There are major struggles heating up around US ports – on the West Coast, the Gulf Coast and the East Coast. Here we will summarize and analyze the key struggles. Then we will summarize some of the current debates among radicals and Occupy activists about these struggles. We hope this post can serve as an intro to folks who haven’t been following all of this closely, and we welcome readers to use the comments section a place to debate and discuss the issues at stake.
1) East / Gulf Coast strike?
The International Longshore Association (ILA), the East and Gulf coast longshore union, recently threatened to strike, when contract negotiations with the U.S Maritime Alliance broke down.
Since the 60s, the Alliance has been replacing longshore workers with automated machinery and they want to keep doing that. The number of workers at the port of New York/New Jersey has decreased from 35,000 to 3,500 since the ’60s. In compensation for displacing workers from their jobs, they have been paying the workers a royalty for increased production; in the current contract negotiations, they wanted to cut this royalty and the union resisted.
Federal mediators intervened, pushing the standoff until after the November elections and after the busy shipping season before the holidays. But now the possible strike might coincide with the debates over austerity and the fiscal cliff.
The NY times is currently reporting that there is some sort of settlement in the works around the royalty issue and the strike might be averted. Apparently the union and the companies are back in negotiations which were extended to Jan 28th.
Retail capitalists worrying about their shipments have attempted to put pressure on Obama to use the anti-labor Taft Hartley act to suppress the strike with an injunction. This would involve a court order threatening fines or legal penalties if the workers continue to strike.
2) Northwest Grain Handlers contract negotiations: possible lockout or strike?
Longshore workers who operate the grain export terminals in Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver have been working without a contract since their contract expired on Sept 30th. They are members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), the West Coast longshore union, which is a separate union from the ILA on the East and Gulf coasts. Though the unions recently formed an alliance, its unclear whether or not they are coordinating their contract struggles or planning solidarity actions with each other.
Direct solidarity strikes are illegal under US labor law, so strikes linking struggles on both coasts would require workers to break the law. As usual under American labor law, the most effective forms of workers’ power are illegal. One of the reasons why US unions have lost so much of their power over the past 40 years is because they have accepted the limitations on struggle posed by these laws. When workers strike in defiance of the law or the union leaders who enforce it, such a strike is called a “wildcat” strike.
The once militant and powerful ILWU is now facing aggressive attacks by employers who seem to think they can ride the wave of national union busting to break the union without facing effective resistance. The coalition of companies that own the Northwest grain export terminals are demanding more control over the work process, including the ability to hire workers without going through the union-run hiring hall, which was one of the major demands of the 1930s strikes and battles that gave birth to the ILWU.
Last year, another grain company, EGT, attempted to open a new high-tech grain export facility at Longview, WA without employing ILWU workers. A series of strikes and militant protests by longshore workers, and the threat of a massive solidarity mobilization by West Coast Occupy forces opposed this. Eventually, union leaders used this pressure to negotiate a contract with EGT, but this contract increases restrictions on strikes and other actions on the job, making it more favorable to management then the larger grain contract operating in the rest of the Northwest cities. In the current grain negotiations, the other companies are trying to impose the sub-standard elements of the EGT contract on all of the Northwest union locals.
The terminal owners might be preparing for a lockout or strike; they are hiring security and putting replacement workers and tugboats on standby. (A lockout is when the bosses lock union members out of the workplaces and attempt to run them with replacement workers.) The Coast Guard is also preparing to try to control and regulate possible protests on the Columbia river. Last year during the Longview struggle, the Coast Guard threatened to mobilize to repress workers and Occupy activists.
Over one quarter of the U.S.’s grain exports are handled through ports on the Columbia River and in Puget Sound, and the grain is shipped mostly to Asia. In that sense, these grain export terminals are not only sites of labor struggle but are also possible sites of struggle over the global food crisis. Food prices are rising due to Wall St. speculation in commodities and this year’s drought in the US. Some economists are even predicting food riots as millions more people begin to starve around the world. The same grain cartels that are profiting while billions go hungry, are now trying to limit the ability of longshore workers to organize themselves and take action on the job.
Since Black Orchid Collective was involved in last year’s Dec. 12th Port Shutdown and the solidarity mobilizations preparing to caravan to Longview, some people have asked us whether we are currently involved in supporting these ILWU contract struggles.
We could see two possible reasons why working class folks who don’t work at the port, including us, might take action at the ports: 1) in solidarity with rank and file workers who are struggling there and 2) because the ports are public property and what happens there affects the entire working class; the goods we produce and consume ship through there. We got involved in the Longview solidarity actions last year for the first reason and we got invovled in the Dec. 12th port shutdown for the second reason (as outlined here and here). At this point, people in Seattle who don’t work at the port are not invovled in struggles there because 1) rank and file port workers have not asked for solidarity from us and 2) the organizing work that other folks and us are doing against deportations and state repression is not currently focused on the ports the way that Decolonize/ Occupy was last year.
However, we recognize that all of this could change if 1) port workers take action and ask the rest of the working class to join them or 2) a social movement emerges in the rest of the class which once again orients toward the ports. These possibilities are related to each other; as the articles at the end of this piece argue, actions by port workers can inspire broader struggles, and broader struggles can also inspire actions by port workers.
It is worth noting that post-Occupy networks of activists still exist in Seattle, Portland, the Bay, and Bellingham, and folks in Portland and the Bay have already been building support for port labor struggles (see below). Activists in all four places are collaborating together around various working class struggles. So in general, although Occupy may have largely died out, the West Coast networks that were built around the Port Shutdown have not disappeared. If longshore workers wanted to reach out to these networks with the aim of collaborating to build a working-class wide struggle, they might be able to galvanize a movement across the West Coast or beyond.
2) Charleston Port Shutdown
We get a glimpse of the possibilities of that kind of larger working class struggle when we look at how community activists and Longshore workers have recently interacted in Charleston, S.C., combining solidarity with Bangladeshi textile workers with a local show of workers’ power.
Bangladeshi textile workers, mostly women, are some of the most exploited workers in the world. They are also some of the most militant, with a vibrant movement of strikes, blockades, riots, and sabotage that we discussed here.
Recently, 112 Bangladeshi workers were burned alive in a factory fire at a facility that produces goods for Wal Mart.
On Dec 18th, Occupy Wall St. and other activists, explicitly inspired by the Seattle Dec. 12th port shutdown barricade , attempted to blockade a ship full of goods produced for Wal Mart by these factory workers. The blockade failed because they only organized 100 people and the Department of Homeland Security was able to keep them away from the port entrance. However, this action inspired people in South Carolina who were planning on picketing the same ship. They set up an informational picket when the ship docked and the Charleston longshore workers decided not to cross the picket line, and some of them decided to join it.
There are few inspiring things about this action: 1) it is an example of practical, concrete global international working class solidarity across borders 2) Bangladesh is a former British colony that is still dominated by European and American capitalists, who use this domination to enforce the low-wage regime that lead to the factory fire and many other atrocities. It is good to see workers in the US challenging that. 3) The community activists and workers who set up the picket expressed solidarity with the ILA in their upcoming contract fight but did not limit their actions to supporting the union contract fight; they also came with their own working-class-wide demands against Wal Mart and in solidarity with the Bangladeshi workers, which the long-shore workers honored. They showed that solidarity is a two way street. This is similar to what we were trying to achieve with the West Coast Port Shutdown last December.
The actions of the Bangladeshi workers go far beyond anything done by US unions in the past half century. The Bangladeshi workers have not contained their struggles within the limits of contract negotiations and labor law, and instead use whatever weapons they can in order to build their power. Their struggles also tend to spill out of the factories and into working class slums, becoming mass uprisings, not just narrow labor struggles. What would it look like if US workers interacted more directly with Bangladeshi workers and learned from them, adopting some of those strategies here? For example, what if they tried to link their struggles to struggles going on in ghettoes and neighborhoods accross the US? How would this affect the current workers’ struggles at the ports? How would it affect the organizing and strikes going on at Wal Marts across the US?
Moving from informational pickets at the port to direct links with Bangladeshi workers would require serious working class organization at an international level, something that goes beyond the legalistic and largely American nationalist perspectives of current US unions.
3) LA clerk strike
Port clerks, part of the ILWU, recently ended an 8 day strike that shut down 10 of the 14 LA/ Long Beach port terminals. LA/ Long Beach is the West Coast’s largest port complex. 400 members of the union’s clerical unit walked off the job, and 10,000 dockworkers refused to cross the picket lines. This blocked billions of dollars worth of shipments, disrupting supply chains across the country.
The clerks were striking against the bosses’ attempts to outsource their work to non-union workplaces in other locations.
4) Oakland port strike
SEIU Local 1021 port workers went on strike on Nov. 20th at the port of Oakland, shutting down the port when the ILWU and other port unions refused to cross their picket lines. Activists from the community, including folks who had been involved in the West Coast Port Shutdown and Occupy Oakland, joined in the picket lines.
Some of them sent this letter to the port workers in solidarity.
Port workers and community activists, including activists from the Occupy Oakland Labor Solidarity Committee and the group Advance the Struggle also produced the Turning the Tide newsletter, attempting to bring together various labor struggles in the port of Oakland. This newsletter is notable because it is a collaboration of activists from various political tendencies, showing that it is still possible to build post-Occupy networks that can sustain ongoing struggle.
5) Seattle Port Truckers
Truckers in the port of Seattle, mostly East African workers, went on strike in the spring of 2012. Now, they are still struggling against a racist port administration that pays them less than a living wage and denies them access to port bathrooms. They face repression and retaliation in the aftermath of the strike.
6) Issues in the Port of Portland
There have been several labor issues in the port of Portland in addition to the overarching Northwest grain conflict. First, there was almost a strike by ILWU security guards over local contract issues. Secondly, one of the port terminals has attempted to hire non-ILWU labor to plug and unplug the refrigerated containers (called reefers in the industry). The mainstream media portays this as a jurisdictional battle between the ILWU and the electricians union that has gotten the work. However, the ILWU contends that it is really about the port terminal’s new owner refusing to honor the existing contract with the ILWU. The bosses allege that the ILWU did a work slowdown this summer over this issue which backed up shipping and threatened to reroute some traffic into other ports.
The terminal’s new owner is Phillippine-based International Container Terminal Service (ICTSI), a company that has been buying up ports across the Third World. Longshore Shipping News reported the following concerning the ILWU’s response:
Leal Sundet, a coast committeeman for the ILWU, said in the emailed statement that longshore workers are invested in the region’s well being and have toiled for decades to make the Port productive.
“By contrast,” Sundet wrote, “ICTSI’s sole interest in Portland is squeezing profits from our local economy and shipping dollars overseas to its Philippine owners.”
Such comments could be read as falsely equating the profits of ICTSI with the interests of the Philippines as a whole, in contrast to Oregon or American interests. In reality, Philippines workers are mostly living in poverty and will not see any of the profits that ICTSI makes from the labor of port workers in Portland and around the world. The company is headed up by Enrique Razon, part of the global 1%, and the grandson of a Spanish colonist who inherited the port of Manila through his family. He is building a casino complex which will displace millions of impoverished fishing families from the metro Manila waterfront. He also owns Monte Oro, a gold mining company that is kicking indigenous people in the Philippines off of their lands. There are active struggles against the casino and Monte Oro; what if US longshore workers were to team up with the folks involved in these struggles, to wage a joint campaign against ICTSI and Razon?
7) Anti-Coal export struggles
There are growing struggles in the Northwest against plans to build new coal export terminals near Bellingham and along the Columbia River to export coal mined in the Powder River Basin. Most of the coal would be shipped to China, where residents have been waging militant demonstrations against the pollution caused by burning coal, which may be successful in reducing investment in new coal plants. The northwest coal would be carried on open coal trains through cities like Portland and Seattle, causing air pollution in working class communities along the tracks. The Cherry Point coal terminal near Bellingham would be build on indigenous Lummi land. The Lummi nation recently did a protest burning a check on the beach indicating that no matter how much money they are given they will not give up their land. During the Dec. 12th Port Shutdown last year, a group of activists called the Bellingham 12 blockaded a coal train by locking themsleves to the tracks. They will soon go on trial for this. Ongoing mobilizations against coal exports have invovled thousands of people protesting at public hearings regarding the terminal construction.
Some unions are supporting these coal terminals because they claim they will create new union jobs. However, the number of jobs is relatively low due to automation, and the terminals will could destroy fishing jobs by polluting the water.
8) Struggles vs. the Trans-Pacific Partnership
If unions and environmental groups are at odds about the coal terminals, they seem to be united about opposing the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a new free trade deal that would expand NAFTA-like provisions to include trade between the US, Canada, and various Asian and Pacific nations. The TPP is facing feirce resistance accross the Pacific, including from indigenous Maori groups in New Zealand. Opponents describe it as a corporate coup that would obliterate local labor and enviornmntal regulations, giving coporations unlimited power.
The wave of automation in ports since the 60s has made global trade deals like this possible by reducing the cost and increasing the speed of trade. The shipping companies are attempting to limit or dissolve the power of the ILWU and ILA unions in order to further increase this speed and control. Automated shipping allows the corporations to centralize their power globally so that they can amass strength to crush local labor and ecological struggles. Given all of this, resistance to corporate global power logically could focus on the ports as a major site of struggle, something we did last year with the Dec. 12th call to shut down “Wall St. on the Waterfront”. One of the key questions that remain, however, is how should these broader working class and environmental struggles relate to the specific labor struggles of workers in the ports?
That question has prompted fierce debate among radicals over the past year, debates which are resurfacing because the possible longshore strikes mentioned above are coinciding with the broader mobilizations around coal and international solidarity mentioned above.
Which way forward?
There are two phases of this debate. The first round was the debate between Black Orchid Collective and the International Socialist Organization (ISO) (here and here) . Basically, the ISO argued that the rest of the working class, and specifically the Occupy movement should simply support the ILWU’s struggles and should not try to raise our own demands and struggles around the port. We responded by saying that solidarity is a two way street, and the Decolonize/ Occupy movement on the West Coast was correct in attempting to build our own struggles against Wall St. on the Waterfront, linking these with rank and file longshore workers’ struggles in Longview.
However, recently this debate has entered a second round, this time among those of us who agree that supporting the union alone is not enough to build a class wide movement against the corporations who run the ports. Even among folks who do not believe in limiting these sturggles within a trade union framework, questions remain about how much workers and commuity activists should fight around specific contract demands, and how working class community activsits should relate to waterfront workers.
Two key perspectives in this debate are linked here and we hope folks will discuss them in the comments section.
The first article is by Advance the Struggle (AS), a revolutionary Marxist group in the Bay Area. They argue that the attacks on the waterfront unions are a crucial offensive by the ruling class against the working class, linked to their attempts to automate the ports. To stop this offensive, all workers should rally to support the waterfront workers. However, AS argues that the unions alone cannot win these fights because of the way they have adapted themselves to the anti-labor laws passed since the mid 20th century. So they encourage rank and file port workers to form “class-wide committees” modeled after the strike committees that gave birth to the ILWU in the 30s. These committees could break from a trade union framework and from labor law, uniting the currently divided waterfront workers, such as longshoremen and port truckers into one unit, and uniting this unit with the rest of the working class:
The U.S. Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, Taft-Hartely in 2002, Wisconsin defeat of 2011, 2009-2011 construction of Longview terminal, put capital into motion to destroy the ILWU. ILWU gives political leverage to the working class by engaging in political shutdowns for the state murder of Oscar Grant, against the war in Iraq including several other examples. The elimination of the union to be able to do this, will no doubt demoralize the working class, making future struggles more difficult. Yet the capacity to fight capital will not rest on the structure of union. The political organization of port workers, coupled with activists with such a perspective, are possible to form within this historical moment. Revolutionaries aspiring to form such committees cannot do so by protest chasing, or naturalizing leftist gossip. Its only through a serious longterm perspective, sensitive to incorporating immediate ruptures within struggle, that the short and longterm dynamic of struggle can unify within the workers movement. The ports, as a fix workplace, cannot be transfered elsewhere. A spatial analysis of its division of labor is needed to form such committees, to know where and how ports shutdown succesfully. The elimination of the hiring hall will put the labor movement in a position before 1934, losing one of its most notable gains for the working class. The next two years, 2012-2014 will be a key turning point of struggle. A new working class revolutionary offensive can ascend reproducing the spirit of 1934 within today’s conditions, or capital will continue to destroy the union, the hiring hall and walmartize the ports. Port workers and activists, armed with a political perspective for struggle, and be willing to carry out the necessary work, will be a decisive factor in what the outcome is of such struggles.
The second article is by Peter Little from Occupy Portland (Pete can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org). While Advance the Struggle criticized Occupy Oakland for failing to effectively connect with daily working class struggles on the job, Pete argues that the Dec. 12th port shutdown “demonstrated how a movement in the streets can be transformed in encounters with the daily struggles of working class life”. He says that port workers in Longview, WA had called for Occupy to join in their struggle, even if they could not state this publicly because of a gag order by the ILWU leadership:
By the end of the Longview struggle as we sat in secret meetings with workers in Longview, we asked Local 21 members what would happen when the scab ship arrived and thousands of Occupiers stormed in to stop the ship-how would they lead? They answered,”we don’t know, but don’t worry. Just know that we’ll be at the front going through those gates and through that fence. Maybe we’ll just occupy EGT.”
While highlighting such potentials, Pete acknowledges the difficulties in linking ongoing port workers’ struggles with broader working class struggles. He highlights the destruciveness of coal exports, the need for international solidarity, and concerns about rising food prices, and acknowledges these are reasons why working class activists are interested in intervening in what goes on in the port. However, he cautions against those who would try to “educate” workers on these issues or present them with platforms of demands to adopt. He argues that workers’ own experiences in struggle on the job could point the way forward, creating new ways to confront these issues. He argues this is more likely to happen if workers are confident in their ability to break from labor law and from the limits set by the trade union structure, and that this is more likely to happen if activists outside the workplace intervene confidently with our own self-organization that doesn’t trail behind what the union is doing. Instead of telling workers how to better wage their contract fights, Pete argues we should figure out how to better wage our own fights agianst corporate control of the waterfront:
There is now the possibility of workers taking action in their daily lives to present an alternative to austerity-and the best of what emerges will not prefigured or formulated ahead of time-but will be created from the struggle itself . If a decent contract happens as a result of our collective struggles, so be it. Our vision cannot be limited to better demands, or to tell the workers at the port how to deal with the bosses or their contract, but instead to bring the perspective and possibilities inherent on how OUR actions together can sow the seeds of another strength, a counter to the power of the multinationals, to Wall Street in New York City or on the waterfront, or even more so to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as well as an alternative to a global economy unable to pull out of a tailspin.
Both the Advance the Struggle peice and Pete Little’s peice highlight some of the difficulties in building this working class unity. AS’s peice includes an extended interview with rank and file Seattle longshore workers, which reaveals the failure of ILWU local 19 to effectively build solidarity with the struggles of port truckers, as well as their failure to overcome racism against Black workers in the hiring process:
According to one source, “Since I’ve been in the industry, the day to day attitudes of longshore workers toward the drivers range from indifference to blatant chauvinism. Anyone who looks at the demographic composition of these two groups can observe this chauvinism is taking place across racial lines.” The port truckers are majority East African, and the vast majority of Local 19 is white.
This anonymous source goes on to say that since 2003,
“the percentage of nonwhite [longshore] workers has declined dramatically, as anyone who is not colorblind can notice with a quick visual observation.” In fact, this biased form of hiring has resulted in a public campaign in Seattle.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=byv2uhOdHh8
In response to this trend and complaints that grievances filed by Black longshore workers were allegedly not being pursued by the union with the seriousness of similar grievances filed by white longshore workers, a new chapter of the African American Longshore Coalition (which has existed since the early 90s) was organized in Seattle in 2005. The AALC delivered a report about some of these issues to the Black-majority Bay Area Longshore local 10, after which Local 10 made a decision to temporarily withhold some of its pro rata dues money from the International on the eve of the 2006 ILWU convention, in hopes that at least some of these issues would be resolved as a result. However, as one longshore worker put it, “This action by Local 10 was short lived whereas retaliation against the Seattle AALC and those who supported its’ report is still ongoing.”
Despite these allegations of racist practices in the Seattle union hiring hall, AS argues that the hiring hall should still be defended against the bosses’ current attempts to attack it:
If the bosses regain control of hiring/firing , this would probably worsen the racist practices within the industry and create more racial divide and conquer like what existed under the old shape up system before 1934 strike. For these reasons, we should oppose the bosses’ attacks. However, our unity must be premised on the condition that the hiring hall become an anti-racist institution and that longshore workers challenge their own chauvinistic attitudes toward the immigrant port truckers.
Pete also writes about the role Occupy activists could play in addressing this issue. He also addresses tensions between union workers and working class community members over whether or not to support the coal terminals:
Most importantly, as outsiders to the ports we have a particular opportunity to raise the question of obstacles to unity within the working class as a whole. Whether around the demands of Port truckers, the demands of working class communities around coal, or any other myriad questions which pose a challenge to the notion of the exclusivity of struggles in the ports to port workers themselves, our actions must still be oriented to an alliance with the struggles of those within the working class which pose the possibilities for an equality within the class.
This question is not just for Longshore workers to determine-and if left to determine it themselves, will inevitably find distorted answers. The question is whether victories can be won for Port workers-whether within or outside of a contract or union-which do not undermine unity or further divide the working class as a whole. From strikes to ban black labor to attacks on immigrants, labor history has no shortage of short term victories for one segment of workers which amount, in the end, to,”scabbing on the rest of the class.” Facilitating coal extraction and export, turning a blind eye to racism in ceratin locales-either in the Ports themselves or in the broader community, are two clear points where these questions, amongst others, loom now.
More specifically, Pete writes:
For all too many members of Occupy, the confusion of ‘the workers’ with ‘the union’ is widespread. When we see the language of “stand with the ILWU in building mass picket lines,” and “Defend the ILWU and its historic gains,” it’s worth asking which ILWU are we standing with? The question is more than semantics. The contracts and the protections it codifies are markers of high points in struggle. Yet we also saw clearly in Longview how the same institution which is a reflection of the high points in working class power and struggle can become the primary obstacle to that power.
The hiring hall, the shorter work day, control over the rate of work are all significant victories and will be devastating losses if the bosses succeed in their goals in these contract negotiations. But we also need to be honest in our assessment of the contradictory role of the institution of the ILWU itself. If we hope to see the involvement of broader sectors of workers-from Occupy, Port Truckers, or elsewhere- we must start with an honest assessment of the complex nature of the trade union. Furthermore we need to be clear in letting workers know that we intend to defend ALL workers–not just Longshore–in this struggle.
Pete concludes by saying that it is precisely our independence from the unions that could most effectively support rank and file workers at the ports:
In the current struggle, the ILWU has NOT taken a stand as to whether or not it is ready to fight. Its message internally has been,”wait.” There has been neither strike mobilization nor organizing in the grain elevators. Maybe the ILWU will shift gears to defend these workers. Maybe it will try to sell a shit contract. This remains to be seen. Let’s not forget that the Longview struggle, less than a year ago, resulted in the latter.
There are workers in the ILWU right now who are well aware of this and likely weighing whether or not they are willing to face off against the leadership of the ILWU should the leadership try to sell them out, and a part of their evaluation will be based on whether or not the ILWU has managed to bring Occupy under the ILWU leadership’s discipline. If we posture as simply being in solidarity with the ILWU, we risk pulling the sense of independence and initiative from workers who right now are being told by the ILWU to “wait it out.” We must be clear and unequivocal to the workers in the ports: if you act in the interests of the working class as a whole, with or without the ILWU, we stand with you.
As Black Orchid Collective, we have not developed a collective group stance on these issues, but we do hope to engage in further discussion and debate with AS, with Pete, and with others who are following these developments, especially friends and neighbors who work at the port or who are affected by what goes on there. Again, we welcome you all to use the comments section here as a forum to debate these crucial issues.
( As these issues can get heated, please remember to respect our House Rules which aim to facilitate thoughtful engagement. )