"Coastwide Port Action Can Stop Union Busting! Labour Solidarity Must Prevail"
A recent federal court decision in Portland, Oregon poses an immediate existential threat to the strongest union in the U.S. today, the ILWU, and ultimately to the labor movement as a whole. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), arguably one of the most militant unions in the U.S., has been hit with a union-busting $93.6 million dollar court-imposed fine for a secondary boycott deemed illegal under the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. The plaintiff, International Container Terminal Services, Inc. (ICTSI) is owned by the third richest man in the Philippines, billionaire Enrique Razon Jr. and operates in 27 ports worldwide, mainly in poor, developing countries.
The maritime company claims it was run out of business in Portland because of a secondary boycott by the longshore union during a long-running dispute over two mechanics jobs which are presently done by another union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). ICTSI argues the primary employer is the Port of Portland which hires the mechanics, so they claim the longshore union organized an "illegal" secondary boycott. For the ILWU's part, it was a foolish top down campaign organized by the dubious Leal Sundet, then, an ILWU Coast Committeeman who had previously been an Oregon area executive for the employers group, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA).
On February 14 in Portland, this capital vs labor battle may be decided by a federal court judge. The response of the ILWU to the union-busting verdict should be to take the struggle out of the courts and onto the docks where our strength lies, as it did so many times in the past. Otherwise the union leadership is agreeing to let this battle between labor and capital be decided by a capitalist judge. Some members don't want to declare bankruptcy but that would mean an exorbitant assessment of all longshore workers. Others want to re-join the AFL-CIO but that doesn't necessarily mean real support for the ILWU. The main obstacle is that the leadership is offering no kind of active labor defense, only a deadly silence in the media.
Known as the slave labor act by the organized labor movement, the Taft-Hartley Act bans solidarity actions or secondary boycotts as the government's National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) refers to an action not directed against the primary employer. But it was solidarity actions that built the labor movement during the Great Depression and it was solidarity actions that won and sustained ILWU's victories that are recognized internationally.
• In 1984, during the repressive Reagan years San Francisco longshore workers boycotted a ship from South Africa for 11 days to protest apartheid. After Nelson Mandela was freed from prison he addressed a packed Oakland Coliseum on his 1990 world tour. He praised ILWU Local 10's action for sparking the anti-apartheid movement in the Bay Area.
• In 1997, longshoremen refused to work the Neptune Jade, a ship from England, in solidarity with locked out Liverpool dockers. The action, with the backing of ILWU President Brian McWilliams, sparked a boycott in three consecutive ports across the seas that displayed a union power that frightened maritime employers.
• That international solidarity action was followed with a campaign to defend the predominantly black longshore union, ILA Local 1422, against union busting in Charleston, South Carolina. That campaign, initiated by the ILWU and Local 1422, became a cause celebre of the entire AFL-CIO, peaking with a march of several thousand trade unionists protesting at the state capitol which was flying the Confederate flag.
• In 1999, President McWilliams addressed a rally of thousands in Seattle announcing that the ILWU shutdown West Coast ports in solidarity with anti-WTO demonstrators including Teamsters and other unions and in protest against police brutality.
• That same year ILWU led a march of 25,000 through the streets of San Francisco, supported by the San Francisco Labor Council, to demand freedom for innocent political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. His death sentence was rescinded but he still remains imprisoned after 38 years.
• In 2008, ILWU shut down all West Coast Ports to protest the "imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan" despite vicious PMA threats to sue the union under Taft-Hartley in the NLRB.
• In 2010, Local 10 shut down Bay Area ports to protest the BART police killing of Oscar Grant and has continued protest actions against racist police and fascist terror.
• In 2010 and 2014, Local 10 members refused to work ZIM Lines ships to protest the Israeli massacre of Palestinians in Gaza and on a flotilla carrying humanitarian aid. These actions drove ZIM ships out of the port of Oakland much to the dismay of the Zionist government.
• And in 2011, When Wisconsin workers were under attack by Governor Scott Walker and had occupied the state capitol building, AFL-CIO President Trumka and ILWU President McEllrath sent out calls for solidarity with the state workers. ILWU Local 10 answered that call with job action, shutting down all Bay Area ports in a solidarity strike action. All these actions were in violation of Taft-Hartley's secondary boycott provision.
ILWU's history shows that labor's strength lies in union solidarity actions not in kangaroo courts.
Yet, this new ILWU leadership has limited the fight against Taft-Hartley to the courtroom. ILWU's International President William Adams states in the November 2019 issue of The Dispatcher, the union's newspaper, "While we respect the process, we disagree with the excessive damages award". Respecting the anti-labor Taft-Hartley process means an unprecedented course of navigation for the union into treacherous waters with a broken sextant. This strategy rejects ILWU's history of challenging Taft-Hartley from the very start. Adams, who has never played a leading role in solidarity job actions, claims ILWU may declare bankruptcy but will survive. Veteran activists know that accepting such an onerous fine will not only bankrupt the union but chill solidarity actions, stifling the future of ILWU's proud legacy. Adam's demagogic calls for "unity" behind this defeatist strategy will land the union's ship on the rocks. The ILWU must appeal, publicize its case broadly and initiate labor solidarity actions.
West Coast maritime workers have long been in the forefront of U.S. labor struggles. In San Francisco in 1934 longshore workers and sailors led a mighty maritime strike in the midst of the Great Depression. A general strike in San Francisco was provoked when police killed two strikers. Today, in front of the Local 10 union hall a "Bloody Thursday" sidewalk mural of the fallen martyrs defiantly proclaims,"Men Killed, Shot in the Back, Police Murder." The news media railed against communists, socialists and anarchists during the General Strike but to no avail. San Francisco was shut down tight with solid support from the Bay Area's working class. Despite the conservative San Francisco Labor Council bureaucrats ordering all workers to return to work after a few days, maritime workers refused and returned to the picket lines with a new resolve and in the end won their key demands, including the hiring hall, union recognition, a coastwise contract, a six-hour shift and safe working conditions. That radical image stands the test to time and is instrumental in ILWU's recent organizing drives at Anchor Steam brewery and Tartine Bakery in San Francisco.
In 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act,(on which ICTSI owner Razon hangs his litigious hat) was passed with support from both Democratic and Republican parties at the beginning of the McCarthy witch hunts. It banned all manner of class struggle: solidarity strikes, mass picketing, closed shops, including union hiring halls, and communists from holding union office. ILWU was one of the first unions to challenge the law and became a haven for workers purged from the CIO and the AFL by anti-red union leaders. These workers led struggles in the '30's that built the unions: Blackie Meyers (NMU), Bill Bailey (MFOW), Shaun Maloney (SUP and the Teamsters), Morris Wright (MMSW) and Jim Herman (MCS). As West Coast maritime unions began negotiations in 1948, ILWU members at the recommendation of its Coastwide Longshore Caucus voted 89% to authorize a strike. However, in 2002 after the 9/11 attack and the subsequent government anti-terror campaign, the Longshore Caucus stopped that standard practice of backing the Negotiating Committee with a strike authorization vote, an early sign of union's departure from its militant past.
When President Truman invoked Taft-Hartley, longshoremen responded with class struggle, a work slowdown. (What McEllrath/Sundet did in 2013 at ICTSI's terminal in Portland was in the service of class collaboration.) After the 80-day cooling off period, Truman's National Labor Relations Board tried to bypass the union leadership by ordering longshoremen to vote on the employers' proposed contract. The two outstanding issues were both banned by Taft-Hartley: the union hiring hall and a union leadership that employer propaganda accused of being "dominated by the Communist Party." Of the 26,695 members on the entire West Coast not a single ballot was cast in the NLRB vote. Later, another vote was taken on the employers' proposals but was rejected by 96.8% and a second vote on forcing union officers to sign a non-communist affidavit was again rejected by 94.39% of the membership. Then, the ILWU went on strike. European dockworker unions expressed solidarity sending telegrams to President Truman warning that any ships loaded by the military would not be unloaded in Europe. That's the way working class struggles are won!
During the repressive McCarthy period ILWU President Harry Bridges was jailed and threatened with deportation. Other ILWU officials including Jack Hall and Bob McElrath of the "Hawaii 7" were accused of being communists and jailed under the Smith Act. (Robert McElrath, husband of the late ILWU firebrand Ah Quon McElrath, was no relation to "Big Bob" McEllrath.) ILWU Hawaiian plantation workers struck to demand their leader Jack Hall's freedom. He was released from jail the next day. The Communist Party (CP) had applauded the jailing under the the very same anti-communist Smith Act in 1941 of their Trotskyist opponents in the Socialist Workers Party, including leaders of the militant Minneapolis Teamsters strike of 1934. That political transgression only emboldened the government to use the Smith Act against the leadership of the CP seven years later.
In 1964, ILWU Local 10 Executive Board member Archie Brown, an open member of the Communist Party, was indicted for violating a key provision of Taft-Hartley. He was tried, convicted and arrested. Brown, with backing from the union, appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. The communist-exclusion clause was ruled invalid, although AFL-CIO tops still try to use it to keep reds out of office, but the law as a whole still stands.
The West Coast longshore union was forged in the cauldron of class struggle in the '30's. Victory was achieved by mass picketing, appeals for solidarity and racially integrating the union. That was 30 years before the Civil Rights Act was passed. The ILWU went on its own fight for reforms— building affordable housing for working people in St. Francis Square and negotiating with Kaiser to establish one of the first comprehensive medical plans for its members on the West Coast and Hawaii. These stories, portrayed in murals all over the Bay Area by WPA muralists, Victor Arnautoff and Anton Refregier, were targeted for destruction by right wing nuts during the McCarthy period because the muralists were members of the Communist Party. Today, the SF School Board and Democratic Party identity politics individuals want to cover up or destroy Arnautoff's murals at George Washington High School. The ILWU defended those murals then as it does today. ILWU now has a majority African American, Latino, Asian and Hawaiian membership that has continued its militant history of defending immigrant workers' rights, organizing protest actions against racist police and fascist terror and in solidarity with workers struggles internationally. All this is threatened by the verdict against the ILWU.
Razon's modus operandi for ICTSI is raw, aggressive neo-liberal capitalism, buying up public-owned ports in developing countries, busting unions, suing competitors or government agencies and making billions in the process. Razon, like the rest of the Philippine elite, keeps close ties with the military, which is noted for its relentless repression of labor, left populist protests and the Muslim rebellion in the south. Last year, he was awarded alumnus status by the Philippine Military Academy. The pugnacious image which Razon likes to cultivate fits well into his latest venture to build luxurious super casino resorts in the Philippines to compete with Macau.
Razon, like many in the ruling class of the Philippines, are descendants of the Spanish colonists, who have waged a vicious campaign against working people whether at home or abroad. Many Filipinos work as seamen aboard foreign-owned ships. Labor contractors and shipowners exploit these crews by paying slave wages and often not remitting allotments from wages to their families back home dependent on them for survival. The ILWU has fought to defend these workers. In 1980, while Reagan was firing PATCO strikers, Philippine dictator Marcos' agents killed two ILWU officials Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes in the Seattle Local 37 union office. Marcos was successfully sued by the families for that crime.
In Honduras in 2013, Victor Crespo, General Secretary of the Sindicato Gremial de Trabajadores del Muelle (SGTM), received threats on his life for organizing dock workers shortly after Razon's ICTSI was granted a lucrative 30-year contract to operate in Puerto Cortez, Honduras. Crespo fled the country but the following year his father was murdered outside the family home.
This battle between ICTSI and the ILWU began in 2012, shortly after a year-long lockout by the international grain conglomerate Export Grain Terminal (EGT) in Longview, Washington downriver from Portland. Longshore members did everything in their power to win that conflict— blocking grain trains on the tracks, and when they were slapped with injunctions their wives and daughters stood fast on the tracks. They occupied the EGT facility, defended themselves against violent police attacks and went to jail for picketing. When ILWU President McEllrath was called to the front of a protest on the railroad tracks by members he was arrested. All Northwest ports shutdown and marched on Longview the following day. That's the power the union wields.
Yet, the moment of truth came February 2012, as a scab grain ship was escorted by an armed Coast Guard cutter dispatched by President Obama. State and local police forces were mustered. Faced with an all out fight on the docks with mass support to be mobilized in caravans committed by labor councils in Longview, Seattle, Portland and San Francisco and the burgeoning Occupy movement, the ILWU International President Bob McEllrath and Coast Committeeman Leal Sundet, fearful of a serious class battle, capitulated and forced local officials to sign the contract. Longview union members were incensed by this betrayal. They were not even given the right to vote on the contract which violates the ILWU Constitution but not capitalist law. The ILWU was able to maintain jurisdiction, but the loss in working and safety conditions was devastating. The union tops had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Dan Coffman, Longview Local 21 President, and Byron Jacobs, Secretary-Treasurer, tried to call for a Longshore Caucus, an elected body representing all ports, at the start of the EGT struggle to build solidarity actions on the Coast. International Officers blocked that effort, stopped Local 10 from implementing solidarity actions and kept the locked out workers isolated from the major ports in California. Moreover, union members like Longview Local 21's Byron Jacobs and others were arrested for picketing and left in jail for weeks without bail or union defense. Tragically Byron died 2 years ago while working on the Longview docks because of unsafe working conditions. Many were inspired by Byron's brave class struggle actions during that hard-fought battle.
Veterans of historic ILWU actions in defiance of Taft-Hartley against solidarity actions opposed the EGT contract in a signed leaflet, Danger! ILWU Headed in Wrong Direction! EGT-Longview Contract -Worst Ever! June 12, 2012 because it undermined basic union principles, gains and for the first time codified Taft-Hartley into a longshore contract. Apparently, this ILWU leadership has learned nothing from the union's long and storied history. Signers of the leaflet included Local 10 members Leo Robinson, Howard Keylor and Larry Wright who led the 1984 anti-apartheid strike and Herb Mills who organized protests against the 1960 HUAC hearings at San Francisco City Hall and the 1978 refusal of longshoremen to load bombs for Pinochet's military dictatorship in Chile; Jack Mulcahy, longtime Local 8 activist who participated in the militant actions of the Northwest longshore grain workers and Jack Heyman, Local 10 who initiated the 2008 May Day West Coast ports shutdown against the imperialist wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a union action stridently fought for and won against by PMA's obstinate opposition with dire threats of suing the union over Taft-Hartley. All of these labor actions were initiated and organized from the bottom up not the top down.
Shortly after the EGT debacle was over, Sundet directed the "job trusting" campaign, actually union raiding, in Portland to get the two electrician jobs at ICTSI. Sundet, in an act of class collaboration, even got PMA to join the lawsuit jointly with the ILWU against ICTSI but the employers bailed out later. The "slowdown" claimed by ICTSI only reduced container handling by 5-7 cans an hour. ICTSI said ILWU was gimmicking safety issues. The truth is union members were being fined by Local 8 officials for raising safety beefs, shamefully doing diligent work for the employer. To top it off the judge wouldn't allow this scandalous discipline by union bureaucrats to be introduced in court! Many members were frustrated by Sundet's long-running top down job action. In any case the capitalist courts shouldn't determine union jurisdiction. A job trust is an employer-worker monopolistic scheme for the benefit of the employer and labor aristocrats. An all port workers council should have been organized with longshoremen, electricians, mechanics, port truckers and other port workers to make the Portland waterfront 100% union and democratically decide jurisdictional disputes amongst the workers excluding the employers. Real class unity can challenge the employing class and even stop the fascist attacks in the Portland/Vancouver area.
At the start of the EGT campaign Sundet directed longshore workers to cross picket lines of AFL-CIO construction unions who were picketing the use of non-union labor to build the new EGT facility. Sundet's scabrous action made it difficult later to get unions to honor ILWU picket lines and to get resolutions passed at the Oregon and Washington state AFL-CIO organizations. A couple years later during master longshore contract negotiations ILWU International Officers extended the expired agreement in order to help employers in Los Angeles quash a picket line of port truckers, mainly immigrant workers. That scam allowed the PMA arbitrator to rule it was an "illegal" action. Union officials then directed longshoremen to cross the truckers' picket line breaking the action. It was these kinds of traitorous acts that earned ILWU President McEllrath and PMA President McKenna a joint Connie Award from the maritime capitalists.
Worse still, ILWU officials have continued to direct longshore workers to cross truckers picket lines. Local 13 president Ray Familathe, (who lost to Adams in the last election) even warned striking ILWU Boron miners in 2010 not to set up picket lines in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach under pain of losing their strike fund benefits. Other officials directed ILWU longshore workers to cross picket lines of the striking ILWU Local 63 Clerical Unit, largely women workers. ILWU's Ten Guiding Principles have been jettisoned down the hawsepipe sending the union in a downward tailspin. The need for a class struggle leadership is abundantly clear for the sake of all divisions of the ILWU.
At the peak of the McCarthy witch hunts, the ILWU concerned about the survival of the organization, hammered together "Ten Guiding Principles", one of which is to never cross or work behind a picket line even if ordered by your union officials. The last ILWU president, Brian McWilliams who understood the importance of labor solidarity and picket lines, was instrumental in supporting international solidarity for the Liverpool dockers struggle and shutting down West Coast ports in solidarity with the WTO protesters in Seattle.
A defining moment in the ILWU occurred at the 2002 Longshore Caucus. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Homeland Security Czar Ridge threatened the union that if there were any jobs actions on the docks, troops would be called out to occupy the ports. The leadership did not call for international labor solidarity actions as in the past but requested the delegates not to vote for the traditional strike authorization to bolster the Negotiating Committee.
If ICTSI's owner billionaire Enrique Razon is successful in his court suit, it would be a body blow to labor's solidarity actions. Union bureaucrats, whether in ILWU or in any union, before taking any action will first consult with attorneys which means no action because of the fear of fines. Given the long history of ILWU's labor solidarity, often challenging Taft-Hartley, it's high time for other unions in the U.S. and internationally to reciprocate even if the ILWU isn't at this time affiliated to the AFL-CIO. The old syndicalist motto must prevail, "An injury to one is an injury to all!"
Has the labor movement learned its lesson from the defeat of the 1981 PATCO strike? President Reagan attacked the striking air traffic controllers, shackling its union leaders and hauling them off to jail in front of TV cameras, Trump style. The AFL-CIO leadership remained criminally silent, refusing to lift a finger to support the strikers' picket lines and shut down the airports. Reportedly, when ILWU President Jim Herman suggested to IAM President William Winpisinger that airports and seaports be shutdown in an act of solidarity he was rebuffed. The trade union movement has paid a heavy price for the betrayal of PATCO strikers. Union membership has atrophied for the last 40 years, peaking in 1979 with 21 million members and atrophying to less than half that figure today.
In 2011, when AFL-CIO President Trumka issued a call for unions to support the besieged Wisconsin state workers. Only ILWU Local 10, again in defiance of Taft-Hartley and in the face of PMA employer threats, took on-the-job action and shut Bay Area ports down in a bold act of solidarity. The S.E. Wisconsin AFL-CIO issued a letter stating: "Whether it's racist apartheid in South Africa, imperialist war in Iraq, or fascist plutocracy in Wisconsin, Local 10, over and over again, shows us 'What a Union [should] look like!!' Please convey our appreciation to your members and kick some PMA ass on April 25. In Solidarity, James A. Cavanaugh, President."
Now the survival of the ILWU is at stake. If the ranks follow ILWU's militant history, West Coast ports will be shut down against a union-busting, government-imposed fine. Other unions must join the fight. The ball is in the court of the working class, organized and unorganized. If Trumka doesn't act in defense of the ILWU and call for solidarity actions, workers must pick up the cudgel. This anti-labor court decision in Portland is a decisive moment for organized labor and all working people.
• Jack Heyman is a retired West Coast longshore worker and ILWU activist, and a longtime revolutionary socialist. Cross-published from the US magazine Counterpunch