Military Intervention vs. Maritime Union Power

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Common Dreams

Military Intervention vs. Maritime Union Power

For the first time in 40 years, the U.S. Armed Forces will be deployed to intervene in a labor dispute, facilitating a scab operation against union dockworkers at the Port of Longview in Washington.

In the long dispute between International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) Local 21 and EGT Development, the international conglomerate is now poised to make its first grain shipment from its new $200 million export terminal, violating its contract with the publicly-owned port and the union’s jurisdiction on the waterfront.

But it may take an army to cross the picket line.

The ILWU has fought militantly against EGT’s employment of non-ILWU labor at its new facility in Longview where both leaders and rank-and-file activists have engaged in civil disobedience, blockading grain shipments by rail and facing off with police. On January 3rd ILWU President Robert McEllrath sent a letter to dockworkers explaining that EGT would likely receive its first vessel to be loaded for grain export at the terminal this month.

“We have been told that this vessel will be escorted by armed United States Coast Guard, including the use of small vessels and helicopters, from the mouth of the Columbia River to the EGT facility,” McEllrath wrote.

He added that the facility itself will be guarded by a massive presence of law enforcement, dispatched from multiple jurisdictions in the area.

Last week the San Francisco Labor Council adopted a resolution condemning the use of the military to escort the ship.

“This is the first known use of the U.S. military to intervene in a labor dispute on the side of management in 40 years – not since the Great 1970 Postal Strike when President Nixon called out the Army and National Guard in an (unsuccessful) attempt to break the strike,” according to the resolution.

“The use of the Armed Forces against labor unions is something you expect to see in a police state.”

The specter of Coast Guard vessels and helicopters escorting a scab grain ship to help break the union comes on the heels of President Obama’s signing of the National Defense Authorization Act, a law that codifies a new level of militarization in domestic law enforcement.

But while the timing may be coincidental, the decision to militarily intervene in this particular labor struggle is not. The ILWU, a union with a radical reputation, has fought aggressively against EGT’s union-busting enterprise and the stakes are high for both sides.

“EGT is attempting to break the master grain agreement and become the first grain export terminal in the Pacific Northwest to operate without ILWU,” McEllrath explained back in September.

EGT is owned by three corporations – Bunge North America, Itochu Corporation, and STX Pan Ocean. Bunge, a grain cartel player and dominating partner in EGT, insisted in negotiations that ILWU submit to two 12-hour straight-time shifts per day. Bunge also refused to allow any longshoremen work in the master console of the facility. The workers bargained with Bunge for almost 14 months before negotiations broke down early last year.

In May EGT began violating its lease agreement with the port by contracting with a third party using labor from International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 701. ILWU’s hard-won agreement with the port that guarantees all work be done by its members has been in place for nearly 80 years. The IUOE has been roundly condemned by the labor movement throughout the Pacific Northwestfor provided scab labor at the terminal.

Longshore workers escalated the fight over the summer as informational pickets gave way to more confrontational direct actions. In July workers forced a train delivering grain to the terminal to turn back as several hundred workers blocked the tracks. When the ILWU blockaded trains again in September the workers’ action was met with riot police armed with rubber bullets and tear gas. In response, some ILWU members and allies reportedly cut brake cables and dumped grain from train cars. Several ports in the region were shut down by the union for two days in early September.

But EGT has won court injunctions against ILWU, effectively restricting pickets and condemning what it calls“violent protest.” Over the past several months 220 members and supporters have been arrested for engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience, including McEllrath and the president of Local 21. The union has also been slapped with over $300,000 in fines for blocking trains and trespassing on EGT property.

Police brutality and surveillance used to intimidate the workers have led to protests by members of the ILWU Ladies Auxiliary. In September two Local 21 officials were arrested when they tried to defend a 57-year old woman who was arrested and injured by cops during a nonviolent civil disobedience action to block a train carrying wheat to the new facility. Both union officials were tackled, held down by police and pepper-sprayed in the eyes.

Yet, in addition to finding itself up against police violence and a pack of Fortune 500 companies, the ILWU has had to contend with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which has taken management’s side in the dispute. The NLRB has called for an end to what it describes as “violent and aggressive” picketing by ILWU members.

For McEllrath, the NLRB’s stance is not surprising. Since the 1949 Taft-Hartley Act, the central role of the NLRB has often been “to protect commerce at the expense of workers,” he argued in a statement to workers.

The impact of the struggle in Longview could be far-reaching. A victory for EGT might unravel and break the ILWU entirely. A dangerous precedent would be set as other grain elevators will be emboldened to spurn longshore jurisdiction throughout the region. Indeed, the end result in Longview will seriously affect the union’s bargaining strength in 2014 when ILWU is set to negotiate its master agreement with the Pacific Maritime Association.

And in the context of nationwide attacks on labor unions and collective bargaining rights, the outcome in this battle could have sweeping consequences for organized labor and workers beyond the ports.

But even with the stakes so high for labor, the national leadership of the AFL-CIO has been virtually mum on the conflict. Both the ILWU and IUOE are affiliated with the AFL-CIO whose president, Richard Trumka, has described the struggle as merely a“jurisdictional dispute.”

It’s unclear why Trumka has not been compelled to draw the line as one of his federation’s members is raiding the jurisdiction of another AFL-CIO union. But if he is willing to allow EGT to potentially break the ILWU in order to avoid condemning IUOE and risk creating a rift between that union and the AFL-CIO, it may boil down to money.

As a relatively conservative union closely aligned with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters which left the AFL-CIO in 2001, the Operating Engineers have intimated their intent to follow the Carpenters’ lead and pull out of the AFL-CIO as well. In 2006 the IUOE quit the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department, a move that indicated differences with the federation.

It’s possible that Trumka is reluctant to call out the IUOE for its behavior in Longview because losing the Operating Engineers’ roughly $3 million in yearly membership dues to the AFL-CIO is a bigger financial loss compared to the ILWU’s less-than $300,000 annual payment.

Whatever the case may be, what hangs in the balance at the Port of Longview is the survival of a union whose strength is defined by both its militant history and its powerful hold at a critical juncture of global commerce. Even in its recent history, the ILWU has stood out in the labor movement for its use of industrial action in solidarity with social justice movements around the world. The ILWU has shut down ports on the West Coast to protest South African Apartheid, the World Trade Organization, the wars in Iraqand Afghanistan, and in support of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Now longshore workers are asking for solidarity with their own struggle. On January 2nd the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Central Labor Council passed a resolution to “call out to the friends of labor and the ‘99 percent’ everywhere to come to the aid of ILWU Local 21.”

Much was made of the tensions that flared between ILWU officials and Occupy during the West Coast Port Shutdown called by the Occupy movement in December. While many ILWU rank-and-file members and port truck drivers joined Occupy activists in the port action, critics accused Occupy protesters of calling a strike without ILWU approval. Of course, there are some Occupy activists who do not understand organized labor and who have failed to work cooperatively with unions and their members. There are also some in the labor movement who failed to see the December 12th action for what it was – a community picket, not a strike.

Still, the Occupy movement has pledged its full support for workers in the fight against EGT. Occupy Oakland is organizing a caravan of activists to join protesters in Longview pending the arrival of the scab grain ship, and Occupy protesters from Portland and Seattle are also mobilizing for action at the terminal.

The Occupy call has gone out nationwide, urging tens of thousands to converge on Longview while others are encouraged to organize solidarity actions in their cities targeting EGT and its shareholder locations. On Monday Occupy Oakland and other supporters will march to protest military intervention against longshore workers.

Solidarity from the Occupy movement may be decisive in this labor battle.

The workers are fighting to defend fair standards and working conditions for the 99 percent at the docks. They are confronting a profit-hungry syndicate of the one percent. EGT has complained about the $1 million in extra labor costs for ILWU work while its biggest shareholder, Bunge, made $2.5 billion in profit in the U.S. alone in 2010.

Dockworkers will need the support of Occupy and other allies, especially as their union faces the wrath of the courts and the overall strictures of labor law. As McEllrath wrote to ILWU members, “Locals need to be aware of the narrow path that we must cut through [with] a federal labor law (the Taft-Hartley Act) that criminalizes worker solidarity, outlaws labor’s most effective tools, and protects commerce while severely restricting unions.”

In the coming days, EGT will attempt to ship grain with the help of the U.S. Coast Guard, an entity whose roots go back to 1790 when then-Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton established a fleet to collect import tariffs and crack down on piracy.

The Coast Guard may be an appropriate force to intervene at the ports from the perspective of the ruling class, which has always considered the power of organized labor as a kind of piracy.

For the workers in Longview, fighting for the very heart and soul of the modern labor movement, only solidarity can fortify their picket line against the marauding one percent.

Brian Tierney

Brian Tierney is a freelance labor journalist in Washington, DC. Read more of his work at Subterranean Dispatches, where this article first appeared.

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