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.
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.
I really appreciate how it looks like a lot of thought went into this article. West coast longshore is something I have very little “feel” for so I appreciate a lot of the details.
On some general stuff, it’s still not clear to me based on this article or from my other reading just how central the attacks on the ILWU are to the ruling class right now. For example, my understanding of Reagan breaking the PATCO strike in 1981 was that it was generally understood to be the government making an example out of them, that there wouldn’t be room for compromise, etc. Now with the ILWU right now the bosses are going to use this opportunity to break them if they can but my general sense is that there could be a kind of stalemate that wasn’t going to happen in 1981. I don’t know though and it doesn’t necessarily change anything either way but I think it’s helpful for thinking through the underlying dynamics of the situation.
Also, I don’t know from the article how strong the national chauvinism is. While the “American jobs” thing represents at attitude that has to be fought, sometimes such comments can be a really mistaken way of trying to win support (what they think “people” want to hear) but not represent the kind of chauvinism in which they would be against striking with Japanese longshore workers. So when it’s listed as an obstacle to the struggle, it is but there’s a question of in what concrete ways.
But I think the central points the post makes about defense through mass action are in the right direction. I think the following two sentences from the post represent this well:
“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.” & “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. ”
I want to try to push to develop the thoughts here. A general strike on the ILWU docks seems like a minimal necessary response to this kind of attack. However, there’s tactical questions of how to raise it that I don’t (and probably can’t) know. Sometimes like with the Wisconsin bill the demand should’ve been something like “general strike starting yesterday” whereas with this situation with Local 4 may be tactically better to link a call for a general dock strike to some further expected provocation by the company.
Second, while a broader general strike would be good and is necessary given the large scale ongoing attacks on the whole working class, it probably would make sense for ILWU and other militants to call on union organizations to take concrete pledges for strike action in the event the federal government tries to break the strike (it’s not often noted but the Trotskyists in leadership of the Minneapolis Teamster struggles of 1934 did something like this in the lead up to their strikes).
Third, I think the post fails to list a key obstacle, which is that the United States working class has an overall low level of struggle (with promising signs sure) and most sections are being attacked worse than the ILWU workers. (This is something AtS posts have dealt with in the past.) So while there can be a patient explanation of how defending the ILWU gains is part of defending the whole class in general (a defeat for them will only encourage worse attacks on non-union workers, etc.), the ILWU can turn that obstacle into an advantage by taking real steps to appeal to other workers. One direction of work toward that could be to oppose the various anti-worker and anti-poor budget cuts coming down the pipeline, in particular to the so-called “entitlements” as well as something like calling for “jobs for all.” Of course those could become just words on paper but they represent a political direction ILWU workers and others could take steps toward working towards.
Tied to that on the docks would be taking concrete steps to supporting port truckers and walmart warehouse workers. When the union is on the backfoot, it could seem unrealistic even to dock workers who see the necessity to do so and there is a real question of what could be accomplished given the union is fighting for its existence but for those closer to the situation I think thoughtful, practical suggestions can be generated along these lines.
I also want to comment on this idea that “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.”
First, there’s the general political issue. My take (as a supporter of the League for the Revolutionary Party), which is in line with some of the discussion on AtS recently, is that unions are not enough, a social revolution is needed and (I would say) a revolutionary party leadership must be built by revolutionary-minded workers. This means that no matter what in a union struggle, one would have to explain that reforming the union or winning a particular union struggle isn’t enough, a revolution is necessary.
Second, there’s the issue of the particular struggle. While the revolutionary critique of union leaders always applies, there have been strikes in the past in which the union leadership wasn’t an immediate obstacle to the struggle at hand. But it’s fairly clear in this situation that the union leadership does not have a plan to win and in fact, as its role in Longview showed, it will sabotage the struggle. So if some kind of practical plan to win the struggle is presented, it is only honest to say: the record of the current ILWU leadership shows it cannot be trusted to carry this out. It would be good to have a specific proposal for what to do about it (for instance a rank and file lockout support committee but without knowing the situation I have no idea if such would be possible in the locals other than Local 4 right now).
And as a concrete example of an attempt at doing all these various things (putting forward concrete proposals for action, including to win more active support from broader layers of the working class, the need for strike committees elected from the picket line because the current leadership cannot be trusted and the overall need to build a revolutionary party) in the 2005 NYC transit strike, see http://www.lrp-cofi.org/TWU100/RTW/27/invincible.html.
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