Notes on ILWU Local 4 Lockout

The Grain handlers capitalist coalition PNGHA and the UNITED GRAIN corporation, owned by Mitsui, are at war with ILWU. The crushing of ILWU is a serious defeat for the entire working class. In Vancouver, Washington, ILWU members now face there ninth day of being locked out. The ILWU’s political strategy so far has been to file an unfair labor practice grievance against United Grain Corp. complaining that a lockout is “extreme.” Grain handlers have long prepared for this situation, hiring security guards, and scabs -replacement workers- sub-contracted by union busting firm J.R. Gettier and Associates. On Longshore and Shipping News, a youtube is presented titled ILWU workers reach deal with U.S. company; Japanese company locks ‘em out. 

In this, two ILWU workers talk about their situation as if American companies are good, and United Grain, run by a Japanese company named Mitsui, is bad. One of the workers stated, “We’re American workers, trying to get American jobs.” This presents itself as a practical problem for the Marxist left. One of the basic tasks of the revolutionary left is to push for a (working) class against (capitalist) class political perspective, armed with an internationalist view of linking with workers abroad. The West coast longshore is geopolitically and internally racially divided. Los Angeles ILWU Local 13 is largely Chicano, Oakland/SF Local 10 is majority Black, Portland, Seattle and the Northwest are majority White, with the latter having a long history of racism. Beyond the internally divided locals, there is no clear links with Asian Longshore. This international link would be key in isolating Mitsui and the PNGHA. Between ILWU on the West coast and Asian longshore workers, the volume of commodity trade is integral to global capitalism. Domestically, there is a one sided class war, by the capitalist, towards the working class, partly through the crushing of unions.

This video, entitled Wealth Inequality in America, demonstrates the extreme character of inequality of wealth in the US:

The video demonstrates the attacks on ILWU local 4 are getting channeled towards Japanese capital. This modern day xenophobia, which paints a foreigner as the enemy, is poison to the working class.  This displaces the class antagonism onto a foreign other, instead of focusing on the common class enemy.

This PNGHA, United Grain capitalist offensive is based on the Longview, Washington ILWU local 21 contract signed in February 2012. This contract is the worst contract in ILWU history. In summary the contract attacks all forms of rank and file power. Below are six central points of the Longview contract.

1) Section Article II 5.05- the union losing the control of hiring hall

2) Article IX 9.01- No strikes or work stoppages of any sort

3) Article IX 9.02- Delegitimizing the variety of picket lines and conservatively narrowing the definition of acceptable picket lines

4) Article IX- 9.03- Requiring the union to behave as agent of workplace discipline to reinforce the capitalist valorization process

5) Article IX- 9.04- Framing the union and the company as a team that needs to unite in a world of competition.

Many in the left were proudly arguing that this contract was a victory for the working class. This includes official voices of Occupy Oakland, coupled with multiple “socialist” groups. The capitalist are quite fond of the contract as well. Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association — said, “We’d be happy to sign the agreement the union signed,” referencing the contract between ILWU Local 21 and Kalama Export Co. and Export Grain Terminal (EGT) in Longview. The content of the contract is the radical increase of the intensity of work, and the elimination of the power of the hiring hall, coupled with an array of changes favoring the boss’ power in determining the rules of the workplace. The PNGHA proposed contract, modeling itself off the Longview contract, contains over 750 changes in the contract. It was voted down by 94% of 3,000 Northwest longshore workers; thus, creating a tense stalemate in the Northwest.

The ILWU leadership will only use legal means to fight the force of PNGHA’s offensive. If nothing shifts from this legalistic approach, the ILWU will get crushed by maritime capital. Only with the inclusion of rank and file ILWU workers throughout the Northwest and the Westcoast, can we down shutdown the ports in a unified offensive in order to defend Vancouver’s locked out longshore workers.  This type of mass action can shift the relationship of class power against the PNGHA’s capitalist offensive. If the alliance was broadened to Asian longshore, then we could take a real proletarian offensive.

This is not easy to accomplish. There exists four key forces against ILWU rank and file insurgency, first, is the physical force of the state, police, and coast guard; second, is the force of capitalist law, combining extreme fines and jail time; third, is the ILWU beaucracy, who uncritically accepts state sponsored fines, and pushed the ILWU local 21 contract, applying the logic of capitalist law to politics; fourth, is the actual xenophobic, racist, sexist and elitist practices many of the rank and file display and enact.

Given the relationship of forces in this historical moment, it is quite difficult to challenge these four barriers to develop a rank and file offensive. But these type of offenses have been done in the past. President Truman threatened to brake up ILWU in 1946. As a response, ILWU connected with Longshore locals around the world and defeated Truman’s threats. This global working class unity is still a living model for our current situation with a fragmented and disunited working class.

If a rank and file ILWU insurgent movement emerged against the PNGHA sponsored capitalist offensive, combating the state, law and the beaucracy of its own union, then it would be in a position to call on the mobilization of the working class as a whole given the certain limits of its geography. The difficulty is for such an insurgent rank and file movement of union members to fully break from legalistic unionism, and xenophobic politics. The development of revolutionary politics within such an insurgent movement would be programmatically oriented towards a classwide offensive, surpassing the politics of unionism. But to be in a position to do that, it must deal with concrete attacks by the capitalist class who aspire to destroy the ILWU. From this vantage point of conflict in motion, the real movement of the defense of ILWU, is linked with the beginning of a working class offensive. We cannot return to the mythical past. Ever since the Longview contract was signed, the ILWU’s political conditions for existence are now one of cut throat survival. The question now is how to tie the historical impulse and principle for the defense of ILWU, to form and begin a working class offensive. The question of the defense of the union has raised many objections. It is assumed that the defense of the union during moments of capitalist attack translates into support for their reactionary politics. The Republican party argues the same thing. If you march against the war in Iraq, then you support Saddam Hussien.


Nevertheless it is true, the defense of the union can lead to subordinated one’s work to the demands of the bureaucracy of the union. Generations of leftist have gone in this direction. Thus, the exact relationship of the defense of the union needs to be linked to an a offensive strategy of the class. Or in other words, the offense of the class, flows from, the defense of the union in a moment of attack. In military battles, the best defense is an effective offense. And similarly, the offense is linked with the formation of a defense. The dialectics of defensive and offensive politics, need to be applied with only the utmost precision to concrete situations. Each situation radically differs from others, making it impossible to have a blue print for such battles. Nevertheless the principles and programmatic framework can formed now, as lessons that are drawn from the recent labor battles of the last 24 months: Wisconsin, Longview, and Chicago.

We can also take a step back and see how the Capitalist want to end ILWU. A periodization of the ILWU would be as follows: 1886 to 1934 represented the first cycle of struggle attempting to establish a union and a hiring hall. 1934 to 1961 represented a golden age for ILWU, with its historic strike in 1934, the formation of the ILWU in 1937, with union rank-file militancy on the shop floor and in contract negotiations. 1961 to 2000 was a period automation and leaning on the institutional gains of the past. 2000 to the present represents the intensity of financial capital investment, hyper automation and the elimination of the Longview, Washington local 21’s hiring hall. Now, with the PNGHA capitalist sponsored offensive, a new era is being unleashed with fierce capitalist attacks, of the countries strongest unions. The 64,000 ILWU members now have a historical moment on their lap. What they do or dont will be key.