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Labor History Association President Cancels ILWU Panel

by MICHAEL MUNK

Author’s note: As a PNLHA member and scheduled participant in another panel at our May meeting,  I consider the organization an appropriate venue for a reasoned discussion of issues such as the history of the controversial EGT contract. Our constituency includes academic labor historians, union activists and community supporters of the labor movement who should welcome learning about the specific provisions of the EGT, as well as the “last best offer” and Temco grain handler contracts. To explore them in a union-friendly atmosphere should be a priority mission for our regional labor history association. I hope this admittedly critical report will stimulate discussion about the appropriate role of the PNLHA both among its members and the broader community of labor historians and union activists.–MM

A panel of ILWU members invited to discuss the four-year history and provisions of their union’s controversial contract with EGT’s Longview, WA grain terminal was abruptly cancelled last week by the president of the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association (PNLHA). Some members were left to conclude the decision was made under pressure from union leaders who do not welcome criticism of their decisions. But more broadly, his action should focus attention on a significant issue confronting the entire labor movement. Faced with today’s fierce anti-union campaign by the 1%, should it respond with its historic legacy of militant resistance and mobilizing the 99% to its side, or do the times call for more willingness to make concessions and reliance on the courts and politicians?

In fact, the theme of this year’s PNLHA annual meeting in Portland–“Labor Attacked: Learning from the Past, Preparing for the Future,”*  rightly seemed to demand engagement with that question. Listed in the published program as “ILWU Contract Losses at Longview and the Repercussions,” the cancelled discussion was one of more than 20 mainly academic panels organized by the program members of the local host committee led by distinguished labor historians Sandy Polishuk and Laurie Mercier. The panel’s value was enhanced by being one of only three composed entirely of union activists. Polishuk was able to bring together three highly qualified ILWU members as individuals to comment on the EGT grain terminal contract with Longview local 21.

The three, who were not in complete agreement on all aspects of the topic, were Norman Parks, retired secretary-treasurer of Portland ILWU local 8 and a longtime negotiator of west coast longshore contracts, Jack Mulcahy, former business agent and member of the current grain negotiating team of Local 8 and Mike Fuquay, local 21 vice president and 3rd generation longshoreman.

The host committee worked over the winter on the program and other aspects of the meeting, and the final selection of panels and events was published by the PNLHA in a brochure distributed widely in March, well before the May 3-5 meeting date. But without discussing his last minute concerns with the three panel members, PNLHA president Ross Reider announced his decision to cancel the panel in a letter to them dated April 8. Acknowledging that the program team believed they had done a “diligent and thorough job of trying to obtain a balanced panel,” Reider found their efforts insufficient, even after they also agreed to change the title to “Gains and Losses.”  Without naming his source or when he had learned from it, he told the panel members that “we have since learned that there is a strong likelihood that the presentation would turn into an attack on a union already under attack from management.”

Reider further explained that he had come to his decision because “A panel concerning on (sic) ongoing labor dispute that does not include the parties responsible for the negotiations runs the risk of undermining the negotiating teams strategy and compromising the self determination of the local union.” Reider cited an earlier Dispatcher article to support his point that the panel would compromise “ongoing” negotiations with the grain bosses. But local 8 negotiator Mulcahy disputed Reider’s claim. After reminding Reider not to believe “everything you read in the papers,” Mulcahy informed Rider that “there are no ongoing negotiations scheduled to take place at this time.” Nevertheless, Reider informed the panelists, “the panel has been removed from the conference agenda.”

Mulcahy was also scheduled for a second panel on another controversial ILWU contract that had been opposed by some members– the historic M & M Agreement of 1960. But the  active ILWU member “took great offence” at Reider’s implied accusation and notified him that “I will not be participating in any capacity” in the meeting.

This writer appealed to Reider to reconsider his decision by assuring the panel members restrict themselves to the history and provisions of the four year struggle in Longview or by adding an additional voice from among those who had participated in the 2011-12 negotiations. Reider declined, raising a new objection to the panel when he argued that the PNLHA must avoid discussion of “current events” such as Longview–although others might call that episode a component of “the present as history.” Indeed, a quick scan of the upcoming as well as past PNLHA annual programs would reveal numerous topics which could be considered as “current events.”

The Longview conflict goes back to 2009 and the EGT contract was signed well over a year ago, so different eyes might see the struggle as a past, though recent, event in labor history. In any event, the struggle with EGT has concluded and could therefore be subject to analysis from a historical perspective. But Reider’s view is that “the issues involved in the workshop are contemporary and ongoing.” Upholding his cancellation, he said the PNLHA “will stay true to its own bylaws and leave it alone until a conclusion is reached and when it is time to air disagreement from a historical perspective and not in one that could create disunity among current participants.” He may have forgotten that, at last year’s meeting, the PNLHA appeared to recognize that Longview had already reached its historical conclusion by naming the president of Longview ILWU local 21, Dan Coffman, as “Labor History Maker-of-the-Year” for his local’s role in what the citation called its “epic struggle” with EGT.

Again: Cancellation of the panel has its roots is best seen as part of an underlying debate in the labor movement on how best to respond to a vicious anti-union campaign fueled by a stagnant economy and a recession level labor market. Some unions have decided that concessions and “givebacks” are essential if they hope to later “rise up again.” Others weigh relying on their lawyers before the courts despite their record of most often backing the bosses. And more specifically, international corporations have concluded the time is ripe to target the ILWU and challenge its hard-won power. If they can weaken or break a union with one of the most militant traditions in labor history, their chances against the remnant of organized labor in private employment will be enhanced and the public employee movement (see Wisconsin) will become even more vulnerable. The significance of the EGT contract is as an early shot fired in a broader offensive against the ILWU.

The ILWU proudly dates its roots to “Bloody Thursday” of 1934 when in the midst of violent resistance to scab herding, two union men were killed by San Francisco police. There were other martyrs and casualties elsewhere on the west coast, including four longshoremen wounded by Portland police gunfire on their picket line at Terminal 4. Its original leader, the legendary lefty Harry Bridges was a government target for deportation to his native Australia for decades, but his union was one of the few to survive expulsion from the CIO for resisting the Taft-Hartley’s “Anti -Communist” provision. Under his leadership, it adopted the IWW’s  solidarity slogan, “An Injury to One Is an Injury to All.”

Today, the core of ILWU leadership seems to have concluded  it can best defend its members interests from the bosses attacks by “updating” its historic militant tactics. It has agreed to limit “stop work” protests in favor of mediation and to complain against the misdeeds of the bosses in the courts. As in the case of the EGT contract it has accepted compromises proposed by politicians frightened by workers openly confronting the bosses.  While adopting these tactics, it has kept its distance from labor supporters in the community –especially those perceived as “radical” like Occupy– and has remained mainly silent before a hostile media.

On the other hand, leaders have been quick to uphold a different historical tradition: that union policy should be discussed only within the union. They have worked to censure and isolate members or supporters who try to bring the broader issues before younger, less active members and to union supporters among the public. The PNLHA cancellation of the ILWU panel is an example of that effort. As a representative of Local 4 expressed it at a recent public meeting at Portland ILWU local 5’s (Powell’s Books) hall where an ILWU veteran urged support for the militant tradition of his union. “We don’t wash our dirty linen in public,” the leader’s representative said. “The place to debate our contracts in among our members.” Others expressed hope that even if the ILWU had made concessions to EGT, they constituted a “foot in the door” and could be won back in the future. One critic of the speaker even asserted that even if the militant veteran was right, he was still wrong for speaking the truth in public.

In order for that meeting to be held, local 5 had to resist pressure, presumably similar to that directed against PNLHA, to cancel the rental of its hall to a sponsoring group. Leadership supporters tried to disrupt the meeting by hurling insults against their brother member, as they tried to disrupt other Occupy-sponsored meetings on EGT in Seattle and Portland. And now the PNLHA unfortunately appears to have joined efforts to silence critics.

The Background of the EGT Contract

As recognized in the “Labor Attacked” theme of this year’s PNLHA meeting, the corporate 1% has succeeded in recent years to create an anti-union atmosphere in this country. Union density of the for-profit labor force has dropped below 7%. As part of its union-busting campaign, the international corporations running the grain export industry have launched an effort to break the ILWU. Under the leadership of Harry Bridges, the union has been one of the most militant representatives of workers in the history of the labor movement, as well as the most democratic and successful in achieving decent living standards for its members. Significantly, the ILWU was one of the few to survive the McCarthy era’s union-busting hysteria that destroyed most of the CIO’s former radical leadership–and their political clout.

The campaign against the ILWU began in earnest four years ago when a division of the multi-national Bunge Corporation, Portland-based EGT (Export Grain Terminal Co)., decided to build  a new grain terminal in Longview, WA, and later broke off negotiations with ILWU local 21 and tried to operate it with scabs. Local 21, with a contract with the Port of Longview, was aroused to fight and, in the tradition of their International since the Big Strike of 1934, members mounted a mass picket in 2010 that stopped trains from delivering grain to EGT and shut the terminal down. ILWU International President Bob McEllrath himself (still a member of  local 4) was arrested at a Longview confrontation and also led a mass rally at EGT headquarters in Portland. Despite numerous militant picket line actions in Longview, the bosses recruited local police to herd scabs, the Obama administration’s Coast Guard to protect the grain carriers and even scabs from  Operating Engineers local 701 in Gladstone, Oregon to operate the new terminal. ILWU members showed their solidarity by conducting limited work stoppages in Longview, Portland, Seattle and Oakland, which were supported by “Occupy” movements from their respective communities.

Finally in January, 2011 Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, alarmed by the prospect of a planned massive demonstration called by the San Francisco Labor Council to stop the first ship to be loaded by scabs in Longview, announced a settlement. Both sides seemed to have made concessions in order to head off a major confrontation that some believe could have led to a genuine union victory. When the agreement was signed the next month, it included EGT’s pledge to hire some Local 21 members and president McEllrath called it a “big win” and the Dispatcher (March 2011) described it as a “significant victory.” But several of its provisions were immediately criticized as significant concessions by some union members. More recently, the Dispatcher seems to have dropped its original positive treatment, reporting simply that the struggle “resulted in a first agreement with EGT.”

It is this history that would have been discussed at the cancelled panel. Its aftermath is also an important part of recent labor history.

ILWU critics raised several objections to what they called union concessions in the EGT agreement, as well as the failure of the union to hold a prior membership vote on the provisions of the agreement. They identified several specific concessions from previous Northwest grain handler contracts and warned they would be used by other grain bosses to force similar concessions from the union in the upcoming regional contract negotiations. On the other side, the notoriously anti-labor Oregonian also described the  EGT contract as “concessionary,” but celebrated it for that reason.

The prediction of union critics was prescient, as three grain bosses referred to EGT as a competitive contract they would have to meet when their existing contract expired last September. Its provisions were the basis of their “last, best offer.” When that offer came before northwest ILWU members, about 94% considered it concessionary and voted to reject it. The fourth boss, Temco, offered a separate “interim” contract for its terminals in Portland and Tacoma, which was also rejected by Portland local 8 in a close vote. Despite the rejection, the union announced it was ratified because unaffected locals without Temco terminals, such as Vancouver and Seattle, voted for it.

Although the three bosses’ final offer was rejected almost unanimously by the membership, the union decided not to call a strike. Its northwest grain handlers remain working not only without a contract but under the imposed concessionary conditions of the bosses’ rejected offer. The Dispatcher explained this leadership decision “permitted the union more time to work on other methods of struggle, including rallying domestic and international solidarity along with other legal options.”

Relieved of confronting a strike against their imposed conditions, the grain bosses quickly escalated their campaign against the ILWU with a late February lockout of Vancouver Local 4 by the Japanese firm Mitsui-United Grain and an unprecedented (for the modern longshore division of the ILWU) use of scabs from Gettier & Co. to operate its terminal. Towboat companies Foss and Shaver have bare-boated three tugs to the grain bosses, who run them with scab crews. The Obama administration backs the lockout with a Coast Guard  “protective zone” of 250 yards around the grain terminals, and local police herd Columbia river pilots, who are moving grain ships with the scab tugs, through Local 4’s picket line. International Transport Federation (ITF) crewed vessels are being threatened and fined by the bosses when they refuse, pursuant to ITF contracts, to do longshore work such as opening hatches.

Even when under attack by such powerful enemies, some labor supporters expect that, as in 1934, the ILWU would generate significant community support if it were to resurrect its old Wobbly slogan  and assure that, at least on the docks of the Northwest and the rest of the Pacific coast, “An Injury to One is [Still] an Injury To All.”

* The original program is at http://www3.telus.net/robbgibbs/pnlha/attachments/pnlha2013brochure.pdf

Michael Munk is a retired political scientist and author of the Portland Red Guide (2nd edition, Ooligan Press, 2011), which includes many sites related to local labor history. He still has his ILWU local 8 “white card” (casual) and a withdrawal stamp in his local 6 membership book.

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