ILWU’s Northwest Grain Conflict

When Wisconsin state workers were courageously occupying the state capitol to protest Governor Scott Walker’s attack on their unions’ right to bargain, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka trumpeted a call for solidarity actions throughout the labor movement on April 4, 2011 the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, killed during the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) president Robert McEllrath reiterated the call to mobilize labor. It was to be a day of “no business as usual” proclaimed the labor media. Yet, only one union, ILWU Local 10, organized a solidarity job action that day shutting down the port of Oakland and sending their Drill Team to march with their sisters and brothers in the Wisconsin battleground.

When the employers’ Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) threatened a Taft-Hartley lawsuit against the local for an illegal sympathy strike, neither Trumka nor McEllrath came to their defense. But the Labor Federations of South Central Wisconsin, San Francisco, South Bay and Alameda passed resolutions defending ILWU Local 10 as labor’s moral compass. As the Wisconsin labor federation messaged to a rally in front of PMA headquarters in San Francisco: “Whether it’s racist apartheid in South Africa, imperialist war in Iraq, or fascist plutocracy in Wisconsin, Local 10, over and over again, shows us what a Union [should] look like!!” (see

ILWU vs the Grain Monopolies

Now the ILWU is under attack from the grain monopolies, “ABCD” — Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill and Dreyfus who control 75-90% of the world’s grain trade.  According to Oxfam their profits are rooted in the world’s hunger and poverty not to mention ecological devastation and attacks on unions. ILWU longshoremen are locked out and scabs are doing their work in Vancouver, Washington and across the Columbia River in Portland, Oregon. The union has only put up token informational picket lines while scabs continue to taunt them provocatively. Picket lines mean “DON’T CROSS”! ILWU’s militant history shows mass labor mobilizations can stop scabbing. Only a couple of years ago, led by Longview Local 21, longshoremen sporatically took militant actions. But the International union leadership to date remains paralyzed, unwilling to do what it takes to stop these employer attacks.

What’s at stake here is the future of the ILWU, and of the entire labor movement. If employers can attack what historically has been the most militant trade union in the U.S. without any unified response from organized labor, then the obvious question is: Where is the trade union movement heading? If unions like the Operating Engineers and now the Masters, Mates and Pilots Union (MMP) can waltz across union-sanctioned picket lines without a qualm and the head of the AFL-CIO remains silent, then what kind of a labor movement do we have?  Worse still, according to an ILWU document, not only has the MMP crossed a picket line, they’re renting “office space to Gettier (strikebreakers’ Services) in the MMP’s building less than a mile from the Portland docks.” And both MMP and ILWU are members of the newly-formed Maritime Labor Alliance!

To rub salt into the festering wound, one Teamster official in California publicly ridiculed ILWU to one of its members for his union’s lack of resolve to defend itself. Two years ago, at the time of ILWU’s Wisconsin solidarity action the Teamsters raided ILWU warehouse Local 17 in Sacramento taking over the local, lock, stock and barrel. There was no fight back nor was there any mention in the ILWU’s newspaper The Dispatcher.  And the Teamsters also are in a waterfront alliance with the longshore union!

Longshoremen Led the Struggle, But Then…

In 2011, U.S.-based Bunge began an employers’ feeding frenzy, by hiring another union Operating Engineers Local 701 to scab on ILWU at its new grain facility in Longview, Washington, the Export Grain Terminal (EGT). Then, EGT demanded and got cataclysmic concessions. Bunge is the dominant consortium partner of EGT with Japanese-owned grain trader Itochu and Korean-owned STX Pan Ocean Shipping.

Initially, rank-and-file longshoremen in the Northwest mounted a bold defense blocking grain trains, twice occupying the EGT facility and on September 8, 2011 shutting down major ports including Portland, Seattle and Tacoma. Longshore workers were linking up with other unions and the Occupy movement for a planned mass mobilization in January 2012 in Longview to “meet and greet” EGT’s first scab grain ship. However, fearing threats from Democratic Party “friends of labor” like President Obama, his Coast Guard and Homeland Security, as well as Washington Governor Gregoire’s mustering of police forces and the mounting fines, union tops capitulated. To mollify angry members, ILWU officers claimed they had a “secret plan” which was neither divulged nor implemented.

Following his members in blocking a train, McEllrath was jailed last year for a day. Rather than shutting down ports in protest for the day (as they’d done in 1980 for Inlandboatmen’s Union president Don Liddle jailed in Seattle for leading a ferry boat strike), officials just gave a nod, as longshore workers walked off the job for barely an hour at the end of the day. This was a sign of weakness rather than a demonstration of strength. Other members were arrested several times and jailed for weeks, like Byron Jacobs, former Secretary-Treasurer of Longview Local 21. Yet, nothing was done to protest their jailing or support their families.

EGT management won their demands: 1) cutting out job dispatch through the union hiring hall, the basis of ILWU’s power won in the militant 1934 West Coast Maritime Strike; 2) elimination of all ship clerks’ jobs (now done by management); 3) a minimum of 12-hour shifts; 4) removal of the union operator from the grain loading console (this, too, done by management); 5) no grievance machinery or work stoppages for safety; 6) allowing work to continue behind union picket lines with scabs and managers. McEllrath and ILWU Coast Committeeman Leal Sundet, who heads up grain negotiations and was formerly a PMA honcho in the Columbia River, claimed a jurisdiction “victory”. With more “victories” like this, the future of the ILWU is in jeopardy!

10 Steps Down the Road to Defeat

“Big Bob”, as McEllrath’s cohorts call him, and Coast Committeeman Leal Sundet, now the leadership of the union, have turned the once-militant ILWU around 180 degrees on a course toward business unionism. They want to collaborate with management, but the grain monopolies are giving them a cold shoulder. Their actions endanger the union. Let’s count (some of) the ways:

They have plotted a legalistic, super-patriotic course in the conflict with the grain monopolies, as well as filing ineffective charges with the NLRB and the courts. There’s a crying need to stop the scabbing and end the lockout in Vancouver and Portland through a mass mobilization of labor. That’s the ILWU’s militant legacy. Yet, when Sundet and McEllrath organized a flag-waving rally at United Grain, owned by Mitsui, patriotic, anti-Japanese venom was spewed. Rather than linking up with unions here and internationally, especially in Japan, they led workers not through the gates of United Grain to chase out the Gettier Security scabs but to Mitsui headquarters demanding they sign the “good” concessionary interim contract signed by “an American company,” Cargill/TEMCO. ILWU arbitrations show they have one of the worst anti-union records.

The power of the longshore union is at the point of production, on the docks under the hook.  During ILWU’s Boron miners lockout in the Mojave Desert in 2010 by British-owned Rio Tinto, the leadership ordered picketing of the British Consulates, attended corporate shareholders meetings and lobbied politicians. They told pickets to record the number of the scab containers and they’d be stopped in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Yet, not one scab container was stopped. A big caravan was organized with much fanfare from the docks to the desert. It should’ve gone from the desert to the docks where ILWU’s power is to stop scab containers. Again, they marched in the wrong direction!

McEllrath and Sundet oppose the ILWU’s “bottom-up, not top-down” union democracy. They denied Longview longshore workers the right to read, discuss and vote on the EGT grain contract as guaranteed in the ILWU Constitution. They refused to call a Longshore Caucus (Convention) at the start of the EGT dispute for delegates to hammer out a program of action to stop the scabbing at EGT. They undermine any rank-and-file longshore action, opposing rank-and file-rallies to stop the scabbing. To enforce their policies of capitulation they give virtually no information to the membership on the Coast about the Northwest grain conflict.

Big Bob McEllrath and his partner, Pacific Maritime Association head James McKenna, in a gesture of ultimate class collaboration, together received the Connie Award from the maritime employers’ Containerization and Intermodal Institute for signing a six-year contract in 2008 without a strike. Yet the contract included a robotics clause which is already devastating longshore jobs in Los Angeles and other major ports. It also included a clause to allow employers to negotiate a change in the medical benefit administrator, something the ranks have always opposed.  Now the bottom feeder Blue Cross/Blue Shield administrates the plan and is blocking benefits. It so outraged pensioners that they’ve picketed terminals in Tacoma and Oakland stopping ships. That’s the only thing employers understand, the old-timers say.

Despite a majority vote by the Longshore Caucus in 2009, Sundet and McEllrath opposed a union defense campaign for two black longshore workers racially profiled and attacked by police in the port of Sacramento under the guise of “port security.” This signaled a clear break from the ILWU’s principle of defending the rights of black longshoremen which was key to winning the 1934 maritime strike in San Francisco.

McEllrath tried to stop Local 10’s Caucus resolution in 2008 to shutdown West Coast ports for May Day to protest the imperialist wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. When it was clear it was going to pass, Big Bob asked it be changed to an eight-hour shutdown. He and his clique crafted the Seattle demonstration into more of a patriotic parade than a protest demanding troop withdrawal.

McEllrath supported the attempt at the 2009 Convention to change the union’s name back to International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union. This 16-year-old name change was made to recognize the leading role women have been playing in the union, especially in ILWU’s Rite Aid warehouse organizing drive. Changing it would’ve been a slap in the face of women members. Delegates overwhelmingly rose to oppose the name change, projecting the image of recently-deceased radical ILWU Hawaiian activist Ah Quon McElrath (no relationship personally or politically) on the wall. Big Bob quickly conceded and had the resolution of his supporters withdrawn.

In 2010, when the ILWU Local 63 Office Clerical Unit, the majority womens’ local, went on strike in Los Angeles and Long Beach because contract negotiations for the local broke down longshore workers honored the picket lines at first. Then, when the arbitrator unfairly ruled it was an illegal picket line, the International officers adhered to this phony ruling as longshoremen, in violation of ILWU’s 10 Guiding Principles, crossed their own union’s picket line. It wasn’t until this year when the local went back on strike and picket lines were honored that the dispute was finally resolved.  Stunningly, the Longshore Caucus in April did not to allow the Office Clerical Unit to join the Longshore Division of the union.

When the populist Occupy Wall Street movement was in New York, McEllrath sent words of encouragement. However, when they shocked the PMA by shutting down the port of Oakland November 2, 2011 with a march of some 30,000 to protest police brutality against their City Hall encampment and in solidarity with Longview longshore workers, McElllrath and the International officers refused to participate in this mass outpouring of anger against Wall Street on the waterfront. However, Longview longshore union president, Dan Coffman addressed an Occupy Oakland rally giving his heartfelt thanks to Occupy, commending their action for bolstering his members’ morale. ( When Occupy organized a solidarity rally for Longview longshore workers at the Labor Temple in Seattle with rank and file ILWU speakers to build up for a mass mobilization to confront a scab ship docking at the EGT terminal, McEllrath and Sundet supporters made sure the meeting was broken up.

To cover their tracks in the labor movement and the left, they hired Craig Merrilees as communications director, a top-down man whose main qualification was experience in squelching union democracy. First they fired former ILWU Dispatcher editor Steve Stallone in 2007, in large part for his criticism of a blatantly pro-Zionist article by ILWU Secretary-Treasurer Willie Adams that was contrary to the union’s position on Palestinian rights. (Adams had just returned from a trip to Israel sponsored by the Zionist government.) Merrilees was a staffer in AFSCME in Washington, D.C., who was dispatched by union president McEntee in 2005 to run Local 3299  at the University of California at Berkeley under trusteeship. When workers rejected McEntee’s proposed settlement and wildcatted, Merriless was there to put out the fire. Then-Executive Board member MaryAnn Ring remembers Merrilees saying  at a meeting “This is not a democracy!” He’s certainly found his niche in the ILWU under McEllrath and Sundet.

Lessons of Maritime Labor History

Seventy-five years ago, the maritime section of the militant wing of the American labor movement, the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO), was led by the ILWU and the National Maritime Union (NMU), which at its peak represented nearly 100,000 seamen. The heads of both unions, Harry Bridges and “Big Joe” Curran respectively, publicly sympathized with the Communist Party. CIO unions challenged capitalist property rights by occupying ships, plants and mines. They inspired workers by leading militant strikes and racially integrating their unions and communities. Union recognition and decent contracts were won through mass labor mobilizations. The trade-union movement grew by leaps and bounds, breaking from the old business unionism mold of the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

But during World War II, the Communist Party and its sympathizers imposed a no-strike ban, in the name of supporting the war effort, which lost them some backing from members. Then, after the war, the anti-communist hysteria of the McCarthy period wreaked havoc on the unions. Curran jumped ship and fingered reds who’d built the NMU from the beginning to the Coast Guard, the waterfront police. They were purged from the maritime industry and the union.

Some like the legendary black orator Ferdinand Smith (Red Seas: Ferdinand Smith and Radical Black Sailors in the United States and Jamaica by Gerald Horne) were deported. Smith went back to Jamaica. Thousands, mostly African Americans, were blacklisted from the waterfront. The government tried four times to deport the self-proclaimed Marxist Harry Bridges back to Australia, but they never could prove he was a member of the Communist Party. Moreover, they knew the threat of a West Coast longshore strike loomed large if they did.

The ILWU became a haven for those purged like Jim Herman (later ILWU president). Shaun Maloney, an organizer of the militant 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters’ strike who’d gone to federal prison along with the rest of the Trotskyist strike leadership prior to WWII, later became Seattle longshore president. And Blackie Meyers, who’d been NMU Vice President, became a member of Ship Clerks Local 34 in San Francisco. Now the gutted NMU became increasingly defenseless as shipowners began to register ships under foreign flags to escape unions. Each successive NMU contract was called a “victory” by “Big Joe” Curran despite having fewer ships, smaller crews and worse conditions and benefits. A few years ago, the skeleton of the NMU, once the largest maritime union, was taken over by the successor union from which it had split 75 years ago, the Seafarers’ International Union. For sailors who remember a militant waterfront, NMU now stands for  “No More Union”.

Could The ILWU End Up Like The NMU?

Today top ILWU officers use red-baiting to attack those members who oppose their concessionary bargaining with employers. Yet, if ILWU members don’t fight for their rights and stand up to these grain cartel attacks, the master longshore negotiations in 2014 will be a disaster. The storm warnings are ever present.

After the EGT contract was signed, ILWU officials were quick to claim a “victory”. Communications Director Merrilees made sure the labor and reformist left press echoed that characterization. Coast Committeeman Leal Sundet even boasted “The ILWU contract with EGT is key to standardization of the grain export industry on the West Coast…” (ILWU Dispatcher, January 2012). Yet, with such horrendous union losses longshore veterans countered that it was the “worst concessionary contract ever”

( ILWU Headed In Wrong Direction: EGT-Longview Longshore … ) and warned that it would whet the appetite of the other grain traders of the Pacific Northwest Grainhandlers’ Association who’d extended their contract one year to see how EGT would fare in its war on the ILWU.

The EGT contract was a chumming for sharks, and now they smell blood. In September 2012, all the other grain handlers demanded similar concessions in a laundry list of non-negotiable demands. That’s when Christmas cargo is peaking, the East Coast dockworkers’ contract of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) had expired and grain elevators were brimming full. It was the time to strike together.

However, ILA President Harold Daggett gave the USMX employers what they wanted, an extension of the contract past Christmas, abandoning the best chance for solidarity between the two longshore unions. After the Christmas holiday, ILWU longshoremen voted to reject the PNGA demands by 94%. But they stood alone now.

ILWU president “Big Bob” McEllrath and Coast Committeeman Sundet got busy with their nationalistic campaign and negotiated a temporary agreement with Cargill/TEMCO containing many of the same giveaways as in the EGT contract. They hailed it as a “win-win” contract and sold it to the membership. But ILWU’s press releases failed to report that the largest grain port on the West Coast, Portland Local 8, voted “no”!

The day after ratification United Grain locked out longshoremen and hired scabs of the Gettier (strikebreaking) Services in February. Columbia Grain followed suit in May. This is the same strikebreaking outfit that was used in ILWU’s Boron lockout in 2010. According to ILWU miners, scabs are still in the Boron mine today!

Portland Leads The Way For ILWU And All Of Labor!

Portland longshoremen  voted to hold a rally in a park near Columbia Grain June 1. Seven different union locals in the Portland area voted motions to help build the rally as a show of labor solidarity and power. But the ILWU International officers loudly opposed any such rally. It could lead to an injunction or fines, they argued, and the time to picket is at harvest time. Yet they didn’t do it last year when the time was ripe, and if they wait until next fall to react, the union may not be able to flex its muscle.

Already, these union bureaucrats have had over three months since the lockouts began to organize mass picketing to stop the scabs and haven’t. Meanwhile, there’s simmering anger amongst the rank and file longshoremen. Members of Los Angeles Local 13, the largest local on the Coast with 60% of the longshore membership, came up to Portland for the rally, though it was cancelled, and joined the picket line. Any gain in maritime has been made by the workers themselves taking the bull by the horn and taking care of business. It’s no different today.

The fate of hard-fought union gains and the future of the ILWU is in their hands. It’s either business unionism and defeat, or class-struggle unionism together with all of labor and its supporters. Which road will it be? It’s up to the membership to decide.

Jack Heyman was a seaman in the National Maritime Union and member of the Militant-Solidarity Caucus. In 1980, he joined ILWU, worked on barges and later longshore. Now retired, he chairs the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee. (TWSC) and continues to write on labor and politics. This article first appeared on the TWSC website. 


Jack Heyman is a retired Oakland ILWU longshoreman who was an organizer in San Francisco of the historic 1984 union boycott action of a ship from aparthied South Africa, the 2008 May Day anti-war protest shutting down all West Coast ports against the U.S. imperialist war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the militant 1997 Bay Area solidarity port actions for the Liverpool dockers and numerous anti-Zionist port protests from 2002-2021. He published the class struggle Maritime Worker Monitor with the late Portland longshoreman Jack Mulcahy who died last year in a mountain-climbing accident on North Sister peak in Oregon.