25 May 2012

Solidarity with Longview ILWU and Its Supporters

Our article “Protest State Vendetta Against Longview ILWU and Its Allies!” (WV No. 998, 16 March) urged 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. As the article noted, 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.” Union locals from California, New York and Wisconsin sent letters. International solidarity was expressed by unions in Canada, France and Germany. The Partisan Defense Committee—a class-struggle legal and social defense organization affiliated with the Spartacist League—and its fraternal organizations internationally issued an appeal for unions to send protest letters to Cowlitz County prosecuting attorney Susan Baur.

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.

While Jeff Washburn, who was president of the Cowlitz County Central Labor Council, was convicted, at least six others facing similar charges were acquitted in jury trials. Prosecutor 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.

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. 

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(reprinted with minor edits from Workers Vanguard No. 1003, 25 May 2012)

Workers Vanguard is the newspaper of the Spartacist League with which the Partisan Defense Committee is affiliated.