The Tragic Death of Byron Jacobs, Hero of the EGT Longshore Struggle

Police attack ILWU pickets in Longview, Washington, 7 September 2011, as they block grain train to scab EGT facility. Byron Jacobs (in green cap) was thrown to the ground and arrested, along with 18 other unionists.  Despite federal injunciton, the next day 800 union supporters seized the terminal.   (Photo: Dawn Des Brisay/Flickr)

Byron Jacobs, a fifth-generation longshoreman, was killed on the job in the Columbia River port of Longview, Washington this summer. At the age of 34, Byron was a courageous young union leader and former secretary-treasurer of Local 21 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Some 200 people came to a vigil in his memory on the docks, and more than 500 attended a memorial service on July 6. Byron Jacobs will be remembered with admiration for the exemplary leading role he played in the monumental struggle in 2011-12 against union-busting at the Export Grain Terminal (EGT) facility being built in Longview. That battle reverberated across the country as longshore workers, men and women, fought tooth and nail with mass actions in a class war like those in the 1930s that built the union movement.

On the night of June 28, the ANSAC Splendor, a bulk carrier weighing 20,000 gross tons (that is, without cargo) and almost two football fields long, was being shifted at berth from one ship’s hold to another, a distance that can be a few hundred feet. The Splendor was flying the flag of Panama, a registry of convenience for ship owners who pay miserable wages to non-union crews, evade taxes, and circumvent environmental laws. Suddenly, the nylon spring line – some 6” in diameter – parted, like a giant rubber band snapping at half the speed of sound. One end of the line instantly killed Byron, standing 30 feet away on the dock, while the other struck Chief Mate Pingshan Li aboard the ship, who later died in the hospital. Two other workers were injured as well.

The deadly accident took place just a few berths downriver from the EGT dock. Both lives and injuries could have been prevented if a tugboat assist were used to move the ship. It was cheaper for the company to overhaul the line by hand, but riskier for the workers. Workers say safety conditions on the Columbia River have deteriorated. In 2012, the ILWU International leadership pushed through a concessionary contract at EGT that continued this perilous trend. Not only was Local 21 fighting to maintain their jurisdiction as grain handlers, but also for strong safety provisions in one of the most dangerous jobs. The tragic deaths underscore the life-threatening nature of work on the waterfront, and the need to fight for union safety committees with the power to shut down unsafe dock operations.

Byron was a young leader with a bright future of the 200-member Longview local of the ILWU. They relentlessly picketed EGT day and night during summer heat and winter rains to stop the scabs from Operating Engineers Local 701. They rallied at corporate headquarters in Portland. At one point in July 2011 longshore workers occupied the EGT facility, sitting atop the trains. They blocked 100-car grain trains continuously with mass picketing in defiance of court injunctions, jail, police brutality and fines. Heading these militant actions were their leaders, Local 21 president Dan Coffman and Local 21 Secretary-Treasurer Byron Jacobs, his longshore son Justin’s best friend. They were arrested and jailed several times, along with other local members.

Mass picketing was so effective that BNSF had stopped its trains. By September 2011 an injunction was obtained to stop the mass picketing on the tracks and at EGT’s gate. Even ILWU International President McEllrath – who is from the Columbia River port of Vancouver, Washington, some 40 miles upriver from Longview – showed up for the picketing on the train tracks. As rank and filers beckoned him to come to the front and lead the protest, he was arrested by police but released as soon as the angry longshoremen demanded they let him go. Byron was tackled and thrown to the ground for going to the defense of McEllrath (see lead photo). He was booked and released. [See “Showdown on West Coast Docks: The Battle of Longview,” The Internationalist special supplement, Jaunary 2012.]

The next day, September 8, hundreds of enraged longshoremen in the Northwest ports who had seen the police attack on ILWU members and McEllrath walked off the job, shutting down the major ports of Seattle, Tacoma and Portland. They headed to Longview. Byron was in the forefront as longshore workers stormed EGT. News media reported grain being dumped, a guard shack destroyed and terrified security guards fleeing. A reign of terror by the state ensued. Union members were arrested by police and sheriff’s deputies walking down the street day and night. Local 21 Vice President Jake Whiteside was arrested at his church in front of his family. Longshore worker Shelly Porter reported that police had bashed her head against her car at home and arrested her as her children looked on in horror as she was dragged away. Still union resilience remained defiant.

Two weeks later, on September 21, eight members of the Women’s Auxiliary, wives of the strikers, sat down on the tracks with Coffman. Police and hired company goons roughly manhandled and arrested them. They’d been met with lines of cop cars, police armed with high-powered rifles and a SWAT riot team in black armored gear. Byron was surprised to see his wife Megan in the sit-down protest. When he led others to defend the women, cops held him and Local 21 activist Kelly Mueller down on the tracks and pepper sprayed them (see photo). This time Byron was sentenced to three weeks jail time. This was raw class war, as women carried on the struggle while the men were shackled with an injunction and jailed. It was a scene out of the classic film, Salt of the Earth, about striking miners and their wives in New Mexico made during the anti-communist McCarthy period and directed by Herbert Biberman, one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten. Hearing of Byron’s death, Doreen McNally, leader of the Liverpool, England Dockers’ “Women of the Waterfront” who had waged a similar fight 22 years earlier for their spouses’ dockworkers union, sent pins to his wife Megan commemorating their valiant struggle against EGT.

As Class Struggle Intensifies, Union Tops Get Cold Feet

As this class struggle intensified ILWU President McEllrath and Lael Sundet, ILWU Coast Committeman in charge of the EGT dispute, ruled out strike solidarity action from California locals that handle 70% of the cargo on the West Coast. Sundet was a former manager for the employers’ Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) on the Columbia River; he was subsequently ousted as Coast Committeeman in a vote by the rank and file. In response to support for Longview Local 21 from the San Francisco Bay Area Local 10, McEllrath sent a letter directing that “Local 10 take no action without specific authorization from me. We need to have a coordinated response to EGT dispute.” No coastwide solidarity action was ever coordinated.

(It was not the first time the International leadership turned their backs on an ILWU local under siege. In May 2010, in the middle of a struggle by Local 30 of Boron miners against the Rio Tinto mining conglomerate, at a General Assembly of the International Dockworkers Council in Charleston, South Carolina, McEllrath gutted a Local 10 resolution by deleting any reference to refusing to handle scab cargo.)

The leaders of Local 21, on the other hand, based their actions on ILWU’s history of labor solidarity encapsulated in the old IWW slogan “An Injury to One is an Injury to All.” Several traveled to San Francisco to address meetings at Local 10, despite warnings of Sundet and McEllrath. Meanwhile, as the Occupy Wall Street movement dramatically mushroomed on the West Coast, so did police repression. In late October, cops (dispatched by liberal Democratic Oakland mayor Jean Quan) attacked an Occupy encampment in Oakland. In response, 30,000 furious protesters marched to the Port of Oakland and shut it down, calling to fight against “Wall Street on the Waterfront.” Byron and Dan joined in the protests and addressed Occupy rallies in Oakland. They marched in front of a banner reading “Shut Down the West Coast Ports! Support the Longview, WA Longshore Workers” emblazoned with a longshoreman’s clenched fist and hook.

Holding ILWU banner, from left: Dan Coffman (Local 21), Clarence Thomas (Local 10) and Byron Jacobs (Local 21) at 2 November 2011 Occupy Oakland march on the port. (Photo: Jack Heyman.)

That day, November 2, many rank-and-file Local 10 members refused to take jobs at the hiring hall. The ILWU tops stayed in their cozy San Francisco offices rather than join the largest protest ever across the bay at the port of Oakland. These business unionists saw Occupy’s actions and Local 10’s solidarity as threats not only to EGT but to the PMA, their employer partners in class collaboration. They stood in conflict with Local 21 and ILWU’s history of solidarity by preventing concerted coastwide and international action to support the embattled Longview longshore workers in order to maintain good relations with the PMA bosses. This treachery left activist members in the lurch, like Byron, who languished behind bars for two weeks, others longer, without the union tops bailing them out.

McEllrath became worried about Occupy’s powerful mass demonstrations: “As the Occupy sweeps across the country, there is a real danger that forces outside of the ILWU will attempt to adopt our struggle as their own.” Really? That’s a danger?! Isn’t that kind of support that the 1934 Big Strike committee called solidarity? Local 21 leaders, Dan and Byron, collaborating with Occupy and Local 10, was viewed as a threat by the International Officers. The next big Occupy action was a call for a Pacific Coast shutdown on December 12 in solidarity with Longview and against police brutality. Orders were given by union officials to keep the ports open, to cross picket lines, in violation of ILWU’s Ten Guiding Principles. That day no longshore workers went across picket lines at the ports of Longview and Oakland, where both morning and evening shifts were shut down. Occupy pickets in Portland and Seattle were successful for some time but not in Los Angeles or Tacoma.

Some leftist commentators sided with the labor misleaders, accusing Occupy of substituting for the unions. Others gave Occupy almost exclusive credit for the agitation on the waterfront. Both miss the point that it was the union ranks of Local 21 and Local 10 at the point of production that shut down the ports in Longview and Oakland. Far from being super-radical adventurists threatening the unions, Occupy leaders, in keeping with their liberal, reformist and populist outlook, actually let the International leaders off the hook, saying the union tops were only trying to avoid lawsuits when in fact they actively opposed the December 12 Pacific Coast shutdown.

Meanwhile, EGT had been unable to ship grain for several months because of the effective actions organized by Longview longshoremen. The scuttlebutt was that a ship was due in January to load scab grain. Newspapers reported state and local police were being mobilized. President Obama had ordered an armed escort by a Coast Guard cutter to protect the strikebreaking ship from the mouth of the Columbia River to the EGT facility. A showdown was inevitable. At Local 10’s November meeting, members voted to act on a request for solidarity from Longview and organize “a caravan of members and other activists” for a mass protest on the arrival of the first scab grain ship. The San Francisco Labor Council joined in. The Cowlitz-Wakhiakum Central Labor Council, which includes Longview, accepted the call by Occupy Longview for a convergence on EGT to stop the loading of the first ship. Labor councils in Seattle and Portland joined in. The ILWU International leadership was in panic.

Solidarity rallies with Longview Local 21 were called by Occupy in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington for January 5 and 6. McEllrath flipped out, hiding behind the anti-labor laws of capital. He sent a letter to locals warning that “any disruption of work by ILWU on the West Coast docks at the same time that the Union is protesting EGT constitutes a violation of Taft-Hartley.” Sundet warned that the union would face steep fines, making it crystal clear there must be a break between ILWU and Occupy. At the January 5 Portland meeting, ILWU officials read the threatening letter, after which the lights mysteriously went out, effectively shutting down the meeting. On the way to the Seattle meeting, Dan Coffman got a call saying that that if he went ahead, Local 21 was on its own, facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. Sundet pulled the pickets of other ILWU locals from the lines at EGT, leaving Local 21 to man the picket lines by themselves 24/7. To underscore their point Sundet sent several texts to Coffman stating “We told you not to go!” In Seattle, ILWU officials physically disrupted the meeting, denouncing the five ILWU members on the stage. Coffman called it “sabotage.”

The ILWU tops dispatched officials to break up Seattle forum, at the King County Labor Hall, in solidarity with the longshore struggle against union-busting at EGT,  6 January 2012. The bureacrats’ ire was directed at the five ILWU members on the stage, and seven more rank-and-file members of ILWU Local 21 (above) at the event. (Internationalist photo)

The final straw was a direct attack on the Local 21 leadership which had been summoned to ILWU International headquarters for a special “presidents’ meeting.” The last such meeting was called decades ago to defend two ILWU longshore officials in Seattle, Pat Vukich and Wayne Erickson, from an outrageous PMA attack. This one was different: it was a political lynching. The Local 21 officers including Byron were accused of being too close to Occupy; speaking to the press without approval of the tops; potentially costing the union “millions of dollars in fines and legal suits.” They insisted, there is only one “general”, McEllrath. Facing a solid front of the bosses and union tops, the Longview leaders yielded. Suddenly, after nearly a year, EGT returned to the bargaining table with ILWU. This time Washington’s Democratic governor Chris Gregoire mediated. Undoubtedly it was the threat of mass mobilization that brought EGT to the table. But it was EGT and the state that were wielding the hammer.

Lesson of Longview: The Interests of Capital and Labor Are Irreconcilable

In violation of the ILWU Constitution, the membership of Local 21 never had a chance to read or have a democratic vote on the contract. It was all done top down. The anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act that McEllrath had previously warned would be used against the union he now conceded to writing it into the agreement, shamefully for the first time in ILWU history. ILWU officials (and some of their apologists on the left) claimed victory because the union was recognized as the bargaining agent for workers under NLRB. Yet the union lost key jurisdictional demands, including union manning of the control room; it lost ship clerk jurisdiction for supercargoes and jurisdiction over all labor in the port of Longview, which it had held for years. And EGT was not required to use union tugs, under the jurisdiction of the Inlandboatmen’s Union (IBU), the marine division of the ILWU. Throughout the entire struggle, IBU had refused to allow tugs to move scab vessels to the EGT terminal forcing the company to bring a scab tug all the way from Louisiana through the Panama Canal up to EGT. Now IBU was left out in the cold. The employer was allowed to bypass the union hiring hall and dispatch jobs off of their own list.

Nearly every key provision of the contract contained the phrase “at the sole discretion of the employer,” eviscerating any protection or serious grievance machinery. Job actions, like refusing to work in unsafe conditions, which built the union power on the docks, were negated as EGT could replace workers at will who were “standing by on safety,” and three job actions could now lead to nullifying the contract. No wonder safety has been so compromised. The rank-and-file newsletter Maritime Worker Monitor (No. 11, 14 March 2013) warned: “Concessionary contracts cannot be called a victory. The effects of the Local 21-EGT agreement will be seen in the upcoming September Grainhandlers’ negotiations.” And so it was.

In the next round of bargaining, the grain bosses demanded “me too” concessions. They locked out ILWU terminal workers in Vancouver and Portland, bringing in a scab workforce and armed scabherders, and eventually imposed a giveback contract containing many of the same provisions granted to EGT. While claiming that jurisdiction is everything, the union leaders sought a “partnership” with the bosses, who then socked it to the members. The fact is that the interests of capital and labor cannot be reconciled. What decides the outcome is the class struggle, and as Karl Marx wrote, every real class struggle is political. From the police repression against Occupy Oakland to the scabherding by the U.S. Coast Guard, those calling the shots were Democrats. No victory can be won without breaking the stranglehold of this party of the bosses and building a workers party on a class-struggle program.

Naturally, none of the EGT givebacks were reported in The Dispatcher, the ILWU newspaper. The “victory” story was regurgitated in various left journals, echoing the ILWU International’s media flacks. As Byron Jacobs, Dan Coffman, Kyle Mackey and so many other Longview longshore leaders had warned, the ILWU’s survival as a fighting union was – and is – at stake. They were right. The union, they said, had to take a strong stand at EGT and mobilize with ILWU’s allies, including Occupy, to fight for a union contract and job safety. Capitulation to EGT would have a ripple effect on all other contracts. The EGT contract was a betrayal of historic proportions when a decisive victory could have been won.

Two years later the PCLCD master longshore contract for the Pacific Coast was gutted in much the same manner. PMA acted like sharks smelling blood and circling their prey. To show employers they were good business unionists, the ILWU Longshore Division officers extended the expired contract for three days. Why? To enable the employers to call in an arbitrator to rule that a port truck drivers’ picket line in L.A. was not “bona fide,” as per the contract, and order longshore officials to direct their workers to cross the picket line. This broke what had been an effective action by mainly Mexican American port truckers, many seeking to organize a union. Yet rank and file job actions showed that embers of union struggle were still alive in the ILWU. A contract was finally settled after over a year of negotiations.

Byron and Megan Jacobs with their children: (from left) Phoenix, Monroe and Harlow. (Photo courtesy of Megan Jacobs).

Port workers like miners have been in the vanguard of many historic struggles of the working class, some won, some lost. In the great French novel, Germinal, by Émile Zola, a valiant miners’ strike ends in defeat, but as the hero, Étienne, leaves the mines for Paris, the author offers a ray of hope for the future of class struggle. As the miners with heads down go back to work, Zola inveighs against the capitalists: “Men were springing forth, a black avenging army, germinating slowly in the furrows, growing towards the harvests of the next century, and their germination would soon overturn the earth.”

It’s doubly tragic that a young worker like Byron Jacobs, who fought so hard for a decent union contract with strong safety provisions, would be killed on the job because of unsafe working conditions. It is ironic that his memorial was held at the Cowlitz County Expo Center next to the Fairgrounds where arrested longshore workers were held during the contract dispute. Byron and his wife Megan and children Harlow (age 8), Phoenix (age 5) and Monroe (age 2) should be remembered this holiday season.

Please donate to the Byron Jacobs Memorial Fund at the Longshoremen’s Federal Credit Union, 629 14th Ave, Longview, WA 98632.

This article originally appeared in The Internationalist.

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.