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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.
Photo: ILWU.org

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 as “violent.”

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 port property.

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 hours.

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 owners.”

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 Asia.

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. (www.bunge.com)

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 corporate control.

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 dispute.

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 Jr.

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 1968.

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 away.

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 the bat.

”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 comfortable.

“In the Pacific Northwest [the union] needs some dialogue about opening opportunity for people in the community so we can get support from the community.”

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)