Steadfast ranks and solidarity win ILWU jobs in Longview — but the fight’s not over
A Solidarity Night, called Sept. 2011 by ILWU 21, drew hundreds of union and community supporters who recognized the importance of 21’s fight to all workers. Photo: ILWU Local 21
The tumultuous face-off between multinational consortium Export Grain Terminal (EGT) and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 21 will go down in labor history as one of the great battles between the bosses and workers. But it’s unlikely the last chapter is written in this war over who will control the West Coast waterfront.
That ILWU won jurisdiction at EGT’s new $200 million terminal in Longview, Wash., is a big victory. From the get-go it was clear the corporate Goliath wanted a union-free facility, especially free of the historically militant ILWU.
In the course of the battle, EGT hired an army of private thugs and had the U.S. Coast Guard, police, courts, politicians, and mainstream media on its side. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) pursued fines against the ILWU and county prosecutors filed charges against members and supporters who allegedly stopped trains going into EGT’s terminal.
What was decisive in the union’s ability to beat back this unholy alliance was months of sacrifices by members, including 24/7 picketing, and community support, especially from the Occupy movement.
Dan Coffman, President of ILWU 21, credited a planned mass convergence on Longview in late February with getting EGT to the bargaining table. “It played a huge role … as far as EGT wanting to get something done.”
Yet the outlook for a lasting truce between EGT and the union is dubious. The union faces criminal charges and is saddled with a contract that gives EGT tyrannical management powers. Most likely, more battles loom. For starters, although the union is not officially requesting community support, it needs public pressure to back off county prosecutors and the NLRB.
Local 21 faces big guns.
According to Coffman, the NLRB is still pursuing legal action against the ILWU despite agreement by EGT and the Port to drop related charges. County Prosecutors are pursuing numerous charges against members and supporters for actions taken last year to stop trains loaded with grain from coming into EGT’s facility. This includes felony charges against Coffman and International ILWU President Robert McEllrath.
Meanwhile, President Obama set a precedent of calling in armed Coast Guard and Homeland Security vessels to protect EGT’s ship-loading operations against protests by ILWU and its supporters. It’s been 40 years since the military was called in during a labor dispute.
Then there’s the contract itself. Several clauses outline severe penalties, including termination, for any member who engages in, or promotes a work-stoppage. A range of other union actions are also forbidden, including picketing. If union members protest conditions, they could be out the door. If Local 21 stands up for them it could face stiff penalties or lose the contract and union shop. This goes against the ILWU’s tradition of being able to shut down the docks, whether to protest a war or union-busting outfit like EGT — and it’s a blow to the entire labor movement.
Gabriel Prawl, a member of ILWU Local 52, which includes clerks, sees “no strengths in the contract,” and points out its exclusion of clerks from ILWU representation at EGT. Control room personnel are also excluded.
Prawl, a Pacific Northwest co-convenor of the Million Worker March, said, “we had them [EGT] on the run and we were sold out.” His criticism, which is directed at the International leadership, includes their failure to “come to the membership before a decision was made.” While members voted on broad terms of the settlement, they didn’t vote on the final contract. Whether they would have approved it will never be known, but it should have been their decision to settle or continue to fight, Prawl believes. Instead, bosses, the NLRB and International union officials decided the workers’ fate. Prawl was among the vocal rank-and-file leaders who pushed for bottom-up democracy throughout the struggle.
Labor and Occupy unite!
A related weakness in the Longview fight was the International’s determination to keep tight control over its own ranks and the larger movement. This included casting the Occupy movement as an outside entity meddling in internal union affairs, rather than a welcome ally. In truth, ILWU rank-and-filers, building solidarity and working with Occupy activists up and down the coast, were key to making the port shutdowns effective. This was despite sabotage from AFL-CIO leaders and ILWU International officials.
To win upcoming battles, whether on the waterfront or a landlocked worksite, labor will have to confront both bosses and the anti-union government offensive that is criminalizing workers’ self-defense. In these coming struggles, solidarity with the Occupy movement and the community will be essential. And if the leadership of unions won’t forge those links, it is up to the ranks to continue to carry the ball forward. Drop all charges and fines against ILWU!
Contact Linda Averill at email@example.com.