The following article by Suzi Weissman and Robert Brenner was published earlier this week in the Jacobin online magazine. It’s a great overview of the past few years of ILWU’s struggles, the Longview uprising, the relationship between militant workers and various Occupies (Portland and Oakland in particular) and the treacherous role of the ILWU international.
One of the big questions that we’re left with after reading this piece is: what are pro-revolutionary activists and militants supposed to do in a situation where union leaderships are generally playing conservative roles, and when even those leaders who play more positive, militant, roles end up getting smashed? What does it mean, concretely, that an “aroused rank-and-file” is the only means for the working class, and trade unions in particular, to get our of this slump?
Our comrades have written about similar issues and begun to tackle these questions in the past years and generated debate, discussion and even controversy – so we welcome continued interventions into the important strategic discussion and debate.
Unions That Used To Strike
by Robert Brenner and Suzi Weissman
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, once known for its militancy and political radicalism, faces a choice between nurturing rank-and-file power and a slow, painful death.
In early July, 120 mostly poor and immigrant port truckers set up picket lines at three trucking companies in LA-Long Beach Harbor, extending their longstanding campaign to unionize. The next day, workers from the powerful and historically militant International Longshore and Warehouse Union honored the truckers’ picket by walking off their jobs, immediately shutting down three waterfront terminals.
The dockworkers had found themselves contractually free to refuse to cross the port truckers’ line, when their union’s agreement with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) had expired a short time before.
But almost immediately, a waterfront arbitrator ordered the longshoremen back to work. The ILWU had suddenly and without warning extended their agreement with the PMA for three days. Following the rules of their own contract, the union told its members to cross the truckers’ pickets and return to their jobs.
This action was in line with the ILWU’s informal pact with the PMA to maintain the flow of work after their contract had run out, and it snuffed out any potential the embryonic solidarity of the longshore workers and port truckers might have had to shift the balance of power between themselves and their employers.
In a small way, it encapsulated the two previous years of the union’s evolution. Continue reading