to confront EGT.

The way we move union leaders to resist the kind of outside pressures to be moderate, which McEllrath is certainly under, is by applying our own pressure, through building rank-and-file organization inside the union.

Leading up to the December 12 West Coast Port Shutdown, there was a lot of debate within the ILWU about whether or not to support the action. Because of key organizing within the ILWU rank and file and some locals, many members were won to helping make that action a success and use it as a way to publicize the struggle in Longview.

We want to strengthen the work of rank-and-file activists within the ILWU to organize and make links with the Occupy movement whenever possible, but especially when it relates directly to the fight with EGT. It is important that we figure out how our strategies and tactics in Occupy show real solidarity with the union movement.

This is the reason why we need to address the tactics of the left in Seattle at the same time as we criticize the conservative tactics of the International. The behavior of a minority of activists, described in the article as the Black Orchid Collective, is being used by the ILWU International as a cover for its retreat and its clampdown on Local 21's work with Occupy.

We need to be able to talk about tactics that are detrimental to building solidarity between labor and Occupy. The Occupy movement will not build relationships with labor by announcing that we are the replacement for the union movement or that we are the "89 percent" that represents unorganized workers, as one leaflet in Seattle put it.

This puts up a false divide between rank-and-file union members and the Occupy movement at a time when there are real opportunities for us to work together. Many rank-and-file union members are active organizers in Occupy. Also, this kind of rhetoric gives an excuse to the leaders of unions who don't want to work with Occupy to cut ties, by claiming we are all anti-union.

I believe the union movement is contested political space, and those of us who are union members need to bring the Occupy struggle into our workplaces, and bring our labor work into Occupy. This organizing is very new and is going to be tricky and challenging. Around the December 12 port action in Oakland, some elements of organized labor tried to stop the action, while other union members, including ILWU members and Teamsters, played a significant role in making the action successful.

The payoff in all of this is that if we do our work right, we have a real chance to rebuild a fighting union movement in this country.

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