West coast rebound

Oakland and Longview - Jim Creegan reports on two parallel struggles

When, in October and November, Occupy encampments were being swept away by police in city after city in the US as part of a strategy clearly coordinated from Washington and among the mayors of major cities, it seemed to many that the movement had lost its forward momentum, as it temporarily did in New York and other towns. But rumours of the death of Occupy could turn out to be greatly exaggerated. On the west coast, in particular, its vital signs are particularly strong. There, it drew strength from an outstandingly combative contingent of the American labour movement, which in turn escaped total defeat partly as a result of Occupy support.

While Scott Olsen, an Iraqi war veteran and occupier, was fighting for his life (successfully, as it turned out) in hospital after being hit on the head by a tear-gas canister fired by the police during an October 25 night-time raid on the Occupy Oakland encampment, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) was engaged in a bitter battle with employers hundreds of kilometres up the coast in Washington state. In the Columbia River port town of Longview, a consortium called EGT Development, controlled by Bunge Limited, a multi-billion dollar grain shipper, was preparing to load its cargo vessels at a newly opened terminal with workers who did not belong to the longshoremen’s union. This was an audacious assault on the ILWU’s exclusive jurisdiction over all such work on west-coast ports, in place since the 1930s. To cover their tracks, EGT contracted the building and running of the terminal to an out-of-state construction company, which in turn hired members of an operating engineers union branch willing to scab on the ILWU. EGT could therefore claim that the entire struggle was nothing more than a jurisdictional quarrel between rival unions.

Although the dispute involved only about 50 jobs, the union knew that any contractual breach, however small, would soon be followed by others on the part of waterfront employers grouped together in the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), who were paying close attention to the outcome. Thus, like the wounded Olsen, the ILWU was also engaged in a fight for its life. And thus Longview became the scene of one of the most heated labour-management confrontations in recent US history.

The ILWU embodies some of the more militant traditions of American unionism. Led by Communist Party-linked president, Harry Bridges, and supported by a general strike in the city at large, the San Francisco longshoremen conducted one of the three winning labour battles that helped turn the tide in favour of industrial unionism in 1934. The strike led not only to better pay and hours, but to the replacement of the infamous ‘shape-up’ system on the docks, in which workers were hired on a daily basis at the bosses’ whim, by the equitable dispatching of members to jobs through union-controlled hiring halls that are there to this day. Strong support for Bridges among the rank and file also allowed his union to withstand the red purges of the McCarthy period.

Although the ILWU as a whole became bureaucratised like other AFL-CIO unions over the years, it still contains pockets of militant class-consciousness. The majority-black branch in Oakland - the country’s fifth-largest port city, across the bay from San Francisco - has taken the lead in organising the only political labour actions to take place in the US within living memory. West coast longshore workers refused to move cargo from apartheid South Africa in 1984, and conducted symbolic one-day port shutdowns for the freedom of Mumia Abu-Jamal, against the Iraqi war and, most recently, to protest the fatal shooting, captured on video, of a handcuffed black man named Oscar Grant on an elevated train platform by the Oakland police in 2009. (Occupy christened its encampment in downtown Oakland “Oscar Grant Square”.)

The campaign the ILWU waged against the EGT union-busters also reprised some of the prouder moments of its past. The union did not rely exclusively upon the arcane legal manoeuvres that bureaucrats typically employ these days in lieu of class struggle. Instead, beginning in May, it mounted a fightback that included mass picketing of the EGT terminal, and forming human blockades on railway tracks to stop trains attempting deliver grain. The sharpest confrontation took place on September 7-8, when 800 union members from across the Pacific Northwest stormed the terminal, while police and security guards ran for cover. One thousand longshoremen at other ports up and down the coast stayed away from work in solidarity that day; 10,000 tonnes of grain were dumped on the tracks, and railway cars disabled. The police claimed - falsely, according to the union - that six security guards were held hostage. Police tackled the president of the ILWU International, Bob McEllrath. And on September 21 the head of Longview Local 21, Dan Coffman, was arrested, along with nine members of the union’s women’s auxiliary, who were attempting non-violently to block a train carrying wheat to the terminal.

The ILWU faced fierce intimidation throughout the struggle, both from the company and the government. EGT engaged the services of the Special Response Corporation, a modern high-tech version of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, infamous for ruthless strike-breaking tactics in the early 20th century. Composed of former cops and servicemen, Special Response boasted the use of the latest military gadgets and repressive techniques perfected in Iraq. In August, Obama’s National Labor Relations Board - repeatedly denounced by the Republicans as a nest of crypto-Marxists - issued an injunction against Local 21 for ‘aggressive picketing’, soon followed by court-imposed fines totalling over $300,000. The homes of members were raided at night by police, who arrested more than 200 over the course of the dispute, many of whom still face serious charges. Federal agents circulated amongst workers, hinting that the government would deprive anyone who was arrested of the security credentials required to work the ports.

Back in Oakland …

Meanwhile, a parallel confrontation was heating up in Oakland. In response to police use of tear gas and rubber bullets to attack the Oscar Grant Square encampment on October 25, the Occupy general assembly approved a call for a city-wide “general strike” on November 2. The assembly’s call referred implicitly to the Oakland general strike of 1946. During the enormous wave of work stoppages that swept the entire country that year, workers spontaneously shut the city down for two days in response to police attempts to herd scabs on behalf of two department stores. This was the last real general strike in the US.

Its latter-day re-enactment, however, never even came close to being the real thing. Union officials, though supportive of Occupy in words, were hardly prepared to defy anti-strike laws on behalf of the movement, and no agitation beyond occasional leafleting had been conducted by Occupy among rank-and-file workers. Although individual workers bravely stayed off the job to participate in the events of November 2, the city as a whole remained open for business. Occupy members did, however, picket several bank headquarters, forcing them to close. There was also a big rally in the centre of town, from whose speakers’ platform all elected officials, including Democrats, were pointedly excluded (the mayor who ordered the police attack was the Democrat and former Maoist, Jean Quan). Later that afternoon, over 10,000 demonstrators succeeded in blockading the port, closing it down for the rest of the day and the following night. Few longshore workers participated in the shutdown effort themselves, although nearly all honoured the blockade by staying out of the ports, some complaining about their loss of pay. Media coverage focussed less on the shutdown than on the vandalism of a handful of masked black bloc demonstrators, repudiated by the majority of Occupy, and a skirmish with police over an attempt by some Occupiers to take over a vacant building later that night.

Another port shutdown was called for December 12, this time on the initiative of Occupy Los Angeles, with a view to disrupting the operations of Marine SSA, a shipping company owned by Goldman Sachs. But leadership of the action soon passed to Occupy Oakland, whose resolution called for a coast-wide port shutdown. Although the main purpose of the action was to hit the profits of the “1% on the Waterfront”, the Oakland resolution also proclaimed solidarity with the ILWU in its fight with EGT. And not for the last time, as we shall see below, the ILWU leadership publicly dissociated itself from the stoppage, allegedly because Occupy was calling upon workers to act without first consulting the union.

In the event, Occupy succeeded in closing the ports of Oakland, Seattle and Longview, while efforts in Long Beach (LA), San Diego and Vancouver were less successful. Non-union waterfront lorry drivers, mostly Latino, used the occasion to draw attention to their abominable working conditions. In most actions longshore workers respected Occupy picket lines, with attitudes ranging from enthusiastic to hostile. A ruling by an arbitrator exempted union members from disciplinary actions on the grounds that attempting to cross the lines would have posed a danger to their health and safety.

The final act

The final act in the ILWU drama unfolded in the early days of January, when it was widely expected that EGT would soon attempt to load its first ship with grain using scab labour. The union told members to prepare for mass action at Longview. Occupy, again over the strenuous objections of the ILWU leadership, organised caravans from up and down the coast to go to Longview and aid the union by shutting down the port. The federal government prepared to intervene once again on the side of the bosses by announcing its intention to have Coast Guard boats and helicopters escort the cargo ship through a “safety zone” in and out of the port. At this point, the Democratic governor of Washington State, Christine Gregoire, acted to broker a settlement between the ILWU and EGT.

Gregoire was probably motivated by a desire to avoid a big confrontation between labour and the federal government during an election year. But she had attempted to intervene a year earlier, only to be rebuffed by EGT. Nearly all actors and observers agree that it was the intervention of Occupy that made the difference. This is evident from the language that EGT itself inserted into the text of the final agreement: “The ILWU Entities shall issue a written notice … to the general public, including the Occupy movement, informing them of this settlement and urging them to cease and desist from any actions.” In the words of Clarence Thomas, an ILWU militant rank-and-file leader (with the misfortune of having the same name as the ultra-reactionary black supreme court judge): “It is clear that the port shutdowns on November 2 and December 12, and the impending mobilisation in Longview, is what made EGT come to the table”.[1]

The agreement that emerged as a result of renewed negotiations fell short of a total rout, in that the ILWU retained its jurisdiction over longshore operations at EGT. All dockers will have to be dispatched from the local hiring hall. The scabs were sent away, and on February 7 the first cargo ship carrying grain out of the EGT port was loaded by union labour. In just about every other respect, however, the contract was abysmal. The clerks at the terminal were not included in the agreement, as they had been in the past. EGT is no longer required to employ union workers for construction; the control room of the new terminal is to be run by management instead of, as elsewhere, by the union; the company was no longer required to pay workers overtime for more than eight hours on the 13-hour shifts they demanded and got.

In stipulations that greatly undermine the power of the union hiring hall, workers dispatched there must be ‘pre-qualified’ by the company, and EGT is free to hire workers from outside the ILWU if the union cannot provide ‘qualified’ workers; any worker not deemed ‘qualified’ can be removed from the hiring list “at the sole discretion” of the company. The company is not required to shut down operations for health and safety reasons. And in contract language specifically directed against Occupy and any similar movements in the future, union officers are required to order longshoremen to work behind community picket lines and blockades and to denounce any such blockades as ‘unauthorised’. After three ‘unauthorised’ work stoppages, the company can cancel the contract.

Union members fear that this deeply concessionary agreement will be seen as an opportunity by other maritime employers to savage the union. Seasoned observers speculate that the leadership of the International union (so named because it includes Canadian dockers) put extreme pressure on the far more militant Longview Local 21 to swallow the settlement. The March 14 Maritime Worker Monitor, a rank-and-file newsletter, featured its analysis of the contract under the Churchillian headline, “Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory”.

Questions of consequence

Compared to the class struggles now unfolding in Europe, the Longview/Oakland events were small beer. Their immediate impact was largely confined to the west coast. National media coverage was scant, and even Occupiers in the rest of the country were often only dimly aware of what took place. Yet the confrontations raised issues of great consequence concerning the possibilities of unity between Occupy (and, more broadly, the many millions of unorganised precarious and jobless workers), on the one hand, and the steadily diminishing numbers of the unionised working class, on the other - a collaboration upon which will ultimately depend the future of class struggle in the United States and other western countries.

The main internal obstacle to the broad campaign that could perhaps have resulted in an unalloyed victory for the ILWU was the trade union bureaucracy. The officialdom of the AFL-CIO refused to come to the defence of Longview workers at all, echoing EGT’s line that the whole affair was nothing more than a jurisdictional dispute between unions. But, despite its participation in some militant actions against the company, the leadership of the ILWU international union in San Francisco not only declined to join the call of Occupy for port shutdowns, or coordinate tactics with them, but went to great lengths to distance itself from Occupy support. As efforts got underway to prevent the loading of the first ship by scab labour in Longview, International president Bob McEllrath sent a letter on January 3 to all ILWU branches, stating that “a call for a protest of EGT is not a call for a shutdown of west coast ports and must not result in one”. The letter also urged all branches “to take extreme caution when dealing with supporters of non-ILWU sanctioned calls to action relative to EGT”.[2]

The rationale offered by the leadership concerned the severe legal sanctions the union could incur under the Taft-Hartley law for participating in any port shutdown. Branded ‘the slave labour bill’ by union militants when it was passed by Congress in 1947, Taft-Hartley forbids ‘secondary boycotting’: ie, labour action by any union against employers not directly involved in a given dispute. This prohibition deprives unions of one of their most powerful weapons: bringing indirect pressure through other employers on a company hit by a strike. Since EGT was only one of a number of companies utilising the Longview port, a shutdown of the entire facility could be construed as a secondary boycott.

Many at first thought that McEllrath’s letter was written simply to provide the union (which privately welcomed Occupy efforts) with legal cover. They were soon disabused of any such notions when several ILWU branch presidents, surrounded by a dozen or so liquor-breathed minions, actively disrupted a meeting called on January 6 in Seattle, Washington to drum up support for the Occupy caravan convergence on Longview. The international union had already forbidden Dan Coffman, the militant president of Longview Longshoremen’s Local 21, from appearing on the speakers’ platform beside a number of other rank-and-file militants and Occupy representatives. The disrupters demanded at the beginning to read McEllrath’s letter to the assembled audience of about 150, and were assured that they would be given a chance to do so in the discussion period following the speakers’ presentations. But they were not content to wait, and interrupted the penultimate platform speaker, causing a shouting and shoving match in which audience members were verbally abused and manhandled before the letter was finally read.

The speaker they chose to interrupt - not accidentally - was Jack Heyman. A veteran of the 1960s student movement and the Trotskyist left, and for 40 years a rank-and-file longshore militant and union business agent (now retired), Heyman has long served as an all-too-uncommon liaison between the union and the San Francisco Bay Area left; he was one of the main movers behind the several symbolic political strikes to take place in west-coast ports, and a key figure in the recent solidarity campaign. Heyman has for years been a thorn in the bureaucracy’s side and an object of its spleen.

Although the Longview showdown for which the January 6 meeting prepared never happened due to governor Gregoire’s intervention, the fracas gave rise to widespread controversy. Particularly noted was the response of country’s largest self-proclaimed revolutionary Marxist group, the International Socialist Organization, affiliated to the Socialist Workers Party (UK) until expelled from the latter’s International Socialist Tendency in 2001 in an apolitical authority fight. An article on the ISO’s website essentially sided with the ILWU bureaucrats against the organisers of the January 6 meeting. It argued that the latter were responsible for the donnybrook because they had failed to invite officials from Seattle Longshoremen’s Local 19 to speak, and because they should have given in to the demand of “ILWU members” to read McEllrath’s letter earlier in the meeting.[3]

The ISO line did not sit well with at least one of the group’s members, who is also an activist in the teachers’ union and a member of the Occupy Oakland Labor Solidarity Committee. Writing on the ISO’s website, Dana Blanchard, while agreeing that the organisers committed tactical errors, complained that the ISO account did not place “enough emphasis on the damaging behaviour of ILWU officials who broke up the meeting - and who, by some accounts, were sent there to do so by the International”.

Blanchard continues: “Beyond the January 6 meeting, I think the ILWU international officers right now are moving backwards in this struggle and trying to distance themselves from the Occupy movement. Specifically, local 21 in Longview has faced tremendous pressure from the International because of the militant actions it has organized against EGT and the broader community support the local has been building”.[4]

The pressure on Longview Local 21, a branch that employed militant tactics and welcomed Occupy support, was exerted by the International union leadership through the bigger ILWU Local 19 in Seattle. On January 12 this branch passed a resolution accusing Occupy of interfering in union business and attempting to speak and act the workers’ name without consulting the union (the port shutdowns are mentioned specifically) and of physical violence against its members (presumably at the January 6 meeting). It enjoins members to “withhold all support for Occupy, formally or informally” and demands a public apology from Occupy for attempting to usurp union prerogatives. Local 19 also temporarily withdrew support from local 21 picket lines at Longview.


The common thread running through all the criticisms of Occupy actions in this struggle, both from union bureaucrats and the leftwing organisations that take their part (including the Spartacist League, which from its perch on the outer margins of an already marginal left, took a position remarkably similar to that of ISO, whose opportunism in other matters the SL is constantly attempting to expose) is that Occupy was attempting to substitute itself for the organised working class.

To be sure, Occupy’s cavalier use of the ‘general strike slogan, (they have called a national one for May 1), combined with its failure to undertake any serious agitation amongst workers for the actions they announce, does indicate a certain light-mindedness about class struggle, as well as an exaggerated self-importance typical of middle-class radicalism. Some in Occupy are convinced anarchists, who tend to equate the union rank and file with the bureaucracy, and view unions as an integral part of the capitalist order. These, however, are only tendencies within a movement that, unlike much of the 1960s new left, has expressed broad sympathy with union struggles, and evinced a strong desire to come to the material aid of striking workers. A labour movement desperately in need of wide support is far more likely to find genuine allies here than in the Democratic Party.

Even the anarcho-syndicalists of the Seattle Black Orchid Collective (BOC), who have incurred the particular animus of the bureaucrats and their defenders, are not, judging by their writings, quite as unreasonable as their detractors make them out to be. They say they do not oppose the existence of unions or denigrate their struggles; they do not follow Hardt and Negri in dissolving the proletariat into some gelatinous ‘multitude’. One can rightly criticise their slogan, “We are the 89%”, as potentially divisive without dismissing the kernel of truth it contains: that the 11% who are still unionised cannot, as in decades past, be seen by the rest of the class as embodying the collective worker (there are, for instance, only about one tenth as many workers on the docks today as there were during the 1946 Oakland general strike); that, even to win defensive struggles, unions must become part of a broader class alliance that necessarily includes the unorganised, precariously employed and unemployed; and that such an alliance is bound to have a more populist coloration than the industrial struggles of yesteryear.

Yet, while eschewing extreme anarchist positions, and claiming not to be against unions, BOC’s writings suffer from a certain ambiguity on this score. They tend to argue that existing unions are defined by the legal straightjacket in which they are placed by the National Labor Relations Board, and that these legal impediments are inseparable from the process of legal union representation and collective bargaining. They therefore advocate new union structures, more akin to the Wobblies’ ‘one big union’ model, that they think will avoid these constraints. They also abdicate the fight for revolutionary leadership of existing unions, arguing instead for ‘direct organising’ methods that will involve the members in militant actions despite the leadership’s disapproval.

While it is true that one major purpose of ‘new deal’ labour legislation was to enmesh the class struggle in bourgeois legality, does BOC think that workers would do better in the semi-legal conditions under which they were forced to operate before winning the right to organise, and to which their ‘alternative structures’ would no doubt be consigned today? Then as now, it seems that the force of restrictive or repressive laws are a function of the willingness of members and leaders to obey them, and not any inherent power of the laws themselves. Experience also shows that there is no way around the existing union leadership. As long as the bureaucrats retain power, workers will tend to follow their lead, as opposed to the counsels of anyone outside their ranks. In order to replace abject class-collaboration with class-struggle methods, the existing leadership must be discredited and replaced. One way of doing so is for socialists to fight within the union for action proposals that answer workers’ needs in order to expose the leaders when they withhold support. Thus the November 2 and December 12 ‘general strikes’ would probably have been much more effective with the aid of a concerted campaign of support within the ILWU and other unions.

BOC’s arguments, however, are somewhat reminiscent of the debates concerning dual unionism that took place within the early communist movement and can, one hopes, be pursued on a comradely basis.

The trade union bureaucracy, however, is another matter entirely. There should be little patience with the liberals, social democrats and self-styled Marxists who regard groups like BOC as the enemy within, and the labour officialdom as honest comrades with whom one may occasionally disagree. The union bureaucracy is, on the contrary, a distinct social stratum, with a definite ideology and modus operandi. Deriving certain privileges from its status as a broker between workers and bosses, the bureaucracy seeks instinctively to preserve the class order in which it acts as a broker. Bureaucrats therefore typically preach a gospel of class-conciliation. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, mostly at the lower echelons, but also occasionally among top officers at the local level (Longview Local 21 president, Dan Coffman, by all accounts, acquitted himself in a principled way throughout the struggle). From a tactical standpoint, Marxists should not ignore these exceptions or be insensitive to tensions within a fragile stratum that, when all is said and done, lacks any solid material base of its own. But neither should we lose sight of the bureaucracy’s overall role as an important prop of the capitalist order within the working class.

It is therefore absurd to take the ILWU’s International’s condemnation of Occupy’s alleged substitutionism as more than a fig leaf for the bureaucracy’s instinctive aversion to anything it does not control, or to any escalation of class struggle that may ruffle the feathers of its friends in high places.

As for Taft-Hartley and other repressive anti-labour laws, the penalties for defying them are severe, and should not be taken lightly. But a general attitude of submission often comes disguised as a temporary tactical expedient. What is the bureaucracy’s long-term strategy for breaking these legal trammels? Voting for Democrats in the 65 years since Taft-Hartley was enacted has never come close to achieving its repeal. Yet AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka has nothing to propose but more of the same, having just offered up the federation’s early endorsement of a president who froze federal government wages and is trying to break teachers’ unions throughout the country. Trumka also announced his intention to spend hundreds of millions of dollars that could be used for organising, and field 400,000 campaign workers, to keep Obama in the White House next year.

Any strategy to revitalise the labour movement leads not this way, but through a broad alliance with forces that evince a will to struggle. For its part, Occupy - or at least some among what has become its most advanced west coast detachment - is coming to see its future in a convergence with the organised working class, which, for all the defeats it has suffered, can still supply a cohesion and social power that encampments do not possess by themselves. The Oakland/Longview events - a counterpoint to Occupy’s hibernation in the rest of the country since November - will, it is hoped, be the first tentative steps toward a convergence between unions and the unorganised millions, who need each other more than ever.


1. Citations from www.indybay.org/newsitems/2012/02/14/18707374.php.

2. www.longshoreshippingnews.com/2012/01/ilwu-pres-mcellrath-prepare-to-take-action-when-egt-vessel-arrives.

3. http://socialistworker.org/2012/01/19/the-solidarity-we-need.

4. http://socialistworker.org/2012/01/23/ilwu-officials-shouldnt-get-a-pass.