Unions That Used to Strike

The ILWU, once known for its militancy and political radicalism, faces a choice between nurturing rank-and-file power and a 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.

A Vulnerable Union

The six-year collective bargaining agreement between the Longshore and Clerks division of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the employers’ Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) had expired by July 1, 2014. As talks extended into overtime, this once mighty union appeared more vulnerable than at any other point in its history, its capacity to defend its members’ living standards and working conditions at an all-time low.

The ILWU leadership had entered negotiations reeling from a run of humiliating setbacks, with the precedent-setting contract between the giant multinational grain combine Export Grain Terminal (EGT) and Local 21 in Longview, Washington, the obvious turning point. By this agreement, finalized on February 10, 2012, the union agreed to historic concessions, giving up its fight for the standard ILWU contract – won through decades of struggle — that prevailed with the four giant corporations of the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association (PNGHA).

Control of the hiring hall, long the cornerstone of its power, was relinquished. Won in the great West Coast maritime strike of 1934 and sustained by strike action in 1948 in defiance of the Taft-Hartley Act’s ban on the closed shop, the hiring hall gave the union unparalleled leverage. The ILWU was able to control the companies’ labor pool by confining it to those who were already ILWU members, as well as by determining which members will be dispatched when employers call to fill positions.

The ILWU leadership ceded to management other hard-won rights and powers, especially to stop work and to set up picket lines without company reprisal, that had previously enabled members to defend their work rules and maintain safe conditions on the dock. The outcome was to hand over untrammeled control of the labor process to EGT, who now has the sole authority to hire and fire and even to bring in scabs in case of strike action.

Despite the historic reversals it entailed, ILWU President Bob McEllrath hailed the EGT contract on its signing as “a big win for the ILWU.” This was not a verdict he would be able to consistently defend. ILWU Coast Committeeman Leal Sundet boasted that the agreement would be “key to the standardization of the grain export industry on the West Coast, particularly with regard to labor costs” and that “it guarantees profits throughout the market chain.”

Sundet could not have been more correct. The EGT contract would, in a matter of months, become the model for another hugely concessionary contract demanded and unilaterally imposed by the operators of the region’s other grain export terminals.

Grain Handlers Contract

The EGT agreement with the ILWU set off an earthquake, whose reverberations are still being felt throughout the grain export business of the Pacific Northwest. In 2009, Bunge North America had created EGT, in partnership with the Japanese conglomerate Itochu and the Korea-based STX Pan Ocean, with the goal of seizing a leading position in the exploding Chinese grain market.

Bunge is, along with Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, and Louis Dreyfuss, one of the four so-called “ABCD companies” — the global cartel that has long dominated international grain. Itochu is the second largest marketer of grain and food products in Japan. STX Pan Ocean is one of the world’s leading shipping companies of agricultural products.

The Chinese grain market was expected to increase by at least 60% in five years, and EGT aimed to become the lowest cost producer in terms both of technology and labor costs. Its brand new, state of the art $200 million grain export terminal was the first of its kind to be built in the US since 1985. EGT’s precedent-shattering contract with ILWU Local 21 gave it control of the production process and power over the labor force unmatched by any of its rivals in the Northwest.

EGT’s competitors had little choice but to respond in kind. Virtually all of the grain export companies in the region initiated multi-million dollar modernization and expansion projects to keep up with EGT. This included the Kalama Export Company in Kalama, Wash., co-owned by the “ABCD” cartel member Archer Daniels Midland and the huge Japanese trading company Marubeni Corporation, which had gotten a head start on the other grain merchants of the region by securing its own highly concessionary contract from the ILWU as far back as the 1980s (when it was owned by Peavey/ConAgra), only enhancing its position from that time on.

The four grain export giants of the PNGHA, who represented the remaining corporations in the field, made clear from the outset that, in their new contract with the ILWU, they would accept nothing less than what EGT had already secured from the union.

In December 2012, the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association (PNGHA) cut off its negotiations with the ILWU and announced that its member corporations would put into effect its “last, best and final offer.” This was essentially the same proposal that they had brought to the table at the beginning of talks the previous September.

As the PNGHA itself explained, they had “entered bargaining with the goal of leveling the playing field with their competitors,” and would “be happy to sign the agreement the union signed with EGT.”

ILWU President McEllrath and Coast Committeeman Sundet were put on the defensive because they had agreed to these same provisions only a short time before. But they now denounced the deal, and the roughly 3,000 workers represented by the four locals involved with the region’s grain export terminals overwhelmingly rejected it, with 94% voting against the employers’ proposal. The grain exporters went ahead with it anyway and the ILWU leadership meekly ordered its members to continue to work under its provisions, with no apparent strike strategy for securing the reversal of its ultra-concessionary terms.

Things would only get worse. In February 2013, United Grain of Vancouver, a subsidiary of the famed Japanese conglomerate, the Mitsui Corporation, locked out its union employees and in May 2013, Columbia Grain of Portland, owned by the big Japanese trading company the Marubeni Corporation, followed suit.

The union seems to have pinned its hopes on a temporary agreement reached separately with the huge US multinational TEMCO, a joint venture of the agribusiness behemoths Cargill and CHS, a farmer-owned cooperative. TEMCO had been the fourth member of the PNGHA, but had decided to drop out of the employer association for the time being to sign with the ILWU.

Yet it was never clear how the International planned to force United Grain and Columbia Grain, along with Louis Dreyfuss, to accept the still concessionary but less employer-friendly terms it had negotiated with TEMCO, since the union had relinquished any opportunity it might have had to use TEMCO to whipsaw United Grain and Columbia Grain by allowing those corporations to continue to operate using strikebreakers.

This was especially so because TEMCO’s contract with the ILWU bound it to whatever agreement those companies ultimately reached with the union. There would, in other words, be no break in the employers’ united front — the outcome of the struggle would apply across the board throughout Northwest grain.

The ILWU International leadership has pursued negotiations with the employers behind closed doors, providing little information to the rank-and-file. It has confined itself to a strategy of going to the courts and Japan-bashing, hoping in particular that the National Labor Relations Board would agree that its “foreign” opponents had engaged in unfair labor practices and order them to end their lockouts.

This even while informing its members, with a wealth of examples taken from its own legalistic campaign against the PNGHA grain export giants, of how difficult it is today for unions to win in the courts, given how systematically biased the institutions of justice and law enforcement are against labor.

ILWU President McEllrath claimed that the “TEMCO agreement was achieved because American companies, farmers, and workers recognize a common interest in our country’s resources and economic well-being,” a remarkable assertion in view of the all-out war US corporations have been waging to sustain their profits at the expense of American workers over the last forty years.

Private sector union density in that period has been driven down to 6%, real wages have declined, and the concentration of income and wealth at the top has reached Gilded Age proportions. Cargill may be an American firm with its headquarters in Minneapolis, but that only begins to tell the story. The company operates all over the world, with more than 1,000 production sites in sixty-six countries, employing 140,000 workers. Its annual revenue in 2013 reached $136.7 billion, making it the largest privately held corporation in the US — ranking number nine on the Fortune 500 list, ahead of Ford Motor Company. It controls no less than 25% of total US grain exports and 22% of the meat market.

Cargill has won recognition from the Council on Economic Priorities as having the worst environmental record in the agribusiness industry. It has run up an impressive record of product safety violations, with serial contaminations at their beef, pork, and poultry operations. It has gained the attention of OSHA with its never-ending list of on-the-job safety and health infractions. There is reason to doubt that Cargill established this sterling reputation by recognizing a common interest with farmers and workers.

On the other hand, the International has at no time sought to mobilize the grain handler rank-and-file — the only way to amass power to win gains — but has done what it could to squelch all independent initiatives from below.

Portland Local 8, one of the two Northwest ILWU locals hit with the lockout, actually voted to reject the agreement with TEMCO, due to the extent of its concessions. Shortly after Columbia Grain began its lockout, this same local sought to initiate a fight back by organizing a rally in a nearby park to build solidarity and union strength. Seven different union locals in the Portland area voted to join in. A contingent of longshoremen from ILWU Local 13 in the Port of Los Angeles journeyed to Portland to see how they could help. However, the International leadership opposed the effort, saying it could result in injunctions or fines.

Portland Local 8 militants also proposed putting pressure on Columbia Grain by getting the local building trades to stop crossing ILWU lines to work on the company’s $60 million expansion and modernization project. But former Portland 8 President Jeff Smith stepped in for the International to squash the initiative.

The union claims that it has “maintained strong, round-the-clock picket lines” at the locked out companies. Yet the fact remains that United Grain and Columbia Grain have been running scabs across the union’s lines with impunity since their respective lockouts began. The International insists that the best time to block the strikebreakers is at the grain harvest, but there have been two harvests since the PNGHA contract expired, and a third is now in progress, with no union action.

This is unheard of in the ILWU’s history. The only other occasion when the employers locked out longshoremen was the contract fight of 2002. But they did not dare send strikebreakers across the ILWU lines and the union was able to hold its own against the combined forces of the maritime employers and a Bush administration bent on undermining labor. Yet when the PNGHA last deigned to meet with the ILWU on May 1, 2014, it was simply to inform the union representatives that they could take or leave the contract it had offered.

The PNGHA made its goals completely clear from the outset and executed without hindrance from the ILWU a well-worked-out plan to force the union to accept its terms. It is a mystery how the leadership believes it can continue on its present course of passively standing by as scabs do its members’ work and still prevent the PNGHA from permanently imposing the devastating concessions extracted by EGT in Longview throughout the Northwest grain export business.

Nor is it even clear at this point how the union can stop the PNGHA from going further than EGT to gain what that entity had aimed for but failed to achieve — the total destruction of the ILWU’s jurisdiction in Pacific Northwest grain handling.

PMA Expects Concessions

With the ILWU leadership putting up so little resistance to the Northwest grain merchants’ assault, it is only logical to expect that the PMA will try to take up where the PNGHA left off. This is even more the case because the cargo carriers, terminal operators, and stevedore companies who make up the PMA today face rising costs and increased competition that will put significant pressure on their profits if they can’t make gains in a new contract.

The PMA companies will have to absorb the Affordable Care Act’s 40 percent tax on so-called “Cadillac health insurance” plans slated to go into effect in 2018 unless they can shift the cost to the ILWU. They will also have to come up with major dollars for investment in innovation if they wish to remain competitive. Some of their biggest and most potent rivals on the West Coast have already brought in a new generation of robots.

Moreover, just within the last decade, the West Coast has seen its share of total American imports fall from 51% to 45%, and the competitive threat posed to the PMA companies by the Gulf and Atlantic ports will intensify even more with the re-opening of a modernized Panama Canal that now possesses the breadth and depth to accommodate a new generation of giant ships that can carry more than double the number of containers as before.

That the PMA intends to compel the 20,000 dockworkers covered by the contract to pay for its new expenses through concessionary givebacks can hardly be doubted.

How to Fight: The Example of Longview Local 21

If the ILWU is seeking a strategy with at least the potential to win, there is an example near at hand in the titanic struggle waged by Longview Local 21 to preserve the union’s jurisdiction against Export Grain Terminal (EGT)

EGT began planning its new export grain facility in Longview, Washington around 2005. Its aim was to put itself in the best position to receive grain coming from Minnesota and Montana farms by train and then send it on by ship to the lucrative, fast-expanding food markets of China, Japan, and Southeast Asia.

EGT no doubt saw the port of Longview, situated not far from the mouth of the Columbia River and possessing excellent railroad and interstate highway access, as perfect real estate. But the corporation must also have viewed this small, relatively isolated community, with a labor force suffering unemployment rates of 11–13 percent and not much recent history of militancy, as easily exploitable, with insufficient power or inclination to interfere with its project.

They certainly found a friendly local government there. The Port of Longview used its right of eminent domain to obtain a large plot of land for EGT, and the city granted the corporation millions of dollars in tax breaks to help cover costs of opening the facility, including the building of its dock, the fashioning of its rail link, and paving an access road from the port. The ILWU understandably called it a sweetheart deal, although the city of Longview believed it had secured from EGT at least fifty jobs in return for its gifts.

In January 2010, EGT and Local 21 opened negotiations. Talks continued formally for fourteen months, but the parties met face-to-face no more than half a dozen times before the company left the bargaining table, not to return for almost a year.

No serious negotiations had taken place, as the two sides were separated by an unbridgeable gap. EGT was demanding a contract along the lines of the agreement won from the union by Kalama Export Company (then owned by Peavey/ConAgra), which paved the way for that corporation to introduce the most technically advanced grain elevator of the time, and to become the lowest cost operator in Pacific Northwest grain, handling a quarter of the region’s shipments.

Local 21 had long regretted the opening that the concessionary agreement with Kalama Export Company provided the region’s grain handlers, and had no intention of repeating the mistake. It saw no reason that the large-scale grain exporter Bunge/EGT should not be held to the historic PNGHA agreement that governed the region’s other grain export merchants.

EGT had invested heavily in technologically advanced new plant and equipment and was bent on recovering its costs as quickly as possible. It intended therefore to deploy its labor and means of production without interference from the union. To take charge of coordinating production, EGT demanded that its own managers rather than union members operate the ultra-modern master console, so that they could directly control virtually all aspects of the facility’s operation.

To achieve the fullest reductions in manpower made possible by its labor saving machinery, EGT called for running the terminal on two twelve-hour shifts with no overtime pay for its workers. The company claimed the right of management to organize the labor process unencumbered by union work rules and uninterrupted by union work stoppages. Finally, EGT demanded the right to hire whomever it believed would best serve the corporation, without reference to the union.

It is possible that EGT could have negotiated something like the terms it wanted with some union, especially since it was not demanding concessions in wages. But the Longview local could not accept EGT’s proposed package without agreeing to unprecedented concessions and surrendering what its rank-and-file members believed to be the union’s legacy. EGT fully understood this from the outset, and early on decided it would have to bust the union.

Since the union’s jurisdiction in Longview was critically buttressed by the Port of Longview’s longstanding contract with the ILWU to confine work on its own property to ILWU members — what amounted to a closed shop on the part of the port with the union — EGT realized that it would have to overturn this contract in the process. As a result, a struggle over the ILWU’s jurisdictional rights at the Port of Longview became a major theme in the ensuing battle.

Were EGT to succeed in Longview, it would open the floodgates to the four giant multinational grain export terminal operators belonging to the PNGHA. For the Longview local, and the ILWU membership more generally, it was a fight for survival against formidable odds.

To defeat the EGT corporate leviathan, the local’s leadership realized it would need to take lessons from the ILWU’s 1934 San Francisco General Strike. They would have to organize the most audacious forms of mass direct action on the basis of the broadest forms of solidarity, while ignoring the niceties of private property.

The members of Local 21 made sure to unite behind them all of the unions represented in Longview’s umbrella union body, the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Counties Central Labor Council. They organized a women’s auxiliary that played a decisive part in the struggle and whose members were subjected to the same sort of brutal police repression as the members of the local itself. The local reached out to the entire Longview community, going door-to-door to even win the backing of local small businesses, whose store windows were soon sporting signs declaring their support of the union’s fight.

Hundreds of members from the region’s other ILWU locals were recruited to form guerilla brigades that would show themselves capable of engaging, sometimes in the middle of the night, the combined forces of EGT, its private Pinkertons, and the Longview police in the kind of open class warfare that had not been seen in the United States for a generation. These longshore militants understood with clarity that were the Longview local allowed to go down to defeat, they themselves would have to pay a heavy price.

Nor did Local 21 limit in any way the scope of the solidarity it sought to build. It established a close working relationship with Bay Area Local 10, the historic seat of militancy and radical politics in the ILWU. Above all, it made a point of breaking beyond self-defeating prejudices against allying with “outside elements” to forge a partnership with a rising Occupy movement in California and the Pacific Northwest that explicitly identified itself as both working class and anti-capitalist.

Longview leaders saw an alliance with Occupy as a way to take a quantum leap forward in organizing a militant direct action mass movement reaching beyond Occupy to include working people inside and outside unions that they knew would be necessary to confront the imposing axis of multinational corporations, private security forces, and hostile governments. It was to their credit that they were not intimidated, that they played the central role in actually organizing that movement, and laid out a clear path to victory that had a legitimate chance to succeed.

No sooner had EGT opened its doors to begin testing its new facility than Local 21 made clear its intention to stop production and prevent scabs from entering. On July 11, 2011, more than 100 dockworkers, including several ILWU leaders from Portland and Vancouver, were arrested when they tore down a chain link gate, burst into EGT’s yard, and temporarily occupied company property, wreaking havoc on railway cars and machinery that were undergoing their initial trials.

This action took place at a time when strikes by private sector unions in the US had diminished to the point of disappearance, and picketing to stop scabs from crossing the line in order to actually keep the company from operating had gone the way of the dodo.

Three days later, on July 14, Local 21 reaffirmed its determination to keep EGT from opening. Some 600 people — including members of the ILWU and other local labor unions — blocked the railroad tracks into the terminal and succeeded in forcing the first Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) train attempting to bring grain to EGT to backtrack toward Vancouver. It was an incredible exercise of workers’ power.

BNSF, as a result, declared they would suspend all rail shipments to EGT for what turned out to be two months. The following week, Local 21 forced EGT itself to close down “for an indefinite period,” when its pickets blocked scabs’ entry into the facility, and then sustained twenty-four-hour picket lines to keep them out. As Longview Local 21 President Dan Coffman put it, “We went from a rag-tag bunch to a well-oiled machine in a matter of weeks.”

EGT did not stand passively aside. By September 1, it had gotten a federal judge to issue an injunction to stop the union from blocking trains and to end violence against scabs.

BNSF was soon sending a mile-long 100-car train filled with wheat from Minnesota toward EGT. But on September 7, longshoremen in Vancouver managed to stop the train for a couple of hours, before some 400 union members and their supporters in Longview fought a pitched battle with police, holding it back for four more hours. In the melee, ILWU President McEllrath stepped to the front of the protest and was arrested. The train eventually got through, but the next day, according to news reports, more than 500 outraged workers stormed the grain export giant’s facility, smashing windows, cutting brake lines, damaging rail cars, and dumping tons of grain.

Upping the ante even further, longshoremen from Portland, Seattle, and Tacoma wildcatted to shut down their ports and traveled to Longview to join the fray. New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse called the confrontation “a rare show of union militancy reminiscent of labor actions a century ago.” The federal court found the union in contempt, but soon after protestors once again defied the law, as Local 21 President Coffman and nine members of the local’s woman’s auxiliary — mothers, wives, and grandmothers — engaged in non-violent civil disobedience to stop another train.

The same federal judge who had issued the original restraining order now fined the union $250,000 and another $65,000 several weeks later.

Local 21 continued with peaceful protests. But the next few weeks saw a lull in the battle, as the Local found itself at an impasse. A united front of EGT, its private cops, local law enforcement, the NLRB, and the federal courts had succeeded in making the struggle ever more difficult and costly to sustain for the small band of Longview militants and their confederates at the heart of the fight.

Where could they find allies with sufficient strength and the willingness to use it to launch an effective counterattack?

Strike on Market Street, July 13, 1934.

Solidarity with Outside Forces, Opposition from ILWU Officials

The battle against EGT was unexpectedly and dramatically re-energized when Occupy Oakland rallied some 30,000 people to march to the Port of Oakland on November 2, 2011 and shut it down. They gathered in response to the Oakland Police Department’s violent dispersal of Occupy’ s encampment, during which Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen was nearly killed when he was hit in the head by a police projectile. Coming at a time when Occupy was still expanding, this historic action electrified the movement, giving hope and inspiration to working people across the country.

The Longview leadership now saw a way to take the struggle to a new level. Coffman, along with his Vice-President Jake Whiteside and Secretary-Treasurer Byron Jacobs travelled to Oakland to thank Bay Area Local 10 in person for its contribution of $10,000 to Local 21’s exhausted war chest. With the help of militants from Local 10, they were soon building relationships with Occupy Oakland, as well as the broader Bay Area labor movement. Dan Coffman gave a talk to a joint Occupy Oakland/labor rally, where he told the gathering “When November 2 happened you cannot believe what you people did for the inspiration of my union members.”

The moment for forging an alliance between the Longview local and Occupy could not have been more propitious. In concert with other Occupy groups up and down the West Coast, Occupy Oakland was now seeking to build the movement and raise the stakes by organizing a second Port Shutdown, this time with the primary goal of supporting port workers and opposing corporations operating in the ports, notably the Longview Local 21 in its fight against EGT.

But the ILWU leadership had other ideas. It was one thing to warmly welcome, as they had at least verbally, Occupy Wall Street’s fight against the one percent. It was quite another for the International to embrace a flow of outside militancy. They could not accept what they saw as Occupy’s intruding on ILWU turf for the West Coast port shutdown, despite its targeting common opponents like SSA Marine, in which Goldman Sachs has a majority interest, and EGT.

Even worse, in the eyes of the International, was the prospect that the movement would forge a fighting alliance with the Longview local against EGT that could take the battle where the ILWU leadership had no intention of going. ILWU President Bob McEllrath put the International’s position without ambiguity:

As the Occupy movement sweeps the country, there is a real danger that forces outside of the ILWU will attempt to adopt our struggle as their own. Support is one thing, organization from outside groups attempting to co-opt our struggle in order to advance a broader agenda is quite another . . . and jeopardizes our over two-year struggle at Longview.

The ILWU International was enunciating a position with respect to Occupy that would drive it into open conflict with a Longview local that it was supposed to be defending. In fact, the ILWU leadership had been opposing Local 21 in major ways from the start of the battle against EGT, albeit beneath the surface and away from the public eye.

When EGT first made clear that it was aiming to bust the union in July 2011, Coffman, realizing what a formidable opponent his local was up against, called for the convocation of an emergency conclave of delegates from the union locals — a special longshore caucus to bring the locals and their members more fully and actively into the battle alongside Local 21 so they could fight together to stop the scabs. But the ILWU International and regional leaderships had summarily rejected this suggestion, leaving Local 21 to fight it out with EGT on its own.

Bay Area Local 10 tried to re-introduce the same idea a short time later, but was stopped in its tracks by the International. In the run-up to the West Coast Port Shutdown, it was only natural that Local 21 would seek to consolidate its alliance with Local 10, but the International did everything it could to pressure the union against accepting Local 10’s invitation to speak at one of its meetings, with Coast Committeeman Leal Sundet berating Coffman for even wanting to talk with “that bunch of commies.”

When, during their visit to Oakland, the leaders of Local 21 met with members of Occupy Oakland and took part in its march and rally, the International leadership did not hide its extreme displeasure.

In the end, in view of the International’s adamant opposition to Local 21’s attempts to find allies and build solidarity to aid their mass direct action either inside or outside the union, the Longview leadership saw little choice but to put their hopes into a partnership with Occupy and the broad array of working-class forces that might be attracted to such a partnership.

The Longview local looked to Occupy because they viewed the mushrooming radical movement developing around it as potentially capable of tipping the balance of power against EGT. Occupy had the same commitment as Local 21 did to direct action and building solidarity. It possessed a potential mass base that could stretch beyond the ILWU and the official union movement to include the ranks of non-unionized, partly employed, unemployed, and oppressed groups who had, in recent decades, been so neglected by organized labor.

The ILWU leadership rejected the alliance with Occupy for many of the same reasons that Longview sought it. They likely understood that a relationship with Occupy and the array of forces it attracted might give the union its best chance to defend the working conditions of its members that the ILWU had done so much to improve over so many years. But to say that there was no guarantee of victory would be an understatement.

Engaging alongside Occupy and its allies in a no-holds-barred showdown with EGT might easily provoke the sort of devastating response from the employer and the state that the ILWU’s leadership feared could endanger the very existence of the union. Such an assault could drain the union treasury and undermine the apparatus of paid positions on which the ILWU’s hierarchy of full-time officials, topped by the International leadership, depended for their livelihood.

If rank-and-file workers are to defend or improve their wages and working conditions, they have to do so at the expense of their employers’ profits. But today corporations are on the rampage, demanding deep givebacks across the board. On the one hand, companies confront strong downward pressure on their profits resulting from the global economic crisis and intensified competition, and they wish to compensate by forcing down the wages and working conditions of their workers. On the other hand, these same employers have secured hugely expanded opportunities for squeezing and exploiting their employees that have resulted from the massive growth in the size of the jobless population, as well as the increase in workers’ vulnerability that stems from the long-term decline of unions and the weakening of welfare state protections, such as unemployment insurance.

In this situation, if workers are to have any chance of even holding their own and avoiding a major deterioration of their wages and working conditions, they have little choice but to battle their concession-hungry bosses. If they wish to have any hope of prevailing, they need, as did Local 21, to resort to mass direct action, while seeking solidarity from an ever-broader circle of potential allies, inside and outside the official labor movement.

In sharp contrast, the labor bureaucracy finds what might be called its material base in the union organization itself, supported by members’ dues and financial investments. The implication is that they can defend themselves without successfully taking on the employer and defending their members, so long as they can protect the union as an institution.

Officialdom has every incentive, therefore, to avoid a fight with the employer that could provoke devastating counter-attacks on their organization, elicit costly government fines and private law suits, and lead to destructive defeats. But in this period of employers’ offensive, even that may not be enough. For if union officials refuse to prepare for battle against their employer, they have every reason to expect the employer will exploit the opening to wreak havoc on the union, unless the officials can find a way to appease the employer, inevitably at the expense of the union rank-and-file and especially any capacity to resist that they have built.

It was the ILWU International leadership’s tendency to conflate the interests of the union organization with the interests of the union membership — to see the ILWU as an end in itself, rather than as a means to combat the employer and fight more generally in the interests of the working class and social justice — that would soon set it on a path toward a confrontation with Local 21 in order to avoid one with EGT.

On December 12, 2011, Occupy launched its West Coast Port shutdown. ILWU President McEllrath had already dissociated the International from this action long before and much, though not all, of the Bay Area union officialdom not only followed suit, but did their best to derail the mobilization before it got started.

Portland Local 8 President Jeff Smith vehemently opposed the shutdown, went on TV to denounce it, and expressed his confidence that the members of his local would follow his order to cross the Occupy picket line. Seattle Local 19 President Cam Williams took the same line, and made certain that the King County Labor Council did as well.

In telling contrast, Longview Local 21 gave its full if unofficial backing to Occupy Longview’s pickets, and the Port of Longview was obliged to close down. A huge, unexpected contingent of 10,000 or more Occupiers showed up to shutter the Port of Oakland. Impressive numbers also massed at the Portland and Seattle docks.

In a stunning rebuke to their union leaders, the ILWU rank-and-file, from the Bay Area to the Pacific Northwest, sustained their union’s long established tradition of supporting community protests, and refused to cross Occupy’s picket lines.

Occupy’s West Coast Port Shutdown action was a success, and provided the movement with the momentum to confront what turned out to be its ultimate challenge.

The ILWU International Undermines the Movement

Even after six months of operation, EGT had not succeeded in shipping a single bushel of grain to its Asian markets, and stock was piling up at its terminal.

Thanks to the resistance of Local 21 and its allies, EGT had yet to make a penny in its primary business. Now the first ship was coming from the Pacific toward EGT, set to arrive in January or early February. Fittingly, it was Occupy Longview, closely associated with Longview Local 21, that put out the initial call for a mass convergence on the port to prevent EGT from loading grain onto that first vessel.

Occupy Oakland and the Pacific Northwest Occupies quickly declared their support. Word came through that President Barack Obama had ordered an armed US Coast Guard cutter to escort the vessel from the mouth of the Columbia River to the EGT facility to protect it from protestors. The stage was set for a showdown.

Local 21 and its allies in the labor movement and inside the ILWU had been preparing the ground for more than three months for Occupy’s call. In early October 2011, the Longview local’s officers reported that EGT’s grain elevators were nearly full — it was peak grain harvest time — and were waiting for the first ship’s arrival.

They warned in no uncertain terms that to defeat EGT, it was essential to prevent that vessel from being loaded, and Local 21 Vice President Jake Whiteside had gone to Bay Area Local 10 to seek help. On October 11, Local 10’s Executive Board answered the appeal with a resolution to contribute $10,000 to the Longview local’s fight, to call for an ILWU Emergency Coast Caucus on the struggle with EGT, and to organize “a caravan of members and other activists from the Bay Area” to go to Longview, at Local 1’s request, “for an emergency mass protest on the arrival of the first grain ship.”

At its meeting on November 17, Local 10 ratified that action and San Francisco County Labor Council quickly joined in, opening the way for the decisive steps in building the mobilization.

On January 2, 2012, the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Counties Central Labor Council issued its own resolution for a mass descent on Longview to meet the first ship. The council was unquestionably expressing the will of the Longview local, even if it did not make this explicit, for Local 21 was a leading member of the council and the force driving the whole movement.

Council Secretary-Treasurer Kyle Mackey, a leading militant in Local 21, wrote the call to action that accompanied the council’s resolution. The document recognized that “ILWU Local 21 has inspired working people worldwide” but noted that “the blatant union busting tactics of EGT” pose “the danger of losing the ILWU as a powerful ally for the working class.” The council therefore “called out to friends of labor and the 99% everywhere to come to the aid of ILWU Local 21” and “requested that anyone willing to participate in a community and labor protest in Longview, Washington of the first grain ship do so when called upon by this body.”

Two days later, San Francisco/Oakland Local 10 and Longview Local 21 answered with a concrete plan to build the convergence by organizing a caravan from separate areas to take people to Longview. San Francisco Labor Council and the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Central Labor Council were already on board. There could be no more talk that the convergence was somehow being organized by “an outside group attempting to co-opt the ILWU’s struggle.” A tumultuous, many-headed movement from the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest to the Port of Longview was on its way.

Longview Local 21 was now at the head of a broad union-based working class effort mobilized to stop the loading of the first ship, and Occupy was at the center of the alliance. As Coffman and the other Local 21 leaders well understood, their strength ultimately derived from their power to stop production. They had to focus this motley combination of forces, in laser-like fashion, on the Longview dock to stop the company from loading the first ship. This is how the Longview local had disrupted EGT’s operations in Longview for nearly three months the previous summer, blocking five different trains from coming to EGT and stopping scabs from entering. They now aimed to replicate that effort on a far larger scale.

The Longview local had worked out its own elaborate plans to enable their members assembled on the dock to coordinate their actions with the thousands of protestors expected to descend on the Port. Given that Occupy Oakland had just mobilized some 10,000 people for what was essentially a symbolic demonstration, Coffman and fellow organizers saw no reason why they could not pull off a confrontation of sufficient magnitude to turn the tide in the struggle against EGT.

No less than the future of the ILWU was at stake. The Longview leadership believed that the meteoric rise of Occupy and the Wisconsin rebellion that preceded it had brought about a significant shift in the US political climate in favor of the working class. If they could bring this climactic moment in the battle of Longview to the attention of workers across the country, they just might inspire similar efforts elsewhere and awaken the sleeping giant that was American labor.

No sooner had the call for the convergence on EGT been issued than ILWU President McEllrath sent out his own letter to the ILWU membership. Its stated purpose was to “inform and prepare the Longshore Division locals for the action that we will take when the vessel calls at EGT’s facility.” But its primary aim was to make sure that those ILWU locals and their memberships that planned to participate understood the strict rules of non-engagement.

McEllrath reminded his union that “any disruption of work by the ILWU on the West Coast docks at the same time that the Union is protesting EGT constitutes a violation of Taft-Hartley.” So showing “support for Local 21 at the same time that the vessel calls at the EGT facility must be carefully measured to ensure that the West Coast Ports have sufficient manpower so as not to impact cargo movement for PMA member companies.”

This was, in effect, a demand by McEllrath for the membership to lay down in advance their best weapon, a sympathy strike by some ports of the ILWU in support of another. That stratagem had been employed with great success as recently as the previous September by the Northwest ILWU locals, when they had abandoned their jobs to “leave insufficient manpower” at, and so shutdown, the economically pivotal ports of Portland, Vancouver, Tacoma, and Seattle. Sympathy strikes did technically violate Taft-Hartley, but the ILWU had long used this tactic to exercise its power.

McEllrath’s priority was to make certain that ILWU members “take extreme caution when dealing with supporters of non-ILWU sanctioned calls to action relative to EGT.” Yet this demand seemed problematic even in its own terms. It was of course aimed at Occupy. It had been Occupy’ s “non-ILWU sanctioned call” that had brought the convergence into being in the first place, and an alliance of official trade union forces led by Local 21, the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Central Labor Council, and Bay Area Local 10 had by now taken its place alongside Occupy in organizing the mobilization. These forces together now were the movement. Whatever the wishes of the ILWU leadership, any other individual or organization that wished to take part had to join them.

This was especially so since neither the International, nor any of its constituent locals (outside of Local 21 and Local 10), even began to organize their own effort to meet the first ship, or ever sought to participate in or contribute to the one that was developing. Toward the close of his letter, McEllrath declared that, “when the time comes” the International “will communicate with the Longshore Division locals and publicize action that supporters of the ILWU can take to advance the cause against EGT.”

No plan was ever announced and no call to action ever came.

The forces behind the convergence to stop the first ship were now careening toward a head-on clash with EGT that they believed was the only way to prevail against the corporate giant. McEllrath no doubt understood what was happening and saw that it put the ILWU leadership between a rock and a hard place.

Leadership could attempt to divide or weaken the movement, and in that way limit damage to the union, financial or otherwise. But if they succeeded, they might disarm the only force in the field that could stop EGT in the long run. How could the ILWU leadership maneuver to preclude retaliation by EGT in the event of a confrontation at the port, yet still secure EGT’s acquiescence in recognizing the union?

The forces behind the convergence wasted little time in getting down to work. Public planning meetings called by the Pacific Northwest Occupies were to be held in Portland and Seattle on January 5 and 6. Coffman was to speak at both events, along with other members of Local 21 and representatives from the other ILWU locals in the area, supporters and organizers from Local 10 in Oakland, and a couple of Occupy activists. The movement was taking off.

When the ILWU leadership got wind of Coffman’s projected role at the Occupy-sponsored meeting in Portland, Coast Committeeman Leal Sundet contacted Coffman, forbidding him to participate. Coffman went ahead anyway, and the event — at which Norm Parks, a long-time Portland Local 8 eminence and Barucha Peller, a leader of Occupy Oakland, were also featured speakers — attracted a large audience composed mainly of trade unionists representing a wide range of labor unions in the area, rather than people from Occupy.

As Coffman began to speak, the lights went out and the microphone stopped working.

In the discussion period that followed, Vancouver Local 4 President Brad Clark proclaimed that, while he supported both Occupy and Longview, he could not abide Occupy’s “misguided” efforts at solidarity with the ILWU against EGT. Portland Local 8 President Jeff Smith then seized the platform and, over the objections of the chair, Peter Little from Occupy Portland, interrupted the proceedings to read McEllrath’s letter calling on ILWU members who might participate in the convergence to be sure to keep their actions within the confines set by Taft-Hartley and to avoid working with Occupy. Most of the audience that remained filed out of the auditorium.

After the meeting ended, Leal Sundet summarily withdrew the members that the International had been sending from the Portland and Vancouver locals to buttress the Longview local’s line, leaving Local 21’s twenty-four-hour-a-day picket at EGT undermanned and vulnerable. It was brutal retribution, but it conveyed the International’s message loud and clear: there was to be no collaboration with Occupy by Local 21 or its officials, or else.

Coffman and the other Local 21 officers now felt they had little choice but to bow out of the Seattle meeting the next day. However, at the last minute a group of Local 21 rank-and-filers arrived in their place, and the standing-room-only crowd at the AFL-CIO Labor Temple gave them a rousing ovation. Local 21 militant Mike Fuqua joined the presenters, who included Jack Mulcahy from Portland Local 8 and Clarence Thomas and Jack Heyman from Bay Area Local 10. Gabriel Prawl from ILWU Local 52 chaired the session.

As the session got started, a group of some fifteen to twenty officers and members of the Pacific Northwest locals had showed up, and they soon made known their unhappiness with the event. Led by Seattle Local 19 officials, including President Cam Williams, Vice President of the Labor Relations Council Richard Eisner, and President of the Pacific Coast Pensioners Association Richard Austin, they were joined by Vancouver Local 4 President Brad Clark, Portland Local 8 President Jeff Smith, and Tacoma Local 23 President Scott Mason.

When Heyman, a retired longshoreman, began to speak, Mason repeatedly interrupted him, demanding to read McEllrath’s letter right then. Cam Williams seized the microphone and the whole contingent of ILWU officers and their followers swung into action, physically disrupting the meeting and bringing it to a chaotic close. Filmed and posted on YouTube, it was an unabashed show of force by the International, aiming to compel its dissident members to abandon Occupy and fall into line.

But the ILWU leadership would not be content with half measures, and soon moved to cut out the heart of the movement. They summoned Coffman to a so-called “Presidents Meeting” in San Francisco on January 9 and 10, 2012. There is no provision for such a gathering in the ILWU constitution. It turned out to be a kangaroo court, convened to read Coffman the riot act and put him explicitly under the discipline of the International. For two days, the assemblage of International and local officers rained down verbal assaults on him.

The International’s central beef was that Coffman was too close to Occupy and had failed to inform the International of everything he was doing with them. The ILWU officials declared, again and again, that his irresponsible course of action could end up costing the union “millions of dollars in fines and legal suits.” They said McEllrath not Coffman was the “General” in charge of the EGT campaign. The bottom line was that if Local 21 failed henceforth to fall in line with their directives, the International would refuse to cover the $315,000 in fines already levied against it, or the cost of any legal suits or fines to come.

Taken together, the International’s devastating retorts to the Portland and Seattle rallies, combined with their show trial of Coffman, had a crippling effect on Local 21 and the movement to stop the first ship, although this would not become fully clear for a couple of weeks.

Local 21 and its official leadership now realized that they were on their own in the coming confrontation at Longview – they would have to proceed without the support and in the face of opposition from the International. There would be no help with pickets and they would have to pay for all fines and any lawsuits by themselves. They could expect not only interference from the International at every step, but also unremitting hostility from the entire union officialdom of the Pacific Northwest, including not just the officers of the main ILWU locals, but the AFL-CIO city and county labor councils as well.

For its part, Local 21, in alliance with the Cowlitz-Wakhiakum CLC, ILWU Local 10, the San Francisco Labor Council, and the West Coast Occupies, had only just begun to build the rank-and-file mobilization against EGT. It had been cut loose by the International leadership before it had fully assembled its own alternative fighting force. The Longview local had held off and got around the International for almost a year while also battling EGT. Now they would have to directly fight the International at the same time as confronting EGT, a much taller order.

The results were profound. The Local 21 leadership henceforth had a difficult time steering the movement that it had done so much to create and shape. Activists from Local 21, in cooperation with their militant working-class allies inside and outside the ILWU and with Occupy, continued to build the convergence with success, as the numbers committed to descend on EGT grew impressively. Nevertheless, the organizers of the grassroots mobilization had to proceed without much official connection to Local 21, and this left them vulnerable to developments “up above.”

The fate of the mobilization to stop the first ship ultimately fell into the hands of an International leadership bent on avoiding the confrontation with EGT that Local 21 had viewed as the whole point of the convergence and the key to victory.

The ILWU leadership was willing to leave nothing to chance to make certain that there would be no showdown at EGT. Sometime in late December 2011 or early January 2012, EGT abruptly returned to the bargaining table with the ILWU for the first time since they abandoned talks in spring 2011. Washington Governor Christine Gregoire entered the fray as mediator, and, in view of the timing, there can be little doubt that it was the threat posed by the Local 21-Labor-Occupy convergence at the Port of Longview that enabled her to suddenly succeed in getting the talks re-started.

Within just a few weeks — with the first ship prepared to proceed down the Columbia River to the Port of Longview and thousands of demonstrators from Oakland and the Pacific Northwest poised to arrive at the same place — EGT came to an agreement with the ILWU, in two parts.

First, on January 23, the ILWU and EGT signed the so-called settlement agreement, ratified by the Port of Longview on January 27, which established pre-conditions for negotiating the actual collective bargaining contract. With this deal, the ILWU forfeited its longstanding contract with the Port of Longview, agreeing that EGT was no longer contractually bound to confine its hiring on land owned by the port to members of ILWU. It thereby accepted the verdict, derived from Taft-Hartley, that the port’s contract was illegal because it constituted a closed shop. It was a huge debilitating concession.

Yet in the settlement agreement, the ILWU did win EGT’s de facto recognition as the bargaining agent for its workers under the NLRB. This was a victory — Local 21 had survived to fight another day.

The mobilization to greet the first vessel had been the decisive factor in forcing EGT back to the bargaining table and, even after Local 21 had fallen away, it still posed a sufficient threat to induce the grain export giant to grant the ILWU union recognition. But once the International had seen its jurisdiction restored, it saw no further reason to keep the movement around. It accepted EGT’s demands to take down the union’s pickets and to issue a written notice to the Longview daily newspaper and to the general public “including the Occupy movement,” “urging them to cease and desist from picketing and any other form of disruptive activity directed against EGT.”

The specter of a mass confrontation when the first ship arrived had finally been eliminated and the ILWU leadership was now free to negotiate its collective bargaining agreement with EGT without having to worry about outside pressure or protest over its terms. Still, even following the signing of the settlement agreement, Hope Abramoff, one of Bunge/EGT’s chief negotiators could not keep from asking, “What about Occupy?”

Normally, Local 21 would have negotiated the terms of the Longview contract and voted to approve it, with the International signing on afterward. But this was no normal occasion, and the International would not take a chance that this militant and defiant local might somehow prevent negotiations from proceeding smoothly to conclusion. The ILWU leadership thus got Local 21 to hand over the right to bargain and to ratify the actual contract.

The ILWU constitution gives member locals the right to vote on their own contracts. But the Local 21 rank-and-file was not even allowed to see the document that the union officials ratified in their name. Ceding this right to the International was a step its members would come soon to regret.

On February 10, 2012, the contract between EGT and the Longview Local was announced, and its content turned out as should have been expected. Once the International had succeeded in sidelining Local 21 and then pushed Occupy, and what remained of the movement, out of the picture, it eliminated the only forces with the potential to stand up to the giant grain exporter. There was nothing left to prevent EGT from getting its way.

The ILWU International granted EGT virtually everything that the corporation had demanded — and that Local 21 had opposed — from the time the two sides agreed further negotiations were fruitless in spring 2011. Union rights gave way to management rights. EGT’s own supervisors would man the master console, not the union. They would also take over all the shipping clerks positions, which had previously been union jobs. The labor force would work twelve-hour shifts with no overtime. (EGT later relented on this provision, apparently because it had proved counter-productive for the company.) The contract allowed the company to use fewer workers than before to load ships, and also to use elevator workers to load ships.

Included under its new “no interruption of work” clause, as if to intentionally mock the union, the contract recognized the ILWU’s traditional rights to respect picket lines, to attend stop work meeting, to refuse to work under conditions that were not safe, and to honor “Bloody Thursday.” By the same token, it also recognized that when union members exercised those prerogatives, EGT had the right to use management and “outside employees” to replace them so that work would continue uninterrupted.

The hiring hall was nominally left in place, but rendered meaningless. EGT got the right to hire and fire at will, insisting on choosing its employees from a list of workers it had pre-approved. Of the seventy or so union members on the initial list of potential employees that Local 21 submitted to EGT, the corporation rejected half, because they were known to have played a militant role in the struggle. So much for the amnesty that usually accompanies the conclusion of a contract fight.

If this contract represented the sort of “victory” Bob McEllrath said it was right after its ratification, why didn’t the International recommend its acceptance when EGT first put it forward in early 2011?

A 1934 ILWU march in San Francisco.

The ILWU Going Forward: The PMA Contract

In the call to action that accompanied the resolution of the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Counties Central Labor Council for the mobilization against EGT, Council Secretary-Treasurer and Local 21 leader Kyle Mackey explained what was at stake in the battle of Longview. If EGT was allowed to have its way, said Mackey:

Within less than a year, when the Northwest grain handlers’ agreement is set to be negotiated all the other grain elevators will seek to either go non-ILWU or to match the eroded standard EGT creates. Shortly thereafter in 2014, the ILWU will negotiate its master contract with the Pacific Maritime Association. If they lose [to EGT and to the northwest grain handlers], you can bet the PMA will take notice and hit hard.

In the end, as Mackey put it, it will be “either no ILWU, or a union that will resemble nothing like it once was. There would be no way to fight for social justice or defend the working class, as the ILWU has done for so long.”

The contract fight against the PMA has yet to be decided, but the devastating chain reaction that Kyle Mackey predicted has so far come to pass and the rosy assessments of Bob McEllrath and Leal Sundet have proved disastrously wrong.

Pacific Northwest ILWU members have seen a severe deterioration in their working conditions and a disastrous decline in the union’s fighting capacity, the very things that worried Mackey. Put another way, the approach to struggle advocated by Longview Local 21, the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Counties Central Labor Council, Bay Area Local 10, and the Longview local’s other backers within the ILWU has been vindicated, the opposite for the strategic perspective of the International.

Does this mean that the ILWU leadership can be expected to rethink its strategy in the present contract fight with the PMA and consider means to actually stand up to the employers? There is reason to doubt it.

At the start of 2012, as the mobilization of forces against EGT was reaching its peak, the union’s chances of defeating the grain-exporting giant were at their greatest. Still, the International chose to avoid the risk and possible cost of a showdown. Today, after the demoralizing setbacks of the last two years, the International may well evaluate the task of mobilizing sufficient force to do battle with the PMA as that much greater.

There may therefore be even less reason than before to expect the union to break from its pattern of conflict avoidance. But how, then, does the ILWU expect to prevent the PMA from steamrolling over it, with costs to its apparatus and treasury?

A clue may be in steps the International took on June 30, the day of the expiration of its collective bargaining agreement with PMA, and where this story started. As the ILWU contract ran out, truckers attempting to organize a union in the port of Los Angeles rushed to take advantage of the ILWU’s newfound freedom in order to gain leverage for themselves. If the dockworkers refused to cross, the companies would have to shut down, and both port truckers and longshoremen would benefit from the stepped up economic pressure on their common bosses.

This is exactly what happened before the ILWU’s contract extension opened the way for an arbitrator to conclude that the port truckers’ picket line was not bona fide and had to legally be ignored. The leadership could claim that it was not they but the arbitrator who was responsible for ILWU members crossing the port trucker’s lines. But few would be fooled, certainly not a PMA grateful for the ILWU’s signal service.

This turn of events suggests that if the ILWU is unwilling to do battle with the maritime employers, it may go to even greater lengths to make itself useful to them.

This was the course followed by the leaderships of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) and the United Auto Workers (UAW) in their recent contract negotiations with Boeing and Volkswagen, respectively. IAM members in Seattle voted to reject Boeing’s demand for huge concessions on pensions, choosing to ignore the company’s threat to move south and go non-union if they did not accept its offer. But the IAM leadership intervened to get its members’ vote reversed, and thereby secured for Boeing giant givebacks, while preserving their own dues base.

The UAW fought for union recognition from Volkswagen in its Chattanooga, Tennessee auto plant, not by organizing a militant campaign, but by promising the company that it would keep its members’ wages from ever rising high enough to threaten the company’s position as the lowest cost producer in the industry.

Is the ILWU, once known around the world for its militancy and radical politics, about to follow the same path? Only an aroused rank-and-file, organized to take matters into its own hands, can make sure that the answer is a resounding NO.