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Grain and Port Workers Retake Center Stage

One Year After the West Coast Port Shutdown

by PETER LITTLE

In the last few weeks of November and December, strikes have broken out or been threatened at the Ports of Oakland, LA, Portland, Seattle and beyond. These struggles of port workers (SEIU clerical, short haul truckers, ILWU longshore/security guards/clerical), against regional governments and the port authorities, as well as the multi-national corporations that depend on and profit from the Ports, have drawn our attentions for good reason. Occupy members have come forth to join picket lines and rallies up and down the coast. These struggles, which are also linked to a struggle within the unions and, in some cases, against the limitations of all unions, have the potential to lay the basis for a broader base of power for all of us.

What did we Learn from Longview and West Coast Port Shutdowns?

The Occupy-led West Coast Port Shutdown of Dec 12, 2011, marked an important shift in Occupy’s trajectory. Inspired by Occupy Oakland’s General Strike/Shut Down The Port on November 2, 2011, it demonstrated how a movement in the streets can be transformed in encounters with the daily struggles of working class life. In doing so, it posed radical new possibilities – ones further clarified when Longview, WA Local 21 of the ILWU called on Occupy to prepare to assist them in shutting down the EGT grain terminal when a threatened scab ship arrived to be loaded in January, 2012.

Some in the union, the media, state and city officials and even “Left” parties and intellectuals told us at the time that it wasn’t valid for us to be marching on the ports because we weren’t the “real workers” or because the union had opposed it. Yet our presence in the ports transformed not only our sense of power and possibility, but the sense of what was possible for the workers there. It is still transforming it, as shown in the one-day SEIU strike a week ago which shut down the Port of Oakland (when ILWU workers honored the picket line staffed by SEIU and Occupy folks) and forced the Port Commission and the City of Oakland to negotiate after months of stalling.

Between Oakland, Portland, and Seattle, cold mornings outside the hiring hall day after day were central in the building of the West Coast Port Shutdown. Because of its actvities in the Ports, its claims to solidarity with ILWU Local 21 in Longview, and the actual leadership of a minority within the ILWU rank and file, Occupy eventually found itself face to face with the workers of Local 21 themselves.

Even prior to Longview, Occupy’s actions in the ports opened spaces for shifts and new possibilities for the workers themselves.

As the day’s West Coast Port Shutdown events ended in Portland and at the prodding of rank and file Longshore, Occupy marched to a steel factory near the ports, run with ILWU labor, but not targetted in the initial shutdown as it was not a Port facility. Occupy’s arrival at the gates provoked a 3 hour shutdown in direct communication with ILWU rank and file inside the plant over questions of union representation within the plant. This strike was defused after 3 hours when an ILWU bargaining agent came to the remaining Occupy forces and to the workers and negotiated a return to work.

In Longview, the majority of the people staffing the picket lines outside of the shut down Port facilities were Longview Longshore and their families.

An unevenness existed in how Longshore workers themselves related to the struggle-but its clear that Occupy and the rank and file of Longview’s longer trajectory of action radically transformed the sense of possibility and the willingness to act and move within the entirety of the ILWU-that the movement at the gates of the factory transformed the possibilties within the factory in a way in which the inherent limits of the trade union could not.

Before Occupy, we watched the Longview struggle emerge in August -and we were told from Longshore contacts,”we don’t want or need the help of outsiders,” much of this based on a fear of troubles brought on by outsiders.

By the end of the Longview struggle as we sat in secret meetings with workers in Longview, we asked Local 21 members what would happen when the scab ship arrived and thousands of Occupiers stormed in to stop the ship-how would they lead? They answered,”we don’t know, but don’t worry. Just know that we’ll be at the front going through those gates and through that fence. Maybe we’ll just occupy EGT.”

Had our actions during the Port Shutdown not been led by Longshore workers, had we not prioritized developing relationships with Longshore prior to and during the action, and had we not also maintained a fierce independence of the union, this would not have been on the table. What we say and do matters-and what we say do in relation to institutions like trade unions matters immensely-both for our relationship to rank and file within these trade unions, but also for those left outside the trade union structure. The question-and the metric with which we approach this struggle-should be: what can our participation in this struggle bring that shifts the sense of broader possibility-and the possibility of a broader commitment to the broader working class as a whole? This is in juxtaposition to struggles which define their ends in narrow, sectoral goals-goals which often serve to delineate, reinforce, or further entrench privileges which stand as obstacles to true unity among working class people.

As Occupy’s orientation has shifted toward the working class, many people have spoken of the need to educate workers. By workers we mean housewives, the unemployed, students, and yes, Longshore workers too. We mean all of those who must live by selling their labor and their lives in the market-or who must rely on others to do so-all those with no capital-no property, no employees, to produce wealth for them. Not only those who labor to produce in factories and Ports, but also those who reproduce the worker-those who labor, unwaged, in the home to make the worker’s life and existence possible and bearable.

Putting aside the implied arrogance in such an approach, a strategy based in ‘education’ or ‘consciousness raising’ misses what possibilities are already present, if only fleetingly, in working class life. The daily lives of working class people are full of sufficient, and often brutal, examples to inform them as to the effects of austerity, the bankruptcy or value of unions, or of the need to confront coal as a false messiah in the salvation of the US economy. The question is: where in their daily experience do they have a sense of their potential power in confronting these horrors?

Why Ports, why the Pacific Northwest, why Now?

The Mississippi River is at the lowest stage of flow in over 50 years. This has forced multinational grain companies, which are shipping massive amounts of grain (wheat, soy, corn) to China to fuel its artificially stimulated economy, to shift to the Pacific Northwest terminals. Grain prices, again in part because of the drought (a double whammy of the climate shift) and the China/Asia trade, have soared. This is why a $200 million grain terminal was built at Longview, and it is why the corporations are gearing to attack one of the most militant unions in the US, the ILWU. Much of this is common knowledge among ILWU members, since it is literally their ‘bread-and-butter’ that is at stake. Well before Occupy, scores of ILWU workers took direct action to sabotage a grain train at the EGT terminal near Longview, allegedly costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. Who needed the education then?

A daily struggle is waged between differing conceptions of the world already present within workers and in visible within working class life. We see acceptance of police violence, degrading and mind-numbing work, of schools that serve not to truly educate, but to prepare workers for more of the same, the ‘compromise’ of jobs and a wage in the short term against the long term needs of the communities, the planet-not to mention our time, our quality of life and happiness. Yet at the same time, we see daily small acts of solidarity and resistance among working class people and – occasionally – eruptions of mass solidarity and collective exercise of power. History, as well as our recent experiences in Occupy, demonstrate the coexistence of a longing for a new world, one that is a potential counter-power to austerity, multinational corporations, and the liberal and conservative governments which do international capital’s bidding.

This is not to say that this longing for a new world–and the possibilities for action in the real world that would lead to it–will emerge immediately or easily at every picket line. But our challenge is not to lecture workers about coal or Gaza or educate them with the latest 10 or 14 or 20 point program.

In the ports in the Pacific Northwest now, there is the possibility that port workers will acquiesce to a shit contract around grain. There is also the possibility they will accept the terrible ‘compromise’ of taking poisoning and polluting jobs for their members; jobs predicated on a future economy based in fossil fuels and growth. In other words, coal transport jobs which will accelerate the rate of warming and the destruction of the climate that all of us live in.

What can our participation in this struggle bring that shifts the sense of broader possibility, of broader commitment to the working class as a whole? And can this be done in a manner which does not place the real needs and interests of workers in the Ports to improve their quality of life in opposition to this?

The mobilization for Longview was a moment where our movement (as outsiders to the ports) found itself fused with the ways in which the daily struggles of working class people pointed to new alternatives. When Occupy defied the trade union leadership in marching to the ports, it found allies in workers in Local 10 in the Bay and in the rogue ILWU local in Longview, and at their invitation, it demonstrated its independent power as a social force. That is true even in the temporary resolution of the conflict in Longview with a contract. That is true even if other leaders or officials of the ILWU dismissed or criticized Occupy and attempted to disrupt public meetings called by Occupy activists.

There is now the possibility of workers taking action in their daily lives to present an alternative to austerity-and the best of what emerges will not prefigured or formulated ahead of time-but will be created from the struggle itself . If a decent contract happens as a result of our collective struggles, so be it. Our vision cannot be limited to better demands, or to tell the workers at the port how to deal with the bosses or their contract, but instead to bring the perspective and possibilities inherent on how OUR actions together can sow the seeds of another strength, a counter to the power of the multinationals, to Wall Street in New York City or on the waterfront, or even more so to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as well as an alternative to a global economy unable to pull out of a tailspin.

What we face now

There are multiple possibilities in the coming days and weeks. A strike or lockout still loom. All appearances are that the ILWU leadership are pushing workers to work under the new, concessionary contract until a vote can be taken on Dec 21. Should this occur, we should be preparing for the expansion of the struggle. If we see a strike at the ports, we should prepare to shut down not just the ports in Portland, but to revitalize the call and plea raised by Occupy Oakland when their encampment was violently swept by police, that of the expansion of shutdowns up and down the coast, and even out of the ports and into the cities where we live and work.

Most importantly, as outsiders to the ports we have a particular opportunity to raise the question of obstacles to unity within the working class as a whole. Whether around the demands of Port truckers, the demands of working class communities around coal, or any other myriad questions which pose a challenge to the notion of the exclusivity of struggles in the ports to port workers themselves, our actions must still be oriented to an alliance with the struggles of those within the working class which pose the possibilities for an equality within the class.

This question is not just for Longshore workers to determine-and if left to determine it themselves, will inevitably find distorted answers. The question is whether victories can be won for Port workers-whether within or outside of a contract or union-which do not undermine unity or further divide the working class as a whole. From strikes to ban black labor to attacks on immigrants, labor history has no shortage of short term victories for one segment of workers which amount, in the end, to,”scabbing on the rest of the class.” Facilitating coal extraction and export, turning a blind eye to racism in ceratin locales-either in the Ports themselves or in the broader community, are two clear points where these questions, amongst others, loom now.

An evaluation of the mobilizations at the ports, whether Longview, LA, or Oakland, can lead to vastly differing conclusions depending on the metric. Our side has variously hailed contracts as a victory, railed against the contract as a sell-out, defended and attacked the ILWU in attempts to determine whether our actions led to “victory,” “success,” or “defeat.” Rather than measuring through the lens of “did workers win a better contract and better wages?” we should ask what the experience of the participants taught them about the possibility of continuing the struggle. What lessons did it impart to others who watched it unfold? Did it teach lessons of solidarity and power? Or did it point toward feelings of futility and the inevitability of opportunism? Did the participants. and the witnesses in the society as a whole, come away with an expanded sense of possibility, an expanded terrain on which to struggle, and an expanded sense of collective self-interest in struggling together across sectors? If shifted through this lens, the questions of pay raises and contracts become secondary to the question of how we build power.

What is the Union? Will we still “Defend the ILWU?”

That is the question we raise when we ask what is the union. For all too many members of Occupy, the confusion of ‘the workers’ with ‘the union’ is widespread. When we see the language of “stand with the ILWU in building mass picket lines,” and “Defend the ILWU and its historic gains,” it’s worth asking which ILWU are we standing with? The question is more than semantics. The contracts and the protections it codifies are markers of high points in struggle. Yet we also saw clearly in Longview how the same institution which is a reflection of the high points in working class power and struggle can become the primary obstacle to that power.

The hiring hall, the shorter work day, control over the rate of work are all significant victories and will be devastating losses if the bosses succeed in their goals in these contract negotiations. But we also need to be honest in our assessment of the contradictory role of the institution of the ILWU itself. If we hope to see the involvement of broader sectors of workers-from Occupy, Port Truckers, or elsewhere- we must start with an honest assessment of the complex nature of the trade union. Furthermore we need to be clear in letting workers know that we intend to defend ALL workers–not just Longshore–in this struggle.

There are Longshore and others rank and filers who will not only be watching to see if Occupy will mobilize, but who will be watching to see if Occupy will be tamed by the leadership of the International. If we had simply “defended the ILWU” with all that this entails, there would have been no West Coast Port Shutdown last year. There would also CLEARLY have been no mobilization for Longview. Both were done in full defiance of the ILWU as an institution-and our independence won workers-most notably in Local 19 and Local 21, to align with the movement. 

In the prior round of mobilization last spring, we were supporting workers whose relationship to the ILWU was clearly ambiguous. On one hand, those workers saw themselves as defending the legacy of the ILWU. Yet on the other, those workers were being threatened by the ILWU should they stand publicly with us or take independent initiative as to the course of their struggle. This most famously occurred when the democratically elected President of Local 21 was threatened and forbidden to speak in a public Seattle meeting rallying in defense of Local 21. When the threats of fines and a total removal of support from the international failed to stop his rank and file from attending the meeting to speak anyhow, the Leadership of Local 4 (Vancouver), Local 8 (Portland), and Local 19 (Seattle), and a small number rank and filers, physically attacked the same meeting while the stage was held by rank and file workers from multiple locals-(including the many Local 21 members both in the crowd and on stage) in an attempt to quash it.

Port truckers, who across the coast are largely immigrants and people of color, and who for years have been ignored entirely by the ILWU, have not shared the historic gains of the ILWU, despite years of wildcat strike action. In Seattle, port truckers have not only been ignored, but even been physically attacked by Longshore workers for simply trying to use the ILWU bathrooms. Do we expect them to see their interests reflected in a call to,”Defend the ILWU?” Again, it may be that the ILWU will come around to a real solidarity them in the course of this struggle. But to build the broad base of working class support necessary to win, we have to be unflinching in our commitment to support THEIR struggles as well as struggles of those organized into the ILWU. To do this means independence from the union itself, and it may even mean a struggle against the union if we hope to see the kind of unified struggles in our ports and our cities capable of moving beyond the successes of the past year.

It is imperative that we acknowledge the conflicted and contradictory nature of the ILWU. Our independence from the union is our greatest strength.

In the current struggle, the ILWU has NOT taken a stand as to whether or not it is ready to fight. Its message internally has been,”wait.” There has been neither strike mobilization nor organizing in the grain elevators. Maybe the ILWU will shift gears to defend these workers. Maybe it will try to sell a shit contract. This remains to be seen. Let’s not forget that the Longview struggle, less than a year ago, resulted in the latter.

There are workers in the ILWU right now who are well aware of this and likely weighing whether or not they are willing to face off against the leadership of the ILWU should the leadership try to sell them out, and a part of their evaluation will be based on whether or not the ILWU has managed to bring Occupy under the ILWU leadership’s discipline. If we posture as simply being in solidarity with the ILWU, we risk pulling the sense of independence and initiative from workers who right now are being told by the ILWU to “wait it out.” We must be clear and unequivocal to the workers in the ports: if you act in the interests of the working class as a whole, with or without the ILWU, we stand with you.

This is the same ILWU who negotiated the contract with EGT-the contract which is the model for the concessionary grain contracts now. The workers in the ports are not unaware of this. They can choose for themselves whether this struggle will be to defend the union or to fight the union to defend their interests. We can support either one, but it is for the workers themselves to determine.

The ”Defend the ILWU,” position will not likely rally the thousands in Occupy who stood beside us and who faced physical attacks at their meetings and verbal attacks to their movement from the ILWU when they stood with Local 21. Their reluctance to “Defend the ILWU” is not rooted in ignorance. It stems from real experience as to the contradictory nature of that institution.

It may be that victories for Port workers and for the working class as a whole come through wins via the ILWU. If this is the case, we should struggle alongside them and provide what support we can. It may also be that the ILWU will choose to sell grain workers down the road for broader objectives. Or the ILWU rank and file or the leadership may fail to make principled stands in solidarity with other members of the working class, even other members of the working class in the ports. If these workers push for equality we should support them too, whether their framework challenges the union or is from within the union. Our positions now will condition the likelihood of their participation.

It is not the role of those of us who are not Longshore workers to decide whether or not to defend the ILWU, nor is it for us to decide when its time to strike or not to strike. This is an assessment that the workers can make better than any of us. We can certainly influence their sense of power and possibility, but it is for the workers themselves to determine whether or not this struggle will be to “Defend the ILWU,” to “Overturn the leadership of the ILWU,” or to bypass the ILWU and simply “Occupy the Ports.” But if workers in the grain elevator wildcat and the ILWU withholds support and orders them to return to work-relative to what occurred in Longview–will we still defend the ILWU?

We want to expand the sense of possibility and the reality of power for working class people. As we learned in Longview, it’s not clear whether the union will play a role in supporting this or opposing it. We’re here to lay claim to what is ours–our ports and our cities–as extensions of the struggles we fought last year around our encampments and which we have fought since then around housing and in the streets.

We mobilize not to fight for the union or against the union. The members of each union will have to decide whether it will represent the interests of the workers and the community, or whether it will do the work of the bosses. We mobilize to lay claim to our ports and to the health of our communities: what goes through them, the terms of the work. We mobilize to lay the groundwork for a greater power in our cities, up and down the coast, and across the oceans. We will mobilize with all port workers-in or out of unions-from stevedores to truckers and janitors, and we must prioritize their demands, whether within or outside of a union framework.

Occupy the Ports shattered the stagnation of decades of union-led struggles with small solidarity mobilizations. Rarely have these managed to capture the public imagination, to captivate and mobilize masses of people beyond those directly impacted. Occupy’s strength in the past year was in its independence from existing institutions-and its ability to invigorate a sense of their OWN self interest in the ports from other sectors of the working class. What possibilities remain will be contingent on that independence and the sense of possibility it posed.

As this is published, there is talk of an ILA strike which could impact cargoes across the Northeast and South of the United States. Simultaneously, Occupy Wall Street activists in the Northeast attempted unsuccessfully to picket and stop the unloading of a cargo ship carrying cargo from the Bangladeshi factory where 112 workers, mostly women, burned to death. Bengladeshi worker’s organizations had endorsed the Port Shutdown. Ultimately, the ship was unloaded.

These questions are more pressing than ever.

Peter Little is an organizer of Occupy Portland. He can be reached at at 2012plittle@gmail.com.