Longview Redux

I was happy to learn that the longshoremen of Longview Washington, members of International Longshore and Warehousemen Union (ILWU), Local 21, were awarded the Mother Jones prize by the Washington State Labor Council at its August convention.

The longshoremen of local 21 are the workers who beat back EGT, the giant multinational grain shipping corporation, and won a union contract at the Port of Longview. They defeated EGT’s plans to open its new facility with non-union workers. It was a modern day David and Goliath story, replete with militant fighters and courageous supporters, a singular victory in a period of labor defeat and decline. It was also one of many do or die struggles in the long history of longshoremen and it has made its mark on that legacy.

Mother Jones (1837-1930), of course, was the Irish born “miner’s angel”, the school teacher and dressmaker who became a labor organizer. In 1902 she was named “the  most dangerous woman in America.” She is remembered for her uncompromising support of workers, in particular the West Virginia coal miners in the 1912 Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strikes. There, in what became a life and death struggle for the very existence of the union, Mother Jones, in front of a crowd of strikers, was reported to have held up the bloodstained jacket of a wounded mine guard and, urging the miners on, shouted “This is the first time I ever saw a goddamned mine guard’s coat decorated to suit me.” Ralph Chaplin wrote the song, “Solidarity Forever” in homage to these West Virginia workers. So the prize was appropriate.

The Longview longshoremen reportedly occupied the giant new grain facility, blocked trains, spilled grain from rail cars, and cut brake lines all to gain a union contract. Which they did. They too faced armed company guards, state and local police, plus threats from homeland security. Women supporters literally put their bodies on the line (the rail tracks), daring the railroad authorities, and defying the riot squad in their Darth Vader all-black outfits, all under the watch of the “peacemaker”, an armored vehicle deployed by the local constabulary. Happily, no one was shot, though hundreds were arrested, others harassed and humiliated and trials continue to this day. ILWU President, Robert McEllrath, faces a retrial in September; in June a jury was unable to reach a verdict in in the case of his arrest. A vindictive prosecutor has ordered a retrial.

I was also pleased to see that Local 21 was also awarded the 2012 “History in the Making Award” by the Pacific Northwest History Association where I read that Dan Coffman Local 21 President, joined by the Local 21 officers, gave an “account of the bitter struggle in Longview that pitted the local against EGT, the company that operates Longview’s new grain terminal. Coffman gave an impassioned account of the local’s battle to win a fair contract and the incredible showing of solidarity from across the globe that helped ensure their success.”

In my CounterPunch article, “Victory in Longview, A Year On” (July 25, 2012) I wrote “It was a magnificent struggle and a great victory. Let’s remember to celebrate.” I stand by that, and I’m happy to see celebrations, and the more the better. They deserve it. It’s a story that deserves telling, far and wide.

So it was a bit disheartening but, alas, not unexpected, to read Jack Heyman, a retired Bay Area longshoreman, doing his best to turn this victory into a defeat, and events of courage and sacrifice reduced to simply another in a long standing catalogue of “betrayals”: even “a political rape.” “EGT-Longview Longshore Contract the Worst Ever.” (“The ILWU Longshore Struggle in Longview.” CounterPunch, August 10-12, 2012)

As I reported, there were concessions in Longview, on both sides. The management rights clause leaves much to be desired and there is the issue of who works in the control room.  And there are other questions. This is all very public knowledge now and I think it is best for readers to assess the outcomes as they will. But, as I wrote then and still believe, “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.” As they are.

There are many issues raised in Heyman’s response – he criticizes me by name literally twenty times! Most do not really merit a response, and at best it would be highly tedious to go through even half of them.

But I have several questions of my own. One is, why, despite the many statements (chiefly from Occupy Oakland) to the contrary last year, were Heyman and his co-thinkers so utterly incapable of rallying significant numbers (hardly any) of longshoremen (or port truckers, or other trade unionists) to their cause (“Shut Down All Ports,” etc., etc.,) – in this case the West Coast port actions of Occupy?

And why after so long in the local (25 years, apparently) has he failed so consistently to develop a following? It’s interesting that Heyman, never one to leave a stone unturned, wants to take issue with accounts in a book I recently edited with Aaron Brenner and Robert Brenner – Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt From Below during the Long Seventies (Verso), a highly interesting set of histories of rank and file movements, though certainly not a “how to do it” handbook. The chapters in Rebel Rank and File report on efforts to reform various unions; some succeeded, others failed. Frequently, the settings investigated were far more inhospitable than anything found in the Bay Area longshoreman’s union, which Heyman describes as having a “legacy of union democracy and militancy.” Jock Yablonski, for example, a miner who challenged United Mine Workers president Tony Boyle, was murdered in his bed, as were his wife and daughter, killed by hired gunmen, on New Year’s Eve, 1969. Pete Camarata, a Detroit dock worker, the first Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) delegate to a Teamsters’ national convention, was savagely beaten outside the hall in Las Vegas. I once watched as wildcat strikers at United Parcel Service in Cleveland faced down dozens of armed, baseball bat carrying Teamster officials, real strikebreakers.

So if it’s true that the ILWU is at least somewhat friendlier than that; and, if it’s true that the current president, McEllrath, with his history of “treachery from above”, has very little support within the union; if all this is true, why not take a page from the past? Why haven’t Heyman and his co-thinkers challenged him? Heyman reckons only 16.8% of the ILWU’s 45,000 members voted for McEllrath in the 2006 elections, and 16.7% of 40,000 members in 2009 (so he’s [paying attention). There are any number of paths for critics in the ILWU. It’s a small union; it’s pretty democratic as unions go, running for office doesn’t cost a lot of money. Easy peasy then? So where are the elected officers, convention delegates, where are the vote tallies? Which locals are controlled? None are to be found. And of course the proof is also in the outcomes of the last year’s coastal “general strikes,” coastal “blockades” and his own group’s generic, one-size-fits-all heritage demand, raised again in December, 2011, “Shut down All US Ports.”

Another question I have involves whether or not a confrontation in itself could have won more in Longview, an assessment that appears self-evident as ‘yes’ in Occupy circles. I confess to being agnostic on this one. My position in “One year on” was that it was not clear if labor could mobilize a sufficient force to stop the ship. Not in theory, but in the here and now. I did write that I was quite sure that Occupy, already then in sharp decline could not have. And it was clear that the ILWU leadership was not about to close the coast ports. So I still say we don’t know. But it would have been risky at the very best, and there was also the possibility of defeat.

Heyman’s take on this is curious, to say the least. He writes: “There were plans for a massive deployment of police, military and Homeland Security forces to stop the anticipated protests by labor and Occupy, from land and water. The specter of a nightmare scenario for the capitalists was on the horizon. Workers fighting for their jobs being bloodily repressed wouldn’t bode well for the Democrat “friends of labor” in the upcoming elections in the midst of the worst economic crisis in decades.” (my emphasis)

Is that the scenario Heyman and his co-thinkers imagined? “Workers being bloodily repressed.” Did they explain that to the workers involved? And then what? As long as we’re off into fantasy why not imagine the workers bloodying the authorities, driving out the police Minneapolis style, circa, 1934, Heyman’s favorite year, apparently? Was he looking forward to a massacre?

The fact is that Heyman’s larger political perspectives are quite tried and tested and that they too have consistently failed (over, literally, decades) to gain any traction. He doesn’t hide this; he lays it out for all to see (except perhaps the final chapter). I’m not making anything up. It’s all there, a block of ice, the obligatory reference to the Minneapolis Teamsters, homage to James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism, the litany of betrayals, plus of course his own particular copyright; all other opinion is swept from the field with a stroke of his pen, including his very closest political kin, reformists all, apologists for the dreaded bureaucrats. Even Labor Notes is attacked, what did they have to do with it? And “infantile anarchist pranks” are thrown in to boot.

Now none of this is of particular interest, except insofar as it leads us to the question of Occupy Oakland’s demise and the politics of that episode. My question is not who is Jack Heyman? (and it’s nothing personal here, I’ve never met the man). Rather it’s about another area of concern. How did Jack Heyman, toy Bolshevik to the bone, become a spokesperson for a movement that was meant to be anti-hierarchical, leaderless, that practiced “a higher level of democracy” and so on? And how did the movement adopt an approach to the labor movement that was a caricature of sectarianism? Because it did and that in my opinion is a problem.

I like labor history and have nothing against reliving the past. As a child I was taken round by my father to visit the sites of the great battles of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the Pacific Northwest – the voyage of the Verona, the Centralia Massacre, the “general strike in the woods,” the Seattle general strike. I learned about “the 47 states and the soviet of Washington.” (James Farley US Postmaster, 1936). We had “Talking Union” in the cabinet. I admit to feeling a sort of home-town (not quite my home town, I’m from a few miles farther up the road) pride in these Longview longshoremen.

And I’m happy that Mother Jones too is remembered today, along with her wonderful slogan, “Pray for the Dead, Fight Like hell for the Living.” But that was a hundred years ago. Some things have changed others haven’t. Big corporations still don’t like unions and EGT came into the fight determined to exclude the ILWU, the union with 70 years on Longview’s waterfront. They failed, the union is still there and this sounds like a win to me.

We have an inheritance to be proud of. And it’s not at all irrelevant. But neither is it a road map. The twenty first century is not the twentieth, the 2010s not the 1930s. I said in “One Year On” that we needed debate. But, unfortunately, not this debate, not one framed in 1934. I hoped I was responding to Alexander Cockburn’s call for some accounting in our movements. He meant Occupy, but we need it in the unions as well. We need to find what works today. And what doesn’t. And in this the longshoremen’s victory remains a good place to begin.

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 cwinslow@berkeley.edu

Cal Winslow is the author of Radical Seattle: the General Strike of 1919. He can be reached at cwinslow@mcn.org