This is a guest post by a comrade, Ryan W, who is a member of the Seattle Solidarity Network, Seasol. He writes an an individual and not as a formal representative of Seasol. Ryan, along with members from the International Socialist Organization (ISO), Freedom Socialist Party (FSP), Black Orchid Collective (BOC) and Decolonize/Occupy Seattle, were active in organizing for the Jan 6th event that was disrupted by the ILWU Local 19 leadership. The ISO, in their recent attacks on BOC here, have since then denied that its members were involved in the planning of the event at all. We are working on a response to the false claims made by the article.
In the meantime, please read about the organizing process from another perspective.
“Be it Resolved: that this Council call out to friends of labor and the ‘99%’ everywhere to come to the aid of ILWU Local 21, and to support them in any way possible in their fight against multi national conglomerate EGT. And,
Be it further Resolved: that this Council request that anyone willing to participate in a community and labor protest in Longview, Washington of the first EGT grain ship, do sowhen called upon by this body…”
– Resolution from Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Counties Central Labor Council Executive Board, 1/1/12
[Disclaimer: These are just my thoughts, and while I may not have a website on which I regularly post I figure they might be of some interest considering whatever special proximity I may have at the moment to some of these events and considerations, not to mention the general people involved. Insofar as the following is thought to be representative of anything, I only post it as representative of my sense for this situation]
For those that aren’t in the know already (after slogging through mountainous quantities of emails) there is a rather dense (albeit largely inane) history to this relatively brief trial run of large scale organizing in Seattle that I think bears a bit of clarification. Certainly as we set our sites on the incoming EGT ship loaded with plans to evacuate the scab grain that’s been stockpiled against ILWU local 21’s jurisdiction it’s worth being as inoculated as possible with respect to what will be the messy history of a momentous exercise of power, successful or otherwise.
First off this whole thing was initially called for by Occupy Longview. Shortly thereafter both Occupy Oakland and more importantly the Cowlitz County Labor Council (CCLC) repeated the call to action. I say more importantly because everything I’ve read, heard, or seen leads me to believe the resolution put out by the CCLC in this case represents the voice of the local rank-and-file of ILWU Local 21, in practice if not formally.
Multinational grain distributor EGT, a subsidiary of an even larger multinational Bunge, has accumulated a good deal of grain at their terminal in Longview. They were given the land for this terminal by the city of Longview in exchange for an assurance that Local 21’s jurisdiction would be respected and that the construction of this terminal would be done through the local laborers union. In fact neither the construction nor the dock work has come through as promised. The construction was outsourced to inexpensive labor, and the dock work has been run primarily by scabs from IUOE Local 701.
Rather than good jobs in a community that needed them, the 225 workers that comprise ILWU Local 21 have racked up 200 arrests, hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, house visits from the police at dawn, and general brutality in the fight for better working conditions. We should admire their commitment and the bravery of these longshoremen.
Our basic goal with this action is to halt (or at least impede) the arrival of the ship set for the port of Longview and it subsequent loading/departure. The ship’s goal is to load all of the grain that’s been stockpiled since September when EGT, with the police in its pocket (and now the coast guard!) began its open war on the working people of Longview. For most of us what we can reasonably hope to accomplish is deflecting any would-be scabs from loading that ship by blocking the entryway to work.
So far the people working toward this goal in Seattle (outside of the ILWU) have been organizers from a swathe of local Seattle groups, in no way restricted to people who came up under the Occupy banner, although most are active within Occupy at least to some minimal degree. In particular the groups represented (by cross membership, not necessarily in any other fashion) have been the Black Orchid Collective, the Freedom Socialist Party, the International Socialist Organization, and the Seattle Solidarity Network. ‘Occupy/Decolonize Seattle’ is involved as an entity only in terms of cross membership if I’m not mistaken.
The Wind Up
Around the new year this group received an alert that it needed to arrange for a bit of a speaking tour. In Seattle the date was given as Friday, January 6th. We were asked to prepare a space and advertise a public meeting wherein various ILWU illuminaries, various coastal occupy folks, and a few local people would speak to what’s been going on in Longview, what’s at stake, and what’s being asked. This was meant to lead to a discussion between all assembled so that we could work with better information toward greater success. In addition to that we had set an earlier meeting in the same space for Seattle folks that wanted to participate in the planning of solidarity actions up here (for those that can’t pick up and leave for Longview when the ship comes in) and caravans to Longview.
There are many accounts that have been written about that night which I believe, on the whole, do well enough at clarifying what happened. The short story is a small group of fifteen to twenty pacific northwest longshoremen, primarily the executives of the Tacoma, Seattle, and Portland locals showed up to the speaking part of the meeting after (in most of their cases) having had enough to drink that people nearby could smell it on them, and midway through Jack Heyman’s speech began shouting, climbing on chairs, and attempting to derail the meeting.
This had been attempted the night before in Portland and in each case happened on the order of the international, at least as far as any of the intruding longshoremen would admit that night when asked directly why they were doing what they were doing. “Just following orders” was said by a few of the younger (non-officer) men outside after the fact. In Seattle, for many reasons, they were successful in their effort, albeit managing the most shameful display of goonish cowardice I’ve ever seen in the process, including attempts to rush the stage, virulent sexism, and a general disdain for whatever anyone else had to say, including but not limited to the people of Local 21.
The Punch Line
Since that night the people that have been involved from the ISO recently have tried to pose themselves as possessing keen insight into why the event went the way it did, their grand speculation being that the flier being distributed for three days in advance of the event on Friday was saturated with anti-union rhetoric. The rhetoric which they’re so concerned with can be boiled down to ‘while we are solidly in support of the ILWU and we will be there to struggle with them there is much more that goes on for the 89% of the working class that is not unionized and we are trying to bridge the gap so that this sort of activity reinforces all our efforts, defensive and expansive’. A more concise version was delivered by a young fellow named Dan in a speech on Jan 6th when he stated plainly that, “…solidarity is a two way street.”
While the flier in question (not to mention the Black Orchid Collective more generally) certainly comes off as implicitly critical of unions, it is a long stretch from criticism to condemnation. And where, one might ask, is the ISO’s evidence of the truth of its accusation, that this flier led to a deep rift between occupy and the ILWU? I have to guess that if pressed the ISO folks that’ve been involved will point to an incident between Richard Eisner (self-described VP of the Labor Relations Council for Local 19) and a few people handing out fliers in the parking lot of Local 19’s hall. Having been one of the three people there I take a special pleasure in clarifying that we were yelled at for two things.
As far as the language of our flier was concerned we were yelled at for its content, but strictly for the presence of the words “ILWU” and “EGT” in the same piece of paper. No matter what language we might have picked we would have definitely had all the same incendiary points as far as good old Dick was concerned. Otherwise we were yelled at for the composition of the speakers’ board. In particular we got to the point where we informed him that Dan Coffman (president of Local 21 who was not actually there Jan 6th as the international had threatened to pull support entirely for Local 21’s ongoing picket if he appeared) and Clarence Thomas (organizer with Local 10 in the Oakland area and instrumental in the 2008 shut down of the west coast ports in opposition to the Iraq war) would be speaking before he went ballistic, shouting his disparaging opinions of those two ILWU leaders in our faces as we tried to talk to him.
Contrast that one encounter with many others that were had that night with A-men, B-men, Unidentified Casuals, and Identified Casuals as they arrived for the shift change. Many were thankful, the rest were by and in large disinterested. What was on our flier had no negative impact whatsoever on these people. In many cases the men and women I talked to were either excited or had thoughtful suggestions about the ways in which their union could improve its mobilization, one longshoremen suggesting a text bloc would be effective.
In short we were either neutrally or well received by nearly all the longshoremen minus this one officer. Of course this makes sense because what matters when you’re handing out fliers is what you’re talking about with the humans on the other end of the hand off, not the notes for where when and why they’re walking off with. In our case we were talking about Longview, about wanting to help, about fighting back, you know, real shit.
And while it’s true that we could have followed that advice to a greater extent, tried to go visit door to door, really sit down and talk with folks, we certainly weren’t completely silent with local 19, nor were we antagonistic with the people we were fliering. In fact all of us tried quite hard to be friendly, as awkward as it can feel in that particular parking lot.
Otherwise as far as the ISO is concerned the belligerent local 19 (and generally the pacific northwest) leadership should have gotten their way as soon as they threw a fit. That is to say their pretense for disruption, and you should understand that it was without question a pretense, that they be allowed to read a letter from Rob McEllrath (president of the ILWU international) should’ve been allowed without question. As if this would be a meaningful gesture of inclusion, not a spineless capitulation to bullies.
Mind you I personally believe the same thing, but only so that the portion of the room which was confused about where they should come down in the ongoing mess that made up the last thirty minutes of that meeting would be able to see clearly and without complication that these were brute disruptors, dispatched by a central office to interfere with Local 21’s effort to build effective community support. Then we could have simply surrounded them and forced them out of the room, with full support from all involved. If every one of us had without hesitation told them to leave, again and again until they did, we might have been able to salvage the end of that meeting, respectfully allowing the remaining occupy and Longview folks their time to speak with us, not to mention our own time to speak with one another.
The Union and the Critical Industry in a State of Class War
The presence of a militant organized working class in critical industries is a cultural treasure that at different times has aided and been aided by the community at large. To the extent that the Union is an organized body of workers it has every right to fight for good (capable of providing comfortably for the workers) and democratic (self organized, without favoritism, without oppression/exploitation) working conditions. That sort of activity should be supported at every turn by those seeking to dismantle capitalism. Meanwhile the extent to which the more conservative factions within such a union control the union is the extent to which both the union and the working class have been betrayed.
When an industry serves as an artery of global capitalism the greater population has an obligation to strike at their ability to operate profitably to further our efforts to reclaim popular control of the material centerpieces of our society. The union has no right (nor should it have interest) in deterring such a struggle, and instead should recognize the privilege of being on the front lines of it. If the current populace will not there are plenty who would waiting in the wings.
That said outreach and incorporation of the union into the popular front should be carried out vigorously and thoroughly for it is the rank-and-file of the union that actually know best how to carry on that particular industrial struggle in physical, practical terms. They are the raw materials from which the industry draws its blood, its breath, without them the life of the industry ceases.
This does not mean humbly begging for inclusion or sanction from the local leadership, it means going door to door to talk to the longshoremen themselves. It means taking the time to build actual relationships with actual humans that are in the union so that they’re no longer insulated from those of us trying to organize by their (at least locally) conservative leadership.
More simply as functional radicals it means abandoning the point of view that sees in the union something monolithic, instead recognizing the diversity of the union, and making a point to reach out to those groups who are interested in advancing the class struggle for all, who would like to act in solidarity with all. It is worth recognizing that there were people from the ILWU on both sides of the room that night. Ultimately in Longview we’ve been asked by an organized group of workers, whatever their affiliation with any other more centralized apparatus may be, to fight shoulder to shoulder against a multinational company that has visited house raids, arrests, brutality, and broken promises upon these people, their families, and their community. I for one will be there.
The Struggle Goes On
Since January 6th people have continued to organize with Longview because the longshoremen that have asked us for help, Local 21, are really just another body of workers trying to struggle against the system of global capitalism and it’s endless appeal to profits over people, wealth over health. The fact that factionalism exists within the ILWU, that apparently the more conservative elements of the union abound in Seattle’s leadership is irrelevant. What is relevant are those that wish to fight, not those happy with where they’re at or those content to advise continued faith in the brokers of the modern police state.
We can no longer afford to submit to the dinosaurs claiming we must compartmentalize the struggle of the working class, at best they’re fuel to our fire. Fight back, fight together, and fight to win.