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It is a year now since all hell broke loose in Longview, Washington, an industrial town on the Columbia River, 45 miles downstream from Portland, Oregon. On Monday, July 11, 2011, more than 100 dock workers, including the leaders of Local 21, International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), were arrested there.
The crime? They occupied the Port of Longview’s huge new, ultra-automated grain terminal, a $200 million dollar facility, built by EGT, the grain shipping conglomerate. It was scheduled to begin testing operations with non-union labor. The workers used a pick-up truck to pull down the terminal’s gates, tore down the chain-link fencing, and stormed the facility, effectively blocking EGT employees from entering and working.
Sheriff’s deputies and city cops from Longview and neighboring Kelso arrested the protesters, who did not resist; one by one the police issued citations for second degree trespassing, photographed and handcuffed the workers, then loaded them into cars and a corrections department van. “We have worked this dock for 70 years, said Dan Coffman, President of ILWU Local 21, “and to have a big rich company come in and say, ‘We don’t want you’ is a problem. We’re all together. We’re going to jail as a union.” They were taken to the Cowlitz County Fairgrounds and released. “We just wanted them out of there,” said County Sheriff Mark Nelson.
The next day, Tuesday, there was a raucous , noisy rally in Longview. Then, Thursday, six hundred dock workers and supporters seized the railroad tracks that serve the Port; at 1:30 am they stopped a train, 107 cars hauling corn, originating in Split Rock, Minnesota, headed for the Longview elevators. The mile-long train had to be rerouted back up river to Vancouver, WA; in response railroad officials at the Burlington Northern Santa Fe suspended (for “safety concerns”) train traffic indefinitely. No arrests were made, the police being “severely outnumbered.” “Parts of the crowd were fairly aggressive” said Nelson, “shouting and hollering… They refused to leave, refused to move.”
This was just the beginning. Before it was finished, more than 200 longshoremen, wives, neighbors and supporters were arrested. This included Bob McEllrath, the International president of the ILWU (a Vancouver, WA longshoreman who still lives there part-time) and Dan Coffman (arrested twice) president of local 21. The conflict lasted into the next year. It exploded again in September, in an escalating series of militant confrontations, fueled by outbursts of rank-and-file anger rarely seen these days in the US. It seemed set for a bloody showdown in January, 2012, with a confrontation possibly involving thousands looming; EGT had announced its intension to begin regular operations – the first big grain freighter was expected to load before the end of the month.
This story has been told before, though mostly in pieces and here and there. It bears repeating. The Longview conflict became an issue for longshoremen world-wide – there was an international response from waterfront workers, with messages of solidarity from virtually every continent. In addition, the conflict became a centerpiece, for a time of the then thriving Occupy movement, at least in its West Coast incarnation. Now, a year on, the dust has settled a bit, EGT is open for business and there are still ILWU men on the docks. There is time for some reflection.
I suggest we begin with the conclusion: the battle at Longview was won by the workers, the members of Local 21, and their union, the ILWU. It was a victory, an important victory for unions, all the more so for rank-and-file members. It came in a period of ongoing trade union defeat and decline. It dashed EGT’s plan to employ a non-union workforce at the Longview terminal. It set back those employers’ who imagined that this time the ILWU might be cracked.
The background is important; this story can be properly understood only in a larger context. The year 2011 began with high hopes, nowhere more so than in Madison, where hundreds of thousands rallied to defend working class and trade union rights. Yet by mid-summer it was increasingly clear that Governor Scott Walker had won; the public sector unions he attacked were reeling, in the end they lost many of their most basic rights. In Indiana, the right-to-work movement returned with a vengeance; in Ohio similar anti-union legislation was beaten back but not in Michigan. The Verizon strike had petered out. Even the news from North Africa became unsettling. But by fall, Occupy Wall Street was center stage
The Longview story stands out in this setting. Why? For the most part the cast of characters was all too familiar – a giant, intransigent corporate predator, an indifferent governor, the partisan judge, a compliant National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), local law enforcement quite happy and willing to do the bidding of all the former. It also stands out because the workers won, and in this it raises welcome questions. First of all, given the times, given the odds, just how did these longshoremen win? There are answers and lessons here. There is also debate. But the lessons, it seems to me, are simple and quite clear enough. The Longview longshoremen responded to the attack on their union by fighting back; they refused to be bullied. It was David v. Goliath, yet they were not intimidated by EGT, the giant grain shipper with its millions, nor by the courts, nor by the police. Then, they were not alone. They had the support of their union and its leadership; they had the support of the county and state labor movements. In the course of the conflict, they won widespread “community” support, and here I mean their own actual community –friends and neighbors, relatives, fellow workers, a significant section of the local population. This came to include but was certainly not at all limited to local and coastal Occupy contingents. Finally, they persisted; they wouldn’t stop fighting.
There was more. The Longview longshoremen also employed the full power of their tradition and the pride they have in their union, including their knowledge of the roots of the union in the great West Coast Waterfront strikes of 1934. Intangible, this was critical all the same.
We also need to remember, here, that these were just 220 workers, workers in a small town, albeit still a blue collar town, one strategically located in between mail line rails, Interstate 5 and the river, nevertheless rather remote. And, as elsewhere, times in 2011 were not so good in Longview; the recession continued, unemployment was high at 12%. The timber industry remained in steep decline, so there were no guarantees of work in Longview, and there was no shortage of people in need of work.
Still, these Longview workers were longshoremen, and the history of longshoremen has been – and still is – in the words of the historian Eric Hobsbawm, “filled with dramatic events, and personalities,” great triumphs as well as tragic defeats. Writing in the 1950s, Hobsbawm explained, longshoremen were known for their “raw power” and their strikes “are feared from Santos to San Francisco, from Sydney to Liverpool.”
Today, things have changed a bit, but the world’s ports, hundreds of years on, are still critical intersections in the commerce of industrial capitalism, and as such they continue to be centers of conflict. In the aftermath of victory in the 1934 General Strike, the West Coast longshoremen christened themselves “Lords of the Docks” – the “most militant body of men the world has ever seen” and inspired in fact (in and attendant myth) a “pentecostal” era of West Coast insurgent unionism, including along the banks of the Columbia. Today there are still about 4,000 ILWU members working in Washington and Oregon.
This is a powerful inheritance – never mind, then, that the great congregations of sailors and longshoremen that once crowded the mean streets of the world’s waterfront are now gone, as are the gangs upon which their legendary solidarity was based; their numbers have everywhere diminished, the result of relentless “modernization and mechanization.” Nevertheless, the work can be physical, heavy; it can be dangerous. Grain workers can be trapped in moving mountains of grain; dozens have suffocated or been crushed in silos over the years. There are explosions.
Today, longshoremen work in highly automated systems that deliver spectacular volumes with astonishing speed. Ships can be in and out of ports in hours. EGT expects its Longview facility to be the most efficient on West Coast; with 20 monthly ship calls, workers there will unload 110 car trains in four hours and fill giant grain freighters in less than a day. Trains can be unloaded four at a time, trains that never completely stop rolling. This, EGT projects, will be done with a crew of seven or eight, perhaps fewer. Nevertheless, these workers are not at all without power; they occupy, after all, a highly sensitive position in the world’s commerce, all the more so in an age of fierce competition in a world of “just in time” economics.
EGT, the operator of the Longview terminal, is a multinational venture, jointly owned by three international companies. The majority owner is the St. Louis firm Bunge North America, an agribusiness giant with origins in Amsterdam, based in Bermuda with corporate offices in White Plains, NY. It does business on five continents, in 37 countries and profits of $2.5 billion in 2010; the minority partners are Pan Ocean STX, a Korean shipper and the Japan-based Itochu Corporation.
The new terminal is the first in the US in 25 years. EGT first estimated the new elevator would employ 50 workers, but soon pared this down; from the start, it planned on a non-union workforce. The Port of Longview, however, has a contractual agreement with the ILWU to hire union members. The EGT site sits on 38 acres leased from the Port of Longview. In January, the company sued the Port of Longview in Federal Court, arguing it was not bound by The Port’s agreement with the ILWU. EGT’s attorneys said union labor would increase their annual costs of operating the elevator by $1 million. In response Port of Longview attorneys asked a federal judge to order EGT to honor its lease agreement and hire union workers; a speedy result was unlikely. Negotiations between the ILWU and EGT began in January, 2011 and were broken off in February. The corporation insisted it intended to open the terminal in the coming summer or early that fall, in time for the fall harvests.
Beginning day one, EGT played hardball. “To be clear,” explained Larry Clarke, EGT’s spokesperson, “EGT never agreed to, nor are we contractually obliged to employ ILWU labor.”
EGT objected to having union members in the control room, insisting on having its “own people” in charge, in contradiction to tradition in West Coast grain terminals, a longstanding workplace right won by workers. It objected to paying into the ILWU’s pension funds; it refused to pay for mandatory breaks; it presented a scheme by which seven or eight longshoremen would work two 12 hours shifts in a two-week period, thereby eliminating overtime pay. In an attempt to undermine the ILWU’s standing with the public, it launched a multi-million dollar public relations campaign, literally promising Longview all but the moon.
The ILWU responded that it was standard practice to have union members in the control room. It insisted this was a safety issue. The twelve hours scheme was simply cost cutting; there was no justification for it in a booming industry. The same with pensions.
It was never entirely clear just what EGT wanted. It still isn’t. It’s really not so important. It developed that the immediate economic stakes in the dispute were low – EGT acknowledged that the $1 million in costs it claimed would result from ILWU labor were invented, a public relations “shot in the dark.” ILWU members are relatively well-paid – they make as much as $100,000 or so a year, with full benefits, including benefits in retirement. But there aren’t that many of them; so labor costs remain only a fraction of total operating costs. The losses resulting from missing the fall harvest would be much greater. Was EGT out to break the union? Was it just testing the waters? It certainly wanted the union out of the control rooms. “What does EGT want?” asked Coffman, “One word: control. They brought that up in negotiations, again and again. They want to control everything.”
EGT remained in its “testing phase” into summer. The two sides had no plans to meet. The July 11 occupation was the culmination of a series of escalating protests the union, including informational pickets in May, and then a large demonstration. On June 3 more than 1000 ILWU members and supporters including workers from Washington, Oregon and California held an angry rally outside EGT’s downtown Portland offices. The issue became, as framed by the ILWU, the future of trade unionism in the industry.
The stakes indeed seemed high. The grain trade is highly profitable; the export from Longview will be massive. The conditions, according to Ron Magden, a retired Tacoma Community College professor, were these: “Chinese demand for grain is high, the fall harvest is near, and this dispute will likely become a ‘bell weather’ for future contract talks with grain companies.” In addition, this summer uprising in Washington followed the winter in Wisconsin. Organized labor was without doubt under attack, its future by no means certain. “EGT is thumbing its nose at labor,” said Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council (WSLC). “They’re saying, ‘We don’t need to have any part of you.’ But the ILWU has a long proud history.” The Stand, the WSLC newspaper, predicted “a militant campaign” to come.
On July 17, EGT announced, in a calculated diversion, that, after all, it would hire union labor, but not ILWU members. Instead, it would subcontract, using the General Construction Company, based near Seattle, a subsidiary of Kiewit Infrastructure West. General Construction announced it would employ 25 to 35 workers in Longview, in collaboration with Local 701 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, a union based in Gladstone, Oregon. Jennifer Sargent, spokesperson for the ILWU, responded, “You can drop a subcontractor as easily as you can cancel a date. That’s not a good union job.”
So the struggle continued. Throughout July, the ILWU camped in a tent outside the port property; it embellished this with a twenty foot inflatable rat. Then, on July 22, more than 100 longshoremen set up picket lines at EGT, blocking employees from entering the site. One protester, James Coffman, 76 of Rainier, Oregon, a retired longshoreman, was arrested, charged with two counts of malicious mischief, including allegedly throwing an egg at an EGT car. James is Dan Coffman’s father.
The following Monday, however, the police (sheriff’s deputies, Longview and Kelso cops, Washington State troopers) appeared in force, in riot gear, heavy weapons and all. Seven longshoremen were arrested and the company resumed work – police escorted 15 to 20 employees into the facility. Coffman complained that the offenses were “trivial”, blocking traffic, etc., but one worker, Adam Woon was charged with a felony.
The same day another man was arrested; the sheriff produced a video they claimed showed Scott Mitchell, 40, Kelso, using his knee to bend in the rear door panel of a Toyota Prius; a rough repair estimate (not clear just who made this) led to an alleged $1400 in damages, therefore malicious mischief, a felony. An ILWU video showed pickets sent flying by a speeding SUV; it seems not to have impressed the police.
The plot was thickening, however. On July 29, Oregon’s largest labor group joined the Washington State AFL-CIO and several county labor councils in demanding that the operating engineers stop taking jobs of ILWU dock workers. The Oregon AFL-CIO executive board voted “to condemn in the strongest way possible the scab labor actions.” Both state labor councils expressed their solidarity in defiance of the national trade union federation, AFL-CIO. There, Richard Trumka, the federation’s president, astonishingly, declared the dispute to be primarily jurisdictional, that is a question of a dispute between two unions! And he couldn’t take sides. At the same time, local businesses joined in, many posting signs of support of the workers, or announcing solidarity on reader boards. Two of the three County supervisors announced their support.
Then, at the end of August, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) weighed in; the regional director in Seattle, Richard Ahearn, responding to complaints by EGT, filed unfair labor practice complaints in Federal Court, seeking an order to end “aggressive picketing and allow trains to make deliveries.” In his complaint, Ahearn alleged, among other things, that an ILWU protester, airborne, had dropped a bag of “manure” near the EGT administrative buildings. He did not say just how he knew the flyer was an ILWU supporter. Still, the picketing continue, BNSF train traffic remained suspended; not a bushel of grain had yet left EGT’s terminal.
Judge Ronald B. Leighton, in Federal Court in Tacoma, a Bush appointee, responding to the NLRB’s complaint by issuing a restraining order, to be in effect for ten days, prohibiting ILWU members from engaging in “unlawful…picket line violence, threats and property damage, mass picketing and blocking of ingress and egress at the facility of EGT.” It could be made permanent at a second hearing.
The next big battles came in September. The details of these are important, for they reveal the real essence of this story. They reveal what is so often forgotten, or denied, about working people, about their courage, their capacity to fight, to organize, to win. They reveal, concretely, that working people, blue collar workers in particular, are not the problem, are not inherently conservative today, that they remain indispensable in any movement that aims to create for all a better future.
On September 7, BNSF, emboldened by the injunctions, ordered a train to the Longview EGT terminal, the first to attempt to reach EGT since July 15. However, the train, 100 cars long, carrying thousands of tons of corn, was stopped by longshoremen in downtown Vancouver. No arrests made; the longshoremen allowed other trains to pass through. The protesters then regrouped in Longview. There longshoremen stopped the train a second time, a few hundred yards from the terminal. In Longview numbers their had increased to hundreds, supported by members from Portland, Vancouver and other Northwest ports. They were joined by ILWU International President, Robert McEllrath.
This time the police were out in force. “It was a very, very ugly situation,” according to Sheriff Nelson. “We haven’t had these kinds of situations with our local people?” “We were very tense,” said Jim Duscha, Longview Chief of Police. “The demeanor of the protesters has come out. They were aggressive toward law enforcement.” The police, in full riot gear, equipped with tear gas and rifles carrying rubber bullets, ordered to protesters to leave. The crowd responded with chants, “ILWU.” 19 were arrested in the first round (these charged with second degree trespassing), three more were arrested in scuffles with police, then sixteen more who refused to leave tracks. In the battle, throngs of protesters pressed the police lines, only to be beaten back with clubs and pepper spray. Cowlitz County Sheriff’s deputies Cory Robinson and Tory Shelton reported that they attempted to arrest McEllrath, but were overwhelmed by the crowd. “A large group of protesters were rushing at us. I let go of Mr. McEllrath because I felt like they were going to overrun us,’ Robinson said. The police were able to clear the tracks after a four-hour standoff.
In the meantime, the circulation of a photo, seeming to show McEllrath being hauled away in handcuffs, enflamed longshoremen everywhere; the action spread to Seattle/Tacoma (the coast’s second largest port after Los Angeles), Everett and Anacortes– longshoremen walked off their jobs, all but shutting down shipping on Puget Sound.
“It appears the members have taken action on their own.” said Craig Merrilees, a spokesman for the ILWU in San Francisco. And possibly not for the last time. Scott mason, president of Tacoma local 23, believed the walkouts might continue, “If EGT continues to act in the manner they do… I can’t say our members will not wildcat again.”
Still Judge Leighton rejected the NLRB call to ban all picketing altogether. “Your clients do no good for their cause behaving like this… “I feel a little bit like a paper tiger here, I don’t see that there’s a defense here…” The ILWU lawyers responded, “Passions got inflamed when the working class people fighting to save their jobs saw ILWU President Robert McEllrath accosted by police.” Coffman added, “It’s totally unbelievable that our police force in our county is protecting a multinational corporation. They’re the thugs, and our guys acted to protect our president.”
The next morning, the rebellion resumed. It began at 4:30 am. The press reported hundreds of longshoremen (police estimated there were more than 400 involved, some reports said 600) stormed the EGT terminal; they (reportedly) dumped grain from train cars, smashed windows in the guard shack and left six security guards running for cover. One guard was yanked from his car; it was driven into a ditch. The guards were trapped there for two hours; EGT claimed they were taken hostage. But Charlie Cadwell, a Columbia Security patrol guard, testified that the guards were never the target. “Was he concerned for his safety?” “No, I was not… they wanted the train.” The protesters were said to have cut the train’s brake lines of train cards involved, grain was spilled from as many as 70 of the 107 cars. By the time police reinforcements arrived, the protesters had scattered. No one was injured and no one was arrested that morning.
Police responded by stopping all picketing. They set up a command center plus road blocks and checkpoints, resulting in considerable confusion on the waterfront as well as traffic jams reaching into the town center. Duscha reported he had 50 officers on duty; he was ready to bring in more, having been promised help from throughout southwest Washington and from as far as central Oregon.
The Sheriff promised arrests saying, “We’ve got lots of evidence.” The protesters were accused of “riot, sabotage, and of criminal behavior.” At the same time Leighton ruled that the longshore union was in contempt of court and promised fines. He did not order anyone to jail. Tom Loran, the vice president of Portland’s ILWU local 92 complained that the union members had been provoked by the police. The ILWU responded, “Accountability goes both ways. The workers faced the judge today, but so far there has been no accountability for multinational EGT, which has created the chaos in the community by taking millions in a special tax exemption, breaking their agreement to hire ILWU workers, suing the port, and trying to destabilize the grain industry in the Northwest. And Dan Coffman added, “If union members stand on a train track exercising their First Amendment rights, it is a crime. But if a major corporation plunders and entire community, it matters not.”
The arrests began in twos and threes; workers were picked up on the streets, sometimes in their homes, regardless of the hour. The union called these “made for TV arrests.’ They were featured, names named, in the local media. On September 16, the union responded by bringing 200 longshoremen and supporters to the Cowlitz County Hall of Justice in Kelso, saying they were surrendering themselves to police to answer the charges for the demonstrations. Law enforcement refused to meet with them. “I’m hoping we don’t have to worry about being arrested in the middle of the night now… we shouldn’t have to fear the intimidation that’s been put forth or the abuse that’s been put forth… We’re going home as free citizens,” said Coffman.
Instead, union members complained, police flashed lights in members’ homes at night, stalked them, delaying arrests until they could be undertaken publically. Jake Whiteside, local 21 vice president, was arrested on suspicion of criminal trespass. The arrest, the work of heavily armed deputies, took place in the parking lot of his church, in full view of his children. In the course of the conflict, Sheriff Nelson repeatedly professed to want a peaceful settlement, often claiming to sympathize with the protesting workers. In practice, however, he and the County Prosecutor implemented a campaign of harassment, intimidation and humiliation.
There was another confrontation on September 21; a dozen protesters, nine of them members of the union’s Women’s Auxiliary, sat down on the railroad tracks, attempting to block an incoming train, this time 107 cars originating in Cheney in the wheat fields of Eastern Washington. The scene itself was heartrending, shocking even by today’s standards. The nine middle-aged women were all wives and relatives of longshoremen. They were accompanied by three of the union’s officers. On the street, lines of squad cars were assembled; the police SWAT team was clad in black armored riot gear, including billy clubs and high powered rifles. They marched in formation across the tracks. Standing by, an armored anti-riot vehicle with a gun turret at the top; the police called it “the peace keeper.”
The women with the ILWU officers were arrested, roughed up in the process, they said. Two other union members were pepper sprayed then arrested when they tried to come to the defense of Phoebe Wiest, 57, the mother of a longshoreman. She was later diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff. The women’s protests nevertheless continued; at one, 50 women appeared in Kelso with fake black eyes. They carried signs “Stop the Violence” and “Badges are not a License for Brutality.”
On Monday, September, 26, ILWU presided McEllrath returned to turn himself in to the Sheriff; there was a warrant out for his arrest for alleged second-degree criminal trespassing and blocking a train. McEllrath was flanked by a dozen officers of the ILWU, including the presidents of the local unions at the ports of Seattle, Tacoma, Portland and Vancouver, as well as Coffman and Whiteside, plus officers from the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA), the union of East and Gulf Coast longshoremen, including Ken Riley, ILA local 1422 president from Charleston South Carolina, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO.
In a written statement, McEllrath read, “Today I’m standing with Longview’s longshore workers and their supporters who have been harshly punished for standing up to multinational bully EGT.
“Sheriff Mark Nelson needs to start accepting our offers to process arrests peacefully, and stop sending out multiple squad cars on Sundays to make over-the-top arrests and rack up overtime costs.”
This show of solidarity from East and West Coast dockworkers was still symbolic, of course, but who knows? On the West Coast, all machinery and equipment in stopped for 15 minutes as McEllrath turned himself in, all coastal facilities closed.
NLRB Regional Director Ahearn released his findings on September 26. He explained that his delay in the pursuit of damages from the ILWU was simply the result of thoroughness, for example, he awaited the figures for overtime for the cops. ILWU coast committeeman, Leal Sundet, “This is yet another example of the NLRB promoting the interests of capital and profit over the needs of workers and the community as a whole.”
In Federal Court in Tacoma, the NLRB announced $293,000 in damages and costs, including nearly $140,000 in compensation for EGT and $13, 000 to BNSF. That included $80,000 in lost grain (9,855 bushels spilled) and $1000 for damage to train breaks; $1400 for the security vehicle, The NLRB calculated $76,000 for police overtime, then $66,000 for NLRB attorney fees.
The following Thursday there was yet another Longview demonstration; this time more than 500 union members and supporters rallied in the Civic Center in support of the longshoremen. It was “one of the area’s largest labor demonstrations in recent memory.” There were union contingents from Seattle and Portland, including public workers, ships captains, commercial and construction workers. “Unions stand behind each other, the unions have built this town. We believe in solidarity,” said Lynda Hart, steward coordinator for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW 2500 members in Cowlitz County).
Jeff Johnson, president of the state labor council added, “We’re going to win this fight because we’re right. We’re going to win this fight because this work – loading and unloading ships – is longshore labor. And we’re going to win this fight because we’re going to stay out here one day longer.” There were signs galore, “Stop the War on Workers.” “I think working people are tired,” said Jim Kodama, a retired Kelso Carpenter’s union organizer, “I think they’re starting to stand up. Kodoma, 59, said the country’s richest 5% “should take notice.”
Friday, Judge Leighton issued orders: the ILWU to pay a $250,000 fine (he considered parts of the estimates “inflated”) – “for vandalism and other illegal activity” – and warned of additional fines to come: individuals who trespass, or breaking laws in future protest to be fined $2,500, officers $5,000. The judge also ordered a “suspended” fine against the ILWU of $25,000 for protests on September 7 and 8 – suspending meaning it would become active if the union “miss stepped” again. Sundet of the ILWU called the judgment “rough justice” based on “back-of- the napkin guesstimates.”
There can be no doubt that the fines (still being appealed), plus the mounting numbers of citations and arrests, contributed to “cooling” things off in Longview, as, of course, they were intended to do. On October 13, 100 ILWU members picketed but did not try to stop a grain train bound for EGT. So the trains rolled in, and EGT prepared for its inaugural shipments. The struggle, however, continued; few thought it was over. It remained quite clear that this conflict was by no means settled. At best, the authorities had a tiger by the tail.
First, the focus had shifted to the arrival of the first grain freighter, scheduled to arrive at EGT late that month. The ILWU endorsed a “peaceful” demonstration and it excluded the possibility of a coast wide general strike. Still, few believed that given the circumstances of that past fall that an “orderly” demonstration was likely, even possible. Almost any demonstration would inevitably be conceived of as the showdown. Nevertheless there was widespread labor support. In the ILWU itself local 10 in Oakland pledged $10,000 in support and announced a caravan from the Bay Area to Longview.
Second, by November Occupy Wall Street, born at Zucotti Park on September 17 in New York City, had become a national phenomenon, largely because of its electrifying slogan, “We are the 99%.” Its tent cities and its success in drawing attention to the ever widening wealth gap in the United States, had, in what is now a cliché, “transformed the conversation in the US.” On the West Coast Occupy Oakland followed suit and seized Frank Ogawa Plaza (renamed it Oscar Grant Plaza) in the heart of the downtown. It made national news the night of October 25 when its encampment was violently cleared on by the Oakland police – in an operation typically brutal, yet so extreme it threw the city administration into turmoil. As much as anything else, it was the shooting of the Iraq veteran, marine Scott Olsen, 24, by Oakland police that horrified, alarmed and mobilized thousands of Bay Area activists, catapulting Occupy Oakland into the spotlight. Olsen was hit in the forehead by a police projectile. He was taken to the emergency room where doctors feared severe brain damage, possibly death (happily, he survived).
This is not the place for a history of Occupy Oakland – one can easily be put together from the many scores of web reports. Suffice it here to remember that in response to the shooting of Olsen, Occupy Oakland called a “General Strike”, the response to which was considerable – 20,000, perhaps more, marched (unopposed) into the Oakland docks. The origin of the idea of a general strike is not so clear (the call, slogan “general strike”, is often simply generic, one size fits all). Yet, serendipitously, it raised the labor issue, including the recollection of the 1946 Oakland General Strike, the last significant general strike in the US. It made the 99% slogan concrete. The only problem was that this “general strike”, awkwardly, was not a strike at all. And it took place with the authorities at least acquiescent – the mayor announced that city workers were welcome to participate. More, the port was closed without the participation of those who worked there, including, of course, the ILWU with its deep history on the Oakland docks.
Never mind, buoyed by the event, within days Occupy Oakland, called another “General Strike,” (I have the documentation) quickly,however, renaming it a “Coastal Blockade”– “from Anchorage to San Diego.” This time prominent in its demands was support for the embattled Longview longshoremen in their conflict with the 1%ers at EGT.
The ILWU was among the first of US unions to welcome Occupy Wall Street, but is was joined by an array of Bay Area unions including the Oakland Teachers Association (OTA) and the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).
John Borsos, Secretary Treasure of NUHW responded:
“I was thinking about this historically, you know there have been certain times when movements have emerged spontaneously, truly grass roots, from the bottom. These are the kind of eruptions you will find if you go back, for instance, to the eighteen nineties and Jacob Coxey’s army of unemployed that marched across the Middle West; or the bonus marchers of the early 1930s, the World War I veterans who gathered in Washington, DC demanding relief, and battled General MacArthur; and, in a more organized way, perhaps, the Poor People’s marches and encampments that Martin Luther King, Jr. led in the 1960s.
“They were all somewhat tied to the labor movement but not in it. But I think that in fact they were harbingers of the more dynamic and militant labor movements that followed.”
McEllrath, On October 5, issued this statement:
“On behalf of 40,000 members in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), I want to thank you for organizing your “Occupy Wall Street” protest in New York City which is inspiring millions of Americans.
“Most of us are tired of seeing a handful of the richest corporations and executives behave as though they’re entitled to live like kings at everyone’s expense:
“They aren’t paying their fair share of taxes, so schools are cutting back and colleges are raising fees – leaving students with obscene debts. It’s time for the millionaires – the richest 1% – to start paying their fair share so we can support education and other vital services…
“Your decision to bring these and other issues to corporate America’s doorstep is courageous – and involves some risks. We weren’t surprised that some of you have faced beatings and pepper spray from overzealous police. Your crusade to shine a light on the corruption and injustice that’s infecting Wall Street is bound to ruffle some feathers.
“We’ve experienced some similar rough treatment in Longview, Washington, where ILWU families are also taking a stand against corporate greed. Our fight there is against EGT, a multi-national corporation that took taxpayer subsidies to build a grain export terminal – then betrayed workers and the community.
“Like you, ILWU members in Longview have been arrested, beaten and pepper sprayed. We know that justice won’t be won by asking greedy employers for permission or waiting for politicians to pass laws. That’s why we hope that you’ll stand your ground on Wall Street while we do the same in Longview – because An Injury to One Is an Injury to
Why is this of any interest, certainly today, well into a post OWS era? I include it in the spirit of our tragically departed editor, Alexander Cockburn, who wrote recently (Counterpunch, July 6-8) and, typically, bluntly, “if ever I saw a dead movement, it is surely occupy.” I am sure he found no pleasure in writing this; he had however a purpose. He suggested, “I do think it’s incumbent on those veteran radicals who wrote hundreds of articles or more proclaiming a religious conversion to Occupyism, to give a proper account of themselves, otherwise it will happen all over again.” I strongly agree and include this because I believe that a real opportunity was lost in the course of these events, squandered in Oakland in particular. And with no accounting. Occupy was certainly not without achievements. These I think are well known. Its brief history was filled with heroic actions, again in Alexander’s words, “These were brave people trying to hold their ground.” It was fascinating for me to see, in just a matter of weeks (spurred by the slogan “the 99%”) a whole section of Occupy Oakland (and other coastal Occupy sections) shift to a focus on labor, on workers and their unions and their issues. And it seemed possibly a two-way street. Dan Coffman spoke to an Oakland General Assembly (seen in a widely viewed video). A group of rank-and-file Longview longshoreman visited the San Francisco encampment. And McEllrath’s statements were never retracted, even as he distanced himself from Occupy’s Oakland’s triumphalist benders.
It was possible, imaginable, it seemed to me (and many others), that some kind of modus vivendi, even an actual alliance of labor and Occupy (warts and all on both sides, no one perfect here) might develop. Alas, I believe that this was never seriously envisioned, at least not in Occupy Oakland’s inner circles, thereby undercutting any real alliance from the start. No sustained effort that I know of was ever made to make common cause with the union, its leaders or its rank and file. Instead, Occupy Oakland relied on a handful of contacts in the union, individuals who, for better or worse, had never produced a following in their own locals, a group that, it appears, relayed what turned out to be consistently misinformation about the union, the attitudes of it rank-and-file members and the extent of their support for Occupy actions. Occupy Oakland spokespeople came to employ the crudest analysis of the trade unions (an abstract, static analysis of leadership, bureaucracy and rank and file), plus a sophomoric understanding of the Taft-Hartley Act and its long history. They joined others on the left in sharing misleading perspectives on the meaning of this particular capitalist crisis, on the balance of forces at play, as well as of the actual possibilities at hand. Demand the impossible, yes, by all means, but a little pessimism of the intellect as well; the Longview battle in itself was unlikely to “shape the future for dockworkers around the world…”
The democratic procedures and practices of the ULWU (however perfect or imperfect they may be) were dismissed out of hand, while the Occupy “General Assemblies” – “a higher level of democracy” – were promoted as panacea. This despite the problem that a hundred or so Oakland occupiers – and the much smaller core groups within the Assemblies – were in the process making decisions for many thousands of coastal workers, their families and communities, their futures. That all this was an arrogant substitutionism (substituting themselves for the actual longshoremen) became apparent soon enough, and the union had little choice it seems to me but to separate itself from Occupy and its calls for January “blockades” (“Shut Down all US Ports” was the slogan of one faction). In the event, the December coastal blockades sputtered, the promised rank-and-file participation never materialized; in the two largest coastal ports, Los Angeles/Long Beach and Seattle/Tacoma, small contingents of blockaders were routed by the police – cruelly as usual. In Portland and Longview and Oakland, again, the authorities allowed the demonstrations, and the ports were for the most part closed, though in Oakland it was clear to all that participation was significantly diminished. It also became apparent that Occupy Oakland was increasingly factionalized and isolated. Its January 28 “Move-in Day” in Oakland was poorly attended; its goal of seizing a vacant convention center was easily repelled by heavily armed police and its “plan B” march to nowhere ended with several hundred arrests. Never mind, just weeks later Occupy would call for world-wide May Day general strikes.
On balance, Occupy’s actions were as divisive as they were supportive – its bypassing of the unions, for example, its suggestion that Occupy was actually somehow standing in the unions, and that the ILWU was in fact supported the blockades (it just was saying it didn’t), the union’s stance was all about “winks and nods” and an end run around the constraints imposed by Taft-Hartley. The indiscriminant, repeated reference to “the bureaucrats,” the mantra that the rank-and-file supported them (in the absence any semblance of an independent rank and file; so did, they said, the port truckers), made a mockery of the idea of genuine support, any kind of mutuality, indispensable if solidarity is to have any real meaning. The charade of solidarity is best seen in that offered up in the provocative, ill-fated coastal January road show that culminated into brouhaha in Seattle.
Bureaucrats, of course, come in various sizes and shapes, and no doubt the ILWU has its share. It might be remembered, however, that ILWU officers have term limits, that virtually all have been working longshoremen and for the most part they return to the docks. Robert McEllrath and Dan Coffman are ILWU officers. They were both arrested in this conflict; we’re not really taking about a Jimmy Hoffa Jr. here, or Andy Stern and Mary Kay Henry.
Nevertheless, the idea of a massive confrontation at EGT was powerful; indeed many looked forward to one and built for it including in the ranks of labor, where many wanted to show the world “This is not Wisconsin.” Who wouldn’t? It was not to happen, we know now. In the fall of 2011 Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire initiated secret negotiations with EGT, the ILWU, and the state labor council. She announced a settlement on January 23, the eleventh hour. Was Gregoire “scared”; I doubt it, though she surely she was not anxious to see this story prolonged: it was after all, the 1% and the 99% in battle in living color. There was in fact significant, growing labor support. Would this ever, really have been mobilized? We don’t know, but neither did Gregoire. Then remember (however inconvenient in theory) Gregoire was not Scott Walker.
The union declared victory (so did Occupy) and local 21’s membership voted unanimously in favor of the announced the agreement. Curiously, though, voices from Occupy simultaneously declared victory and took credit while also calling it the “worst contract ever.”
We rarely have opportunities to build the kind of movement we need. We had one here. So this is important both for what was won but also because it also represents another chance lost. It is also important because, again, we need to have a critical look at Occupy, especially if we believe that labor does need allies, which indeed it does. Important questions remain. Occupy’s role in this story was vastly overblown, in January it was in steep decline, heavily infiltrated and factionalized; it was in no position to mobilize thousands, let alone tens of thousands to Longview. The authorities were surely well away of all this. They were not “scared” of Occupy Oakland or its newer iterations, the Oakland Commune, etc. The “Oakland Commune’s letter to Mayor Jean Quan and the Oakland Police turned tragedy into the proverbial farce with its threats to “blockade the airport indefinitely”; “occupying City Hall indefinitely”; “shut down the Oakland ports” along with its salutation, “Don’t f**k with the Oakland Commune.”
The conflict in Longview far from over. The fines are in appeal. The trials continue. McEllrath’s trial, stemming from the September 7th protest, ended in a hung jury this year on June 29. The trial was attended by more than 200 supporters, including representatives of longshoremen from literally all over the world. Many protesters were found not guilty on minor charges; others were convicted of misdemeanors and given community service. One September protester, Ron Stavas, was arrested and charged with four felonies. He served 22 days in jail. Local 21 compensated him for lost work and wages. Then there is the everyday fight with EGT.
Questions remain. Just how are we to support workers, how to understand unions? Would a confrontation at EGT have won more? Were there unnecessary concessions made? Had the international union, tamed by Taft-Hartley, or whatever, forced a compromise, one not in the best interests of local 21, or of longshoremen more generally, or the labor movement? And the 99%? Had the local unions and the rank and file carried their weight?
These are not simple questions to answer. On the role of the international, we need to hear from the workers themselves on this point – they in turn will have the responsibility to correcting whatever process went wrong, if it did. We can support them in that. The principle concession came in EGT’s winning on the control room question – a matter safety, according to many grain workers. But even this was not so straightforward – there were no workers in the control room at Kalama Exports, just down the road. So that precedent was, unfortunately, already in place, and close to home. Then the language in sections of the management rights clauses. We always want one clear winner, it’s the American way. Victory wasn’t 100% then. But, as far as precedents go, and thinking about future bargaining, surely this first EGT contract can be made into a strong, positive precedent. Look at what was won by fighting; local 21 kept non-union workers out, they kept local 701 out. EGT is paying workers overtime on the twelve hours shifts. EGT is paying their health and pension funds. They are paying into the pension and health benefit plans of retirees. They have their foot in the door, really much more than that. They can keep fighting and they are. Dan Coffman recalls “many sleepless nights.” “We had no roadmap.” “We all made mistakes.” Would a confrontation have won more? “Maybe, can’t know.” “But we might have got people hurt, the odds were still stacked against us.”
A most modest and generous conclusion, in my opinion. More, it is a reminder that the movement (and after Occupy, what’s next?) still has much to learn from the workers and their movements, much indeed from Longview – where a couple of hundred people stood up to Goliath and won! 2011 was filled with hopes dashed, false promises, and missed opportunities but happily not in Longview. It was a magnificent struggle and a great victory. Let’s remember to celebrate.
Cal Winslow is the author of Labor’s Civil War in California, PM Press, 2012 (second edition, revised and expanded), an editor of Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt From Below during the Long Seventies (Verso, 2010), and an editor of West of Eden, Communes and Utopia in Northern California (PM Press, 2012). He is a Fellow at UC Berkeley, Director of the Mendocino Institute and associated with the Bay Area collective, Retort. He can be reached at email@example.com