Discussion article: Voices from Occupy: West Coast port shutdowns and forms of labor struggle

September 12, 2012

Discussion article

by Javier, Advance the Struggle

The defeat of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 21 at the highly automated Export Grain Terminal (EGT) in Longview, Wash., shows how capitalism is transforming the workplace. It is a part of capitalism’s permanent offensive. So what happened?
Longview, Wash. Longshoremen stopping a train headed for Export Grain Terminal.

The Local 21 rank and file was incredibly militant against the attacks on them as EGT sought to hire non-union workers, while the ILWU International played a treacherous role in isolating Local 21. The International forced a contract that took away a lot of the gains of the 1934 general strike.

The Dec. 12 West Coast port shutdown initiated by the Occupy Movement did shake up the political landscape. The Governor of the state of Washington created a situation for a deal between the leadership of ILWU Local 21, bringing in the international leadership of ILWU, and the CEO of EGT.

At the meeting, the International made clear it would not back Local 21’s call for easing the million-dollar fines that the majority of ILWU Local 21 members were subjected to when they were arrested. The leadership of Local 21 was under such pressure that on Feb. 27 it had to accept a contract about which the president of the ILWU International said, “This is a win for the ILWU, EGT and the Longview community. The ILWU has eight decades of grain export experience in the Northwest, and we look forward to developing a positive working relationship with EGT.”


But that was one of the most regressive contracts we’ve seen, and not just for longshore. The union lost control of the hiring hall and, as one provision states, “The union agrees to support the employer in maintaining operations, including promptly advising the employer that any work stoppage is unauthorized…and promptly ordering its members to go back to work notwithstanding the existence of any wildcat picket lines.” This contract language is clearly a reaction to the Dec. 12 port shutdown.

A rank-and-filer wrote as a response: “No wonder it’s been difficult to get a copy of the contract. It gives away the store, or in this case, a union shop. Management can do longshore work until the jobs are filled. It’s in the sole discretion of management to discipline and fire workers immediately with no protection on the job… A top-down sellout.”

This can’t be ignored. It puts the organized working class in a much weaker position in the class struggle. This contract will be generalized and imposed throughout the West Coast. This is already in motion.

Some point out that it may not have been a total defeat, that the strategy may have been to not allow non-ILWU workers. That was accomplished. ILWU maintained their jurisdiction. But this contract is not a success!

In the last 30 years of automation, the classical conception of unionized workers struggling against capital has been outmoded. Many in the working class have been kicked out of their position in the workplace. The formation of the movement against EGT that came out of Occupy is related to the surplus population insurgency.

Longview, Wash. Longshoremen stopping a train headed for Export Grain Terminal.

Longview, Wash. Longshoremen stopping a train headed for Export Grain Terminal.


The union leaders, stuck in the old ways of obeying the rules of the 1%, are unable to support the demands of the non-unionized workers. We, as the Occupy Movement, carry none of that legal baggage. We are the new face of the workers’ movement.

This theoretical perspective comes out of a friendly critique of the Bay of Rage activists, who have done a lot of work in maintaining Occupy Oakland, ensuring it remains anti-state and anti-capitalist.

They write, “Though they [the ILWU] employ the tactics of the historical workers’ movement at its most radical, the content of the Longview struggle is quite different: they are not fighting for any expansions of pay or benefits, or attempting to unionize new workplaces, but merely to preserve their union’s jurisdictional rights.

“It is a defensive struggle, in the same way that the Madison, Wisc., capitol occupation was a defensive struggle—a fight undertaken to preserve the dubious legally-enshrined rights to collectively bargain.”

When we put the situation in Longview with the Wisconsin struggle, we see most severe attacks on organized labor as part of capitalism’s vicious attacks on the laboring class as a whole. Unions, as inherently reformist, can no longer provide reforms. There is a more profound crisis in the union structure, creating political currents that re-theorize the working class as the subject of struggle outside of the classical workplace.

This was a serious trend within the Occupy Movement—that we are no longer bound by the legalistic framework of the union, that we can self-organize surplus population within the Occupy Movement with insurgent characteristics against capitalism itself. There is a logic to it, but also political limits as it cannot get to the process of capital’s attacks against organized labor.


Another current, which I’ll call social movement unions, has a broader perspective of uniting the labor movement with the Occupy Movement. This was most pronounced in a quote from Clarence Thomas, a prominent leader of ILWU:

“When Gov. Gregoire intervened a year ago, nothing was settled. Non-ILWU workers were still working in the port. It wasn’t until rank and file and Occupy planned a mass convergence to blockade a ship that EGT suddenly had the impetus to seriously negotiate.

“Labor can no longer win victories against the employers without the community. It must include a broad-based movement. The strategy and tactics employed by the Occupy Movement in conjunction with the rank-and-file ILWU members confirm that the past militant traditions of the ILWU are still effective against the employers today.”

The original 1934 strike committee was organized beyond the ILWU leadership. Thomas’ statement argues that the protests at the port, uniting with the currents in the Occupy Movement to do direct actions such as the port blockades, represent those past militant traditions, which I do not think is the case at all.

The terminal in Longview will reshift the productivity of the labor in the port, specifically the non-ILWU labor. One view of it is as a jurisdictional fight. But it is in the context of automation, the constant capital, the machinery permanently domineering over labor. The movement toward automation as seen in other ports, Liverpool in England or on the East Coast, has been permanently expelling longshore workers, which creates a precarious proletariat, the surplus population as a new revolutionary subject.


The Dec. 12 West Coast port shutdown came out of the immigrant rights movement in Los Angeles. Dec. 12 is celebrated in Mexico as the fiesta day of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The port in Los Angeles has had an interesting history of class struggle. Since 1982 10,000 truckers have been decertified as union employees and treated as independent contractors. We have not seen serious solidarity from the over 13,000 members of ILWU Local 13 with the truckers.

The great majority of the truckers I met during a wildcat in 2004 were Mexican and Central American. One, from Honduras, had experienced strikes there as a bus driver. In 2005 gas prices went up by 12% and there was another wave of wildcats.

The truckers I met at the Port of Oakland during a six-day wildcat in 2006 were also from Honduras, though there were a lot of ethnic and linguistic divisions within the 2,000 truckers. And there were also class divisions. Some own their truck and perhaps three other trucks, which they rent out, while others have to rent their truck.

People connected with the Teamsters held a meeting with the Port and called off the strike, even though they didn’t win any of their demands. A lot of workers were really pissed at these three self-appointed leaders.

In Seattle there was very little solidarity from longshoremen when the mostly East African truckers there had a strike in mid-January. But communities of color, and certain currents of Marxists and Anarchists are able to keep down infighting and have a united front against liberalism and against non-violence. People came out of the woodwork to join the action on Dec. 12, moving toward a blockade, though facing a bit of hostility from the ILWU.

So we can see that there is tension between organized labor in a strategic position within the economy, and the other wing of the working class, truckers, that ship these commodities farther. Because of permanent automation, there is an ongoing reduction of longshoremen, making more people more like independent contractors.

I argue that if you look at the origins of working class gains, they come out of class-wide committees. In 1877 workers took control of the whole city of St. Louis for three days through their strike committee, which included those who had been members of Marx’s International Workingmen’s Association (The First International).


The 1934 general strike centered in San Francisco was another watershed of unfolding class struggle. The Albion Hall group put out a newspaper called The Waterfront Worker, which put forth a perspective beyond unionism by having ties to the unemployed, and an orientation toward Black churches. They knew they would not beat the employer unless they had a much larger section of the working class politically organized into a class offensive.

The longshore workers were able to generalize clashes with the police into a rank-and-file political committee of struggle, and the general strike won serious advances for the union movement, including a union-run hiring hall, right to work stoppages and a political culture of solidarity. ILWU, since, has had a monopoly over hiring at West Coast ports.

We want to defend the gains of 1934, the union hiring hall, the right to work stoppages and the rule of the economic organization of the working class, while recognizing that we’re in a new historical position where the strategies of the union leadership have only led to a domino of failures.

Therefore we need to organize radical groupings of rank-and-file members who will fight against the austerity measures and have a specific analysis of the movement of automation. This is the moving contradiction where machinery is constantly dominating over wages, over what is called variable capital.


The other contradiction is outside of the unionized workplace. If the ports are one of the key institutions of U.S. capitalism, and we have 60,000 longshore workers, we have a war situation. That is when you set up a picket line. If the picket line stays strong, you are in a favorable situation against your employer. If the picket line breaks down, then you’re not. This is when surplus population can help, if it’s organically integrated with the rank-and-file workers going on the offensive. The truckers are key.

The best offensive against the capitalist concentration at the ports would be class-wide committees able to unite these two different sets of workers. This, obviously, is difficult. No one has done it. This is what Occupy pushed forth, moving beyond the legalisms that create baggage for union leaders.

It can set up the political foundation to go on a revolutionary offensive against the major capitalists, absorbing the lessons of previous class struggles, yet taking seriously the new situation of changing class composition and the permanent movement towards automation.

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