Amid global capitalist crisis
Longshore workers call for anti-racist unity in their ranks
Published Sep 15, 2011 9:12 PM
ILWU Local 10 banner at a rally protesting the killing of Oscar Grant.
Early on Sept. 8 hundreds of longshore workers charged through the gates of the
new, contested grain export terminal at Longview, Wash., and dumped corn from a
107-car train attempting a first shipment. This struggle in the Pacific
Northwest has brewed since the multinational conglomerate EGT began
constructing the $200 million facility two years ago. It only became
“newsworthy” nationally when the corporate media could bash workers
The bosses’ challenge to the International Longshore Workers
Union’s coastwide agreement with the Port of Longview endangers the union
itself. In January EGT sued the Port of Longview. Its suit charged that EGT is
not bound by the port agreement in effect since 1934 recognizing the ILWU on
The hearing on the suit is not scheduled until spring 2012. Nevertheless, EGT
had the grain terminal and two facilities in Montana built to transport the
2011 fall harvest. EGT intends to use the port without waiting for the
court’s judgment and, if it can, without the ILWU.
For months last spring the union held rallies and actions, which included 100
union civil-disobedience arrests inside the terminal on July 11. Negotiations
with EGT failed. On July 14 longshore workers turned back a train. By massing
on the tracks, hundreds of workers successfully rerouted the corn shipment to
an ILWU-worked terminal in Vancouver, Wash.
The Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad company suspended further shipments
until Sept. 7, citing safety reasons. Then longshore women and men again stood
on the tracks blocking the train, first in downtown Vancouver and then on
Longview port property.
This time, armed with a temporary restraining order against ILWU locals in
Vancouver and Longview, the courts and police weighed in for EGT. A federal
judge had issued the order the week before the corporate offensive to get the
terminal operational. On Sept. 7 riot-geared cops routed the workers, arresting
19, including at least three women, for trespass.
The Associated Press widely distributed an inflammatory photo of police roughly
detaining ILWU International President Robert McIlrath, himself a veteran of
the Pacific Northwest region. McIlrath was removed and released. The following
day — Sept. 8 — rank-and-file longshore workers refused to stand
back and say “please” when so much was at stake for their union and
the entire working class. The corn was dumped, and ILWU members up and down the
Washington state coast walked off the job, halting shipping for eight
What is the ILWU up against?
In a Sept. 1 letter to ILWU division locals McIlrath wrote, “EGT is in
Longview ... to make as much money as possible for its foreign
Foreign owners? The ILWU’s work is international trade. For the union to
succeed, two things are required: international working class solidarity with
workers around the globe and not buying into anti-foreign, big-business
propaganda. Capitalism is global.
The driving force behind EGT is a U.S.-based giant international corporation,
Bunge Limited, that partnered with global specialists to create a profitable,
direct, high-tech export line from the wheat fields of the upper Midwest
through Longview and then by ship to India, China and the vast markets in
PRNewswire reports, “EGT’s partners are all leaders in the
international grain trade and include Bunge; ... ITOCHU, which is the second
largest marketer of grain and food products in Japan; and STX Pan Ocean, which
is one of the world’s leading shipping companies of agricultural
products.” (Dec. 10)
News media cite the St. Louis-based “majority partner” Bunge NA,
the “North American Free Trade” subsidiary in Canada, U.S. and
Mexico. But they don’t reveal that Bunge Limited “is a leading
agribusiness and food company with integrated operations that circle the globe,
stretching from the farm field to the retail shelf.” Bunge Limited
reported $2.4 billion in profits in 2010.
In 1999 Bunge moved its world headquarters to White Plains, N.Y., to be
“closer to world financial centers” in Wall Street.
To supply the 8 million metric ton annual capacity of the Longview grain
terminal, EGT simultaneously built two grain-loading facilities in Montana, all
to be up and running in time for this fall’s harvest.
According to the PRNewswire release, “These state-of-the-art facilities
will be built on the BNSF [train] mainline, ensuring efficient movement along
the value chain from our farmer customers in Montana to vessels and finally to
the end consumer.
“Each high-speed shuttle loader is capable of loading 110-car unit train
in under ten hours. The facilities are also designed to provide farmers with
fast weighing, grading and dumping, offering best-in-class cycle times. In
addition, the facilities will be able to store about 800,000 bushels
apiece.” Anticipated jobs: only four to six workers at each facility!
Rank-and-file ILWU sources estimate that a grain train that currently requires
two and a half days to unload can be processed in less than half a day in the
new Longview terminal. The Billings Gazette reports, “EGT hopes to fill
shuttles, get the rail cars rolling to Longview and then get STX freighters
loaded and sailing, all in four days or less.” (Aug. 17)
EGT wants to eliminate much more than the 50 jobs at Longview. Its management
yearns to make all port jobs high-tech, low-pay, non-union and completely under
To sidestep charges of union-busting, EGT recently signed an operating
agreement with a company that employs subcontracted workers represented by a
smaller, different union.
Many small unions are not as strong as one big industrywide union, especially
one like the ILWU, which has rank-and-file initiative.
If EGT successfully eliminates the ILWU from the 50 jobs at Longview, this will
increase the pressure at other facilities and processes — automated or
not — to bring in and exploit workers without union pay, benefits and
protection. All the corporations will race to get that extra-profit edge over
their competitors, just as other grain terminals are upgrading to compete with
Longview or face losing market share if they don’t.
The International Longshoremen’s Association, which represents longshore
workers on the East Coast, and the International Transportation Federation, a
worldwide confederation of transport unions, have sent strong statements of
support to the ILWU about the Longview struggle. Washington and Oregon State
AFL-CIOs have sent resolutions supporting the ILWU in the jurisdictional
ILWU in a ‘must-win battle’
The ILWU is uniquely positioned at this time to resist the assault because its
members handle all the goods and materials shipped into or out of the West
Coast of the U.S. The key to its strength is the ILWU’s history of
internationalism and working-class solidarity based on its slogan: An injury to
one is an injury to all.
The 1934 San Francisco general strike forged this coastwide union. At that time
ILWU leader Harry Bridges personally promised the African-American community
that in return for their support for the strike, Black workers would no longer
be excluded and marginalized from work on the docks.
The union tradition is bottom-up leadership and initiative from the rank and
file. Local 10 members exhibited this initiative by putting down their tools
for 24 hours last April 4 to stand with public workers under attack in
Wisconsin and other states as they remembered the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King
Dr. King, an honorary member of Local 10, had been assassinated while standing
in solidarity with the striking Memphis sanitation workers on that date in
Unfortunately, Harry Bridges’ anti-racist example was not embraced in the
Pacific Northwest. In Oregon a history of racism and exclusion laws not only
discouraged Black workers from coming to the region, but tried to make sure
those who toiled in the World War II shipyards didn’t stay.
Black workers came into the ILWU local in Portland under court order in 1964,
30 years after the ILWU won control of hiring and working conditions in the
ports up and down the West Coast. Portland’s metropolitan area includes
the port in Vancouver, Wash., only nine miles away, and even Longview, 50 miles
A rank-and-file Pacific Northwest ILWU member characterized the Longview
struggle as a “major battle.” This worker told Workers World that
in this industry, “We have no other choice than to fight together for our
jobs. We are still left with the fact that we are fighting, but we still have
issues we need to resolve in-house. ...
“It is a must-win battle for the ILWU, from my perspective. I think it
must be a win-battle because, if not, it shows a sign of weakness in this area.
I think that the ILWU leadership is not fighting as aggressively today as we
need to. That is my point of view because right now the way things are going we
should be more engaged in our fight and put more pressure. We should not wait
until it gets worse to put pressure. We should put the pressure on right off
”When we look at history, the ILWU victory has always been possible once
we have the community and other organizations involved. Then we have won the
battle. Stick to the strategic system that has been victorious with the ILWU.
Sometimes we forget that. We think we have it all and we don’t. So many
unions are losing strength and membership because we get too relaxed and
“In the Pacific Northwest [the union] needs some dialogue about opening
opportunity for people in the community so we can get support from the
As recently as 2006, the issues faced by African-American and women workers in
the Pacific Northwest were so pressing that ILWU Local 10 — based in the
Oakland-San Francisco area — withheld its pro-rata payment to the
International Union in protest. This resulted in the establishment of Diversity
Committees in all locals “to work on the issues of diversity, tolerance
and solidarity across racial and gender lines and to make recommendations to
the local officers, executive board and membership.” (www.workers.org,
June 26, 2006)
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