We had started on a Saturday night, only a handful of us talking back and forth on email, and it went on well into the dark hours of Sunday morning; type email address, copy, paste, send, type email address, copy, paste, send, again and again until my fingers were sore. I was one of a hand full who were doing the mass emailing of the press release. We were in Oakland but there were people from up and down the West Coast involved in the planning of the action that we expected to be coming soon. We were sending out a statement announcing the mobilization of the Occupy Wall street groups from a number of west coast cities to support International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 21 in Longview, Washington, in its fight against the grain exporter EGT. There had been months of planning and discussion, often quite heated, leading up to the anticipated action. The press release announced our coming to meet the first grain ship that was to be loaded, and with ILWU Local 21, and other organized labor groups we were going to try to stop it.
The next day Governor Chris Gregoire of Washington ordered EGT to the table and the union took down its picket lines. While we claimed to still be in a ready state, most knew it was over. In a week or so word came that a contract had been signed in some strange circumstances and that the contract included some really bad things that might be precedents in other, future ILWU contracts. There were lots of opinions among people who followed the event but of course most of main street America didn’t even know the whole thing had happened. While I had played only a small and peripheral role in the whole thing it had dominated my thoughts for weeks and I wanted to know what the Port workers themselves thought and what had actually happened there. So when I had some time off in early May I went up to see what I could find out.
I arrived in Longview mid-morning on Monday, May 7 and drove around for a few hours to orient myself. It’s a little Northwest town and seemed very peaceful, though there were signs still up that read “I support ILWU” in the windows of many homes and business, but they would be the only obvious evidence of the battle that had taken place here only a few months before.
The union hall was a little hard to find because they have no sign up now. It’s a rare thing these days, a union hall that is also a hiring hall. There are no-doubt working adults in America who don’t even know this ever existed. The employers, under contract, call the union and ask for a certain number of workers of various skills and the union dispatches them to the various jobs. The union controls the hiring. It’s a system that is intended to protect those most active in the union and make favoritism on the part of the employer much more difficult. It being mid-day, not many were at the hiring hall as it was between shifts, when members of the union show up to be dispatched to the various job sites.
The part- time dispatcher Graig Briant and long-time member (since 1967!) Herb Roberts were there along with the President, Dan Coffman. He has some notoriety/popularity now in activist and labor circles because he had made the rounds; going to various cities seeking to drum up support for Local 21’s fight against EGT, was in the back office. I struck up a conversation with Briant and Roberts. After a few minutes with the two men, Coffman came out of his office, said “Hello” and told me that he had to go. He said he couldn’t talk because he was busy, local 21’s president also works on the docks and only collects a part time salary. Needless to say I was disappointed not get the chance to ask him about some of the specifics of the contract, the Local’s relationship to the International union and Occupy.
Briant and Roberts were a bit cautious at first–who could blame them? During the fight there had been reporters trying to pose as members coming to the hall, EGT spies posing as reporters, FOX news had called them “ILWU terrorists” and there are still many law suits going. But they warmed up after a few minutes. The introduction had an awkward start as I told them fairly quickly that I currently work as a water plant operator and the union that represents us is affiliated to the Operating Engineers. Local 701 of the Operating Engineers were the scabs at EGT during the conflict. That’s right: union scabs. Little wonder the unions are so weak these days with this kind of disunity. Top Op Engineer leadership and the tops of the AFL-CIO, the country’s main labor federation, described the whole thing as a “dispute over jurisdiction” and would not intervene to stop the scabbing. The fact that I had raised it to my union rep and to the people I worked with along with my involvement with Occupy got me accepted.
The most important thing on both their minds was that I know that the whole thing wasn’t completely over and that local politicians and the media were totally on the side of the company. In addition to the civil suit against the NLRB’s fine of over $300,000 against them, the local has three suits going with the sheriffs, county prosecutor and city police, for civil rights violations. “Law enforcement is still harassing our members. Every few weeks someone gets a summons, they’re charged with misdemeanors and told that if they don’t plead guilty they’ll be charged with more and even felonies, so you’ve got people pleading on stuff they’re not even guilty of and doing time and paying a couple thousand in fines because we won’t quiet the suits against them. Plain and simple its blackmail,” Briant explained. “We’ve got a couple of felony charges, they did nothing different than anybody else that walked away with misdemeanors but they were recognized by one of their security or whatever, one was charged with three felonies and offered a plea deal and told if he didn’t take it he’d be charged with more. Now where’s the justice in that?” Robert’s added.
When I asked if they thought there could be some kind of fight back against this outside of the courts. They replied that they were hoping for an outcome in the courts that would lead to the convictions being over turned. Given the bias we had been talking about, that didn’t seem likely to me. The conversation covered some of the details of how EGT had tried to get out of its contract with the Port and some of the specifics of what they do on the docks. They are very proud of their work and level of skill at what they do. They told me of how hard the whole thing had been on families and how proud they were of the support they had gotten from the community.
One of the harder questions asked was,“Did they think we could have actually stopped the ship from being loaded?” Herb Roberts’ response was quick and confident, “Anything’s possible with dedicated people.” The room went silent for a moment and Briant added softly, “Yeah I’m just as glad it didn’t come to that.” They both went on to describe all the many dozens of police in riot gear, armored cars, machine guns and of course the Coast Guard gun ship which was parked right in front of the grain terminal. “It wouldn’t have taken much for one those cops to lose it or misinterpret the wrong move, they were strung pretty tight,” Roberts added. A humorous side of the story was the police officer who mistakenly pepper sprayed their self and tried to blame picketers for the injury. It seemed the cop had the nozzle pointed the wrong way when they attempted to discharge it at the crowd.
To the question of the contract being a victory, defeat or some kind of draw? Briant’s answer was, “It’s a step forward. It would be kind of hard to call it a victory.” Roberts added,“We saved our jurisdiction, at least partly, and that’s the main thing after 70 some odd years you don’t just come in and take that away from us.”
Their attitude toward Occupy was very positive. There is a small Occupy group in Longview, mostly composed of local business people and a few professors from the local college that had played a central role in the conflict. Herb Roberts was looking for Occupy to be more active in the summer and hoped that the battle they had fought in Longview would rejuvenate the labor movement.
Before too long, I was in my car heading down to the Port with Byron Jacobs, the Local’s Secretary-Treasurer though also, like the President, a working member of the local. Byron had made the rounds to other cities with Coffman and other members of the Local seeking support during the conflict. He is a fifth generation member of the Longshore union and only a few days before had gotten out of jail. He had to serve 22 days for three misdemeanor charges and had plead down from an original four felonies and twelve misdemeanors–recall this was months after the conflict’s end. When asked if he was working at EGT he explained that he was not on the contractual “qualified worker list,” which meant he and anyone else not on the list was excluded from working, completely counter to the point of a hiring hall. “If they know you, that you played an active role in the whole thing then you’re basically on the no fly list,” he explained.
We talked a lot about the threats to the Local at the height of the struggle and the burglary of the union hall that had happened a month or so previous. Not much of value was taken in the burglary but the local’s ledgers, account books and meeting minutes were. Of course no thief has been caught but it’s hard to imagine why anyone other than local or federal law enforcement would want the Local’s records due to the ongoing legal battles.
Jacobs and I met Mike Fuqua at the EGT gate. Mike had just gotten back from a meeting of an anti-war coalition in New York City. “After the Coast Guard, a branch of the US military, got involved on the boss’s side, that’s when a lot of groups we hadn’t ever been involved with stepped up and took our side,” he explained. The three of us went on to discuss the role federal law enforcement played against the union. “The FBI made all these threats to our members, that if they were anywhere around the rail road tracks that they’d be taken off to some holding facility and no one would know where you were, no phone call, no charge or that they’d loose their ‘TWIC’ card [the Department of Homeland Security-issued work permit for those who work Ports],” Fuqua said. “They’d say we’d be deemed ‘terrorists,’” Jacobs added. “I’m waiting to see what the Webster’s definition of terrorist is these days. They must have added two or three pages with all the things the government is considering terrorism now,” said Fuqua. “They were here to intimidate, no doubt about it. They come in and try to use fear-mongering. They don’t like it when people stand up. Pretty soon other people hear about it and they back you and you start a movement, well they don’t want that. They want a big corporate agenda backed by government power,” he added.
They also had lots to say about lax safety standards and the general conditions at EGT. The disabling of a safety system in the facility had led to a seven-alarm fire since coming into service, the damage from which could be seen from the gate. They also felt that the EPA was giving EGT a pass on enforcing environmental standards. “There are days I come out of my house and I can see a plume of dust up two, three hundred feet in the air from this place, polluting the air and water around this town,” Fuqua said.
Both Fuqua and Jacobs spoke very well of Occupy. We talked about how the Taft–Hartley Act works, the law that prohibits secondary boycotts, severely limits union’s ability to hold mass/effective picket lines and holds liable the primary picketers in any action. Mike thought that the law was the reason for McEllrath’s statement, by making a separation between the Local and its supporters as it sought to cover the ILWU from legal liability. “That’s why these laws are in place to keep the working class down,” Fuqua said. In regards to the role in general of the International leadership, they weren’t very forthcoming but Fuqua did say, “You’d like to think that in a fight you’d all be on the same side for the same reason but I don’t necessarily think that’s true.” Of the upcoming International election in ILWU Jacobs said, “that bunch in charge won’t get my vote.” “For anything,” Fuqua added.
“We were going to do whatever it took”
Like the men at the hall they were very happy with the support of the community and thought that more than half had been at least passively on their side. At the height of the conflict the police were even harassing small business owners who had signs supportive of the Local. When asked if we could have stopped the ship, Fuqua’s answer was definite: “They were scared. They saw the fight that they brought to this town and I tell you we would have won this battle, no matter what, we weren’t going to lose this. We were going to do whatever it took.” We got into politics a bit and the role mainstream politicians were playing and I asked if there was any chance the Local would run or support a candidate outside the Republican or Democratic parties. They told me of just getting someone elected to the Port Commission who was on their side in the conflict.
Later, back at the union hall, Fuqua described the meeting where the Local’s members voted away their right to vote on the contract. “There’s Big Bob saying all this stuff that we saved our jurisdiction and got what we wanted, it’s a good deal we’re just waiting to hear back from the lawyers about some details, pumping everybody up, and then they get everybody to vote to accept it. I said something isn’t right here, and I voted no but I was the only one. Everybody else voted for it.”
While we were at the hall, Kyle Mackey showed up. He is the Local’s representative on the Central Labor Council, did much of the Local’s online out reach during the struggle and had been my first point of contact, a friend had written him on Facebook. The question had been put to him in introducing the idea that I wanted to talk with members of the Local about how Occupy could have been more effective in the fight with EGT. He had written back the following: “While we are disappointed with the outcome of the contract, most of us and myself will not talk about the contract with non-ILWU members. We handle our problems internally. I don’t think Occupy did much wrong during the Port shutdowns and EGT struggle. They communicated with rank and file up and down the Coast and basically put more pressure on EGT than we had the entire time combined. We got more done through Occupy and the community than anything else.” I commented to he and Fuqua that I thought it would have been a victory for the mobilization to happen even had we not have been strong enough to actually stop the loading of the ship given the example it would have set and the confidence it would have encouraged in many layers of American society and for working people all over the world. “Yeah, it would have been beautiful,” he answered. Fuqua added, “You know there are probably 15 Longviews going on right now in this country that nobody knows about.”
The story of the battle in Longview is a microcosm of everything that is happening in this country and in fact the whole world. A huge multi-national corporation changes its name and with the help of public money starts a new business venture. It tries to do so outside of a contractual agreement that exists between a dockworker’s union and a public institution, a Port, because it is cheaper and gives them more control. Given a certain independence of the local union, due to it being in a small town, and due to the nearly simultaneous uptick in activism in the form of the Occupy movement, the workers in Longview were able to hold the line longer and conduct the battle with more militancy at least for a time. Threatened by the intervention of the wider community and concerned for losing control, the top union leadership actually worked against the union’s interest and intervened to distance the local from its supporters. Ultimately, the government intervenes and, with the help of top union leadership, comes to a deal with the corporation that is full of bad precedents for upcoming contracts.
While the ILWU Local 21 members are heroes and did most of the heavy lifting in the battle the fact that it ended, even under the terrible terms it did with the union keeping its jurisdiction over the work, was because of involvement of the wider community, through Occupy and other channels. It’s interesting to imagine how much more successful the resolution would have been had the International Union leadership embraced and encouraged the support it was getting from the wider community and used it’s full strength, including other actions at West Coast ports, rather than seeking to keep the whole thing wrapped up behind the limits of the Taft-Hartley Act.
There are stories like this playing out all around us: schools being closed, public buildings being sold off, attacks on workers pay and working conditions, the ongoing foreclosure crisis side-by-side with tax-funded bank bailouts and on and on. These issues may seem unrelated but they are not. They all flow from the fact that the system is not set up to serve us but instead is set up to serve a tiny, wealthy elite. Whatever it is you have in the world you won’t keep long if your neighbor is losing what they have. I was disappointed but not surprised to find that there was a non-union log staging business right across the road from the EGT gate where Local 21 members are now working. How often do we walk right by the homeless guy, or ignore yet another story of police brutality, (a teenager named Alan Blueford was fatally shot by police as he ran away from them in Oakland while I was in Longview) or see union construction workers or nurses eating lunch thinking nothing of the fact that those who made them the lunch are being paid minimum wage.
We should know if our neighbor is about to be foreclosed on and be prepared to help them fight the bank. Whether or not we have kids or if our kids are grown we should protest the closing of schools or other cuts to public services and help organize to reverse them. The right wing media makes all kinds of bank with playing the badly paid against the relatively well off workers, private sector workers against those who have public sector jobs. Now is the time to cut across this. You fight for yourself when you fight for someone else.
At this point less than ten percent of the work force of this county is union and it is hard to imagine that changing with the kind of leadership we saw from top ILWU in the Longview struggle. Occupy was like a gift from God in the struggle against EGT and ILWU leadership not only moved to distance itself from it but even sent people to solidarity meetings of it’s own members to disrupt and pick a fight, to say nothing of the fact that they did not mount a real campaign to fight EGT themselves but they left Local 21 to mostly go it alone. We can wish the activists in ILWU luck in the struggles to reform their union from the inside and hope for their sake and ours that they are successful. Occupy and other activists should not hesitate, in coming conflicts, to call foul when leaders of unions are dropping the ball on their members or not supporting other workers or social issues but if doing so always remember that a union’s leadership is not its rank and file.
There has been a myth for years that the Democrats are the friends of labor and working people in general. When your allies and friends are shown time and again to not be your allies and friends, it’s time to go it alone and make new ones. Clearly no mainstream politician was any help to Local 21. In fact, president Obama even used the military against them. We need a political party that represents wage earners, the retired, students, the unemployed, small businesses and family farmers. One doesn’t need to be a political scientist to know that only members of the two major parties are going to win elections for state representative, Governor or federal level positions at this point and time but city councils, school board or special districts could be won by those who actually want to change the system and are from outside the two major, pro-big business parties.
As social movements continue to grow, we will hopefully see more activist and non-mainstream candidates coming into these local posts. Someone friendly to Local 21 was recently elected to Longview’s Port Commission. We can hope they will be different but so often reformers come into politics and with the best of intentions they are either sucked into the machine or spit out by it. Without some clear goals and the active backing of movements like Occupy this is likely the outcome. School boards, City Councils and special districts, like Ports, all have specific issues they face, specific things the community needs that activist/non major political party candidates would fight. A winning and uniting theme that should be a demand by anyone seeking political office would be to reset lower any debt held against public agencies, individual households and small/family businesses. This would reflect the fact that the main interest rate charged by the Federal Reserve to the banks has been reset to near zero now and has always been far lower than the rate charged the general public, a subsidy paid to the private banks and investment firms as they borrow it cheap and lend it back to us at a profit or gamble with it in the stock market or in the trade of instruments like credit-default-swaps.
This theme, along with absolute opposition to all cuts to public services, could be the basis of the party we need. At the heart of this country’s problems is the private/for-profit banking and investment system. The alternative is a public banking/finance system, run with its decision makers elected by and controlled by the public they serve, run not for profit but to keep communities thriving; workers employed, schools funded, seniors cared for and infrastructure maintained.
The banks were bailed out and it’s time the rest of us were.
Time line of events
February 2011: Occupation of Wisconsin State Capitol in protest of attacks on union rights in that state. State budget in deficit due to debt burden, blame put onto shoulders of public sector workers
July 2011: EGT (a conglomerate of the grain exporter Bunge and others) opens a state of the art grain handling facility, at the Port of Longview, Washington. EGT had announced its intention to not use ILWU labor, in violation of its agreement with the Port of Longview and went to court to try to get out of this part of the agreement. EGT had received millions of dollars in assistance in opening the facility including: the building of the dock for the facility, the rail link and the paving of an access road from the Port of Longview, THE COMMUNITY’S TAX DOLLARS! There are several months of trouble-shooting before an industrial grain facility of this size can be put into service. There were attempts at deliveries of grain by rail. Trains and the gates were repeatedly blocked by ILWU Local 21 and its supporters causing BNSF rail to stop delivery attempts. The actions of the workers and the increasingly intense police response gains national and even international media attention.
9/8/2011: Some 800 union workers and community supporters storm the terminal and dump over 100,000 tons of grain on the train tracks. Overwhelmed, the police and private security guards stand aside or run. EGT does not successfully receive a grain delivery until Sept 21.
9/9/2011: NLRB requests an injunction limiting pickets and judge issues a restraining order, limiting pickets to16 people.
9/17/2011: Occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York sparks beginning of Occupy Wall Street movement
11/2/2011: So called “general strike” in Oakland, California, in response to the heavy handed closing of Occupy Oakland encampment on 10/25/11 by Oakland police. Many were injured in the police raid including Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen, who was shot in the face with less-lethal projectile. Tens of thousands participate and shut down central Oakland and the Port of Oakland. Occupy names as one of its purposes “solidarity with Longview ILWU Local 21 against EGT.”
12/12/2011: Partially successful shut down of most West Coast Ports by Occupy movement “in solidarity with ILWU Local 21 fighting EGT” as well as for other reasons. It was completely successful in a number of cities, only for a few hours in others. The top leadership of ILWU is publicly critical of actions, though most rank and file ILWU workers, along with a majority of port truckers honor the lines set up by activists and do not cross.
12/31/2011: President Obama signs the NDAA (National Defense Appropriations Act) of 2012. Section 1021 of the act allows for the indefinite detention of US citizens without charge or trial if they are suspected of involvement with terrorism.
1/3/2012: ILWU International President Robert (“Big Bob”) McEllrath issues an announcement to members of ILWU regarding the coming of the first grain ship to the Longview Port and states, among other things, that ILWU members should: “take extreme caution when dealing with supporters of non-ILWU sanctioned calls to action,” an obvious reference to the Occupy movement. Some saw this as simply legal cover others as a bid to remain in control of the struggle and separate ILWU Local 21 members from its non-ILWU supporters.
1/5/2012: Officials from several Northwest ILWU Locals come to a solidarity/planning meeting of Occupy Portland. Local 21 members, along with activists from other ILWU Locals and other unions, to read the McEllrath statement as well as a statement critical of Occupy, advocating Occupy activists stay away from Longview. Most in attendance walk out. ILWU members from other northwest locals are pulled off Longview picket line by International leadership.
1/6/2012: The same group of pro-International leadership individuals come to a similar meeting in Seattle, attempt to read the same critical statement, interrupting the speaker they spread out through the crowd and start a fight. A YouTube video of the attack on the meeting begins to circulate. The following week there is a “president’s” meeting of ILWU Locals. No such formal body exists in the ILWU constitution. Local 21 president Dan Coffman and other local leaders are censured and ordered to cease contact with key activists in other ILWU locals and the Occupy movement.
Weekend of 1/21-1/22/12: Occupy activists do mass press release announcing mobilization to meet, along with ILWU Local 21 and others from organized labor, EGT’s first grain ship and attempt to stop its loading.
Monday 1/23/12: Washington Governor Chris Gregoire forces EGT to the table, there is a tentative agreement between EGT and Local 21, pickets come down. The next day President Obama gave the annual State of the Union address. There had been a letter writing campaign to the President protesting the use of the US Coast Guard in support of EGT, the first time the US military had been used in a labor conflict in decades. In the days following the tentative agreement International Union President McEllrath meets with the membership of Local 21. In a rally-like atmosphere it was stated to be a win, no mention of the many problems in it, and that only a few legal details remained to be worked out. McEllrath advocates the members of Local 21 vote to empower leadership to accept or reject the package after legal council. Exhausted from the struggle and trusting their leadership all but one member of the local, Mike Fuqua, vote to allow leadership the final say without seeing the actual contract language.
2/7/12: The first grain ship arrives, with Coast Guard escort, at the EGT facility to be loaded. ILWU workers are in facility under tentative agreement.
2/9/12: After it is negotiated by International leadership, specifically Bob Mcellrath and Leo Sundet, Local 21 President Dan Coffman is left to sign the contract with EGT, described by some as “the worst in ILWU history.” For more in depth details on the contract see “the Maritime Worker Monitor #11”.