No. 37, Summer 2012
Solidarity with Longview ILWU and Its Supporters
The following article is adapted from Workers Vanguard No. 1003 (25 May 2012).
In March, the PDC and our fraternal organizations internationally issued an appeal urging unions, both nationally and internationally, to protest the vindictive prosecution of some 100 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), mainly from Local 21 in Longview, and their supporters. This anti-union vendetta is a shot at all of labor, aimed at creating a chilling effect on trade unionists who were inspired by the power ILWU members brought to bear during their fight against EGT union-busting in Longview.
For a few days last September, the union and its allies flexed their muscle in the kind of labor action not seen in this country for decades. Mass pickets were mobilized to block trains bringing grain into the terminal. The cops retaliated with a vendetta of harassment, intimidation and multiple arrests against ILWU members and their supporters. When police attacked the union’s lines on September 7, ILWU International president Robert McEllrath, who had been brutally manhandled by the cops, called to disperse the picket and wait for the backing of other longshoremen.
Ports in the region were shut down the following day as longshoremen from throughout the Pacific Northwest poured into Longview to give EGT, its hired security thugs and the strikebreaking cops a real taste of the power that lies in the workers’ collectivity, solidarity and, above all, their capacity to stop production and the flow of goods, which chokes off profits. This is what makes ILWU members and their union allies criminals in the eyes of the courts, cops and prosecuting attorney. Their anti-union vendetta serves to illuminate the purpose of the state in capitalist society. Far from some “neutral” body representing the interests of all classes, it is the instrument for the suppression of the working class in defense of the interests of its exploiters.
Union locals from California, New York and Wisconsin sent letters. International solidarity was expressed by unions in Canada, France and Germany.
In its letter, the Northern Region of the German Locomotive Engineers recalled the fines and restrictions on the right to strike that had been imposed upon them in the heat of a contract battle in 2006-07. The Oakland Education Association, one of several unions from the San Francisco Bay Area that sent protest letters, wrote: “The motto of the ILWU is ‘An Injury to One is an Injury to All.’ We concur with this viewpoint and are sending a donation to Local 21 to be used in the legal defense of their members and supporters.” In its letter, the New York chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists demanded “an end to this persecution” and that all charges be dropped.
Among those arrested was Jeff Washburn, then president of the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Counties Central Labor Council. On March 30 Washburn was convicted of obstructing/delaying a train last September 7, slapped with a $243 fine and sentenced to 20 hours of community service. At least six others facing similar charges were acquitted in jury trials. Prosecutor Susan Baur subsequently dropped a number of misdemeanor cases. But she threatened to file trumped-up felony charges against others—including Local 21 president Dan Coffman—in order to pressure them to plead guilty to misdemeanors that juries might have acquitted them of. The ILWU has rightly characterized this now-standard prosecutorial ploy as a “form of extortion.” Those opting to cop a plea have been sentenced to hundreds of dollars of fines and many hours of community service. Felony trials against at least two ILWUers are still pending, and Baur continues to threaten to file additional felony charges.
Two unionists, including ILWU Local 21 secretary-treasurer Byron Jacobs, have been sentenced to jail time. Jacobs was one of two courageous ILWUers who came to the aid of Ladies Auxiliary members under attack by police during a protest against an EGT-bound train on September 21. The two union members were tackled and forced to the ground, where the cops shot pepper spray directly into their eyes. This brutal attack was caught on video and later posted on YouTube. Yet Jacobs was charged with three felony counts! Baur only agreed to drop these frame-up charges if Jacobs pled guilty to three misdemeanors. He was sentenced to 20 days of jail work release, $500 in fines, one year’s probation and an “anger management” assessment. Local 21 member Ronald P. Stavas was sentenced to 22 days in jail after pleading guilty to felony attempted burglary and four misdemeanor charges. Dozens of ILWUers rallied at the Cowlitz County jail in solidarity with Stavas when he began serving his sentence on April 11.
The union-hating climate fueled by Baur and Cowlitz County sheriff Mark Nelson has encouraged additional attacks on Local 21. On April 9, the union hall was broken into, robbed and vandalized. Thousands of dollars of damage was done, and the words “scabs” and “ILWU fags” were scrawled on the wall with red spray paint. A significant amount of cash was stolen from the local’s safe, as well as blank checks, credit cards and other financial records. The union is offering a $2,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible. Local 21 also had to replace a union billboard publicizing the ILWU’s long history in the area after it was defaced by graffiti.
Playing its role as the enforcer of anti-union laws, Barack Obama’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has pursued its own vendetta against the ILWU. It went to the federal courts and obtained a restraining order last September against the union for “aggressive picketing,” which resulted in some $300,000 in fines. The Labor Board also issued a complaint against the union based on unfair labor practice charges filed by both EGT and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) during the Longview battle. In the April issue of the union’s newspaper, the Dispatcher, the ILWU International announced a settlement with the NLRB on this complaint. The PMA is reportedly objecting to the settlement, the details of which are not yet publicly known. The Dispatcher estimates that it will take up to two years to resolve the ILWU International’s appeal of the fines levied by the federal courts. As such, the fines could well be hanging over the union’s head as it faces off with the PMA when the coastwide longshore contract expires in 2014.
In the face of the anti-union offensive against the militant labor struggles waged in Longview last July and September, the ILWU International leadership backed off. It retreated to filing a lawsuit in the capitalist courts that charged the city of Longview, Cowlitz County and their top officials, including Sheriff Nelson, with violating the union’s “respective officers and members’ rights under the Constitution and laws of the United States and Washington.” While it is in the interests of the working class to defend all democratic rights, which have been increasingly curtailed, the battle of Longview was not a question of defending such civil liberties as freedom of speech and assembly. It was one of mobilizing the power of labor against the EGT union-busters, who are backed by the forces of the state. The laws of the United States are designed to uphold the interests of the capitalist owners—and the state, namely the courts, cops and military, enforces them against workers in struggle.
In the end, the ILWU was able to hold the line against EGT’s union-busting offensive, preserving jobs the union has held for 80 years and maintaining its coastwide organization. On February 7, members of ILWU Local 21 began loading wheat destined for South Korea on the first ship to pull into the new, high-tech EGT terminal in Longview, Washington. Two days later, a five-year contract settlement covering both maintenance and production at the terminal was approved by Local 21 members. But the contract is concessionary, making further inroads against hard-won union gains. These include seriously undermining the union hiring hall by giving EGT veto power over who will be allowed to work its ships, excluding ILWU clerks from work at the terminal and vastly expanding management prerogatives, including allowing the bosses to do longshore work. These concessions will not be lost on the other big grain companies when their contract with the ILWU is renegotiated this fall. And it is not just the ILWU they have been gunning for.
If the working class is to effectively organize to fight in its class interests, it must wield its ability to stop production and shut off the flow of profits. There is a vital need to revive the traditions of effective labor solidarity, not just in words but in deeds.