The Occupy Movement on the West Coast: how "organizing the unorganized" led to division

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From the start, the unions, the left of the bourgeoisie, and even some from among the libertarian milieu on the west Coast have cast the conflict between the Longview (Washington) longshoremen (ILWU Local 21) and Export Grain Terminal (EGT) corporation as a struggle against ‘union busting’. EGT signed an agreement with the Longview Port promising that all cargo work would be done with the International Longshoremen Workers’ Union (ILWU) workers, but has not kept the promise and tried to hire non-union labor unsuccessfully, and then contracted with another union, Operating Engineers Local 701, who incited its workers to cross Local 21’s picket lines. ILWU workers have received the support of the Occupy movement, who, on Monday, December 12 shut down the major west coast ports of Oakland, Portland, Longview, and Seattle. San Diego, Vancouver, and Long Beach partly shut down as well, and echoes of the unrest were felt as far ashore as Hawaii and Japan. EGT has spent $200 million to build an automated grain elevator at the Port of Longview, and had planned to bring in its first ship in mid-January. Operations at Longview, as at other ports, today are highly automated and longshoremen are the highest paid, yet one of the numerically smallest group of workers at the port. This is the result of more than forty years of union’s negotiations with the bosses which, while guaranteeing high wages, benefits, and job security also allowed for attrition of jobs as workers retired and automation in the context of the ongoing economic crisis made the hiring of new workers superfluous. This created the conditions of isolation the longshoremen find themselves in today and the opportunity to create divisions among groups of workers at the port, where the truckers are by far the lowest paid but also the most numerous workers at the port. They are forced to work as independent contractors and are therefore non-unionized. In this context, even some who are critical of the unions have called for the ‘organization of the un-organized’ truckers at the time when the Occupy movement decided to shut down the ports in a sign of solidarity with the struggling workers. This decision by the Occupy movement could have been taken as an opportunity to start establishing real ties of solidarity among the different groups of port and other workers. The open discussions at the General Assemblies organized by the Occupy movement could have been used as spaces where workers could flesh out a set of common demands that can help them unify their forces and strengthen their ability to self-organize. The call for organizing the un-organized, while sounding radical, does nothing more than letting in the usual divisive union tactics through the back door. Under these conditions, EGT has never had an intention to hire workers with ILWU’s salary and benefits. Instead, it understood the opportunity to make use of the existing conditions of isolation and division among the port workers to pit workers against each other and win the day. Further, EGT has known from the beginning of the existing feud between and within the various local unions, who raid each other as union membership dwindles to barely one in ten workers. In the words of Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president, in response to calls to support ILWU 21, the AFL-CIO won’t take sides because the feud between ILWU and Operating Engineers is a ‘jurisdictional dispute’. What ‘jurisdictional’ means is the opportunity for this or that local union to curry the favor of any given boss by offering ‘deals’ which would secure their position as brokers between that company and the workers. In order to achieve this goal, the unions must also show the bosses how skillful they are in keeping the working class divided and disoriented, while brokering contracts that are advantageous to the bosses. This is precisely what happened during the dispute between EGT and the ILWU. In this sense, Occupy Longview, Occupy Seattle, Occupy Oakland, and Occupy Portland, all of whom organized and participated in several solidarity actions with port workers from December through February, would do well to draw all the necessary lessons about the treacherous actions of both union officials and some of the Occupy’s organizers from the events that happened on January 5th in Portland and January 6th in Seattle, when various officials of ILWU Locals repeatedly disrupted and sabotaged the meetings planned in solidarity with the port workers. In the words of an organizer of the January 6th Longview, WA action planning meeting and solidarity panel in Seattle, we find the excellent intentions and interest in helping the class build unity and solidarity: “The Friday event emphasized the importance of working class unity and solidarity. It was a historic event bringing together rank and file union members, along with those from the 89% of the working class that is not unionized and unemployed. Through this event, we showed that Occupy is a new type of working class movement that goes beyond the limits of traditional trade unionism by bringing together working class people across industrial lines and across lines of race, gender, and national origin. Building off the example of December 12th west coast port shutdown, speakers dare to envision forms of class struggle that exceed the limits set by 20th century labor laws purposed to constraint past struggles into tame truces that are being broken now by companies like EGT.” In the accounts of what followed, union goons provoked fist fights and constant disruptions, attempted to prohibit the attendance to the meeting by their members, and usurped the public microphone to repeatedly warn Occupy protesters that the unions would not accept their show of solidarity to “their’ workers, and insisted that Occupy stop entreating them to come and speak to their meetings. The same writer continues: “We had initially thought we had a functional relationship with the officers of Local 19 (Seattle). Prior to December 12, we had established communications with the union officers where they had expressed respect for our port shutdown efforts even though they said they could not be involved because of labor law constraints and threats from the courts. On November 30th, the President of Local 19, Cam Williams has publicly received a solidarity letter we had written to the local, and in response he held his fist up in the air saying ‘Solidarity Forever’.” This is the same Cam Williams who came to the January 6th meeting with a goon squad who got drunk before showing up at the meeting and who provoked a fist fight. He shoved people around, snatched the microphone and announced that any of his Local’s members present at the event would be penalized their wages for being there. We can only hope the Occupy movement on the west coast will learn from this experience that ‘organizing the unorganized’, contrary to what some present as the way forward for the class struggle, can only lead to the same kind of situation when workers really try to express solidarity and try to unite their struggles. We also hope it is now clear to them that their past insistence on treating the local union official as ‘equal’ partners in organizing the various rallies and marches in support of the port workers was completely wrong. The unions’ divisive tactic, when they can afford to hide their most virulent goon-squad methods, fully aid the bosses achieve the workers’ acquiescence.

It is clear that while the longshoremen have been locked in a battle to protect their jobs and benefits, their struggle is identical with the struggle which the truckers and the workers of Operating Engineers Local 701 would wage in defense of their conditions of life against the attacks of capital. This message of unity is what could forge the solidarity workers need to confront capital. The struggle is a class struggle, not one against ‘union busting’, nor one about ‘organizing the un-organized’. As of January 27th, 2012 a settlement has been reached between EGT and ILWU Local 21, just in time for the first EGT ship to arrive. It arrived escorted by armed U.S. Coast Guard vessels and helicopters, the first known use of the military to intervene in a labor dispute on the side of management in 40 years. The ILWU trumpets the settlement as a victory for the workers because ‘union busting’ has not succeeded, and union jobs are back in Longview. It praises the Occupy movement (!!!) for helping achieve this ‘victory’. Those who called for organizing the unorganized may be baffled by the union’s ‘success’ in achieving this ‘victory’ without the involvement of the more numerous, and un-organized, truckers at the ports. Who won? In effect ‘confidential’, i.e., secret, behind closed doors, out of the control of the workers themselves, negotiations between the ILWU and EGT still continue, and it is likely the decisions will not be brought to light until the social situation is deemed calm, because we can rest assured, it will not be a ‘victorious’ contract. The victory, it seems to us, belongs squarely in the hands of the bosses and the bourgeois state, of which the unions are but an arm. The ILWU has won the confidence of the bosses because it has succeeded in freezing and derailing the incipient attempts at solidarity and unity across various sectors of the working class which Occupy correctly had aspired to. The truckers will continue to work under miserable conditions. The longshoremen are very likely to get a bad contract, while the ‘scabs’ who EGT had hired will continue their existence trying to make ends meet somehow, somewhere. Meanwhile, the ILWU across the west coast boast of having done the job that Governor Gregoire could not do when she intervened a year ago to try to settle the dispute. They say the workers have reasons to have confidence in the union! And the workers that produce the grain used by EGT and the soil they produce it from will continue to be exploited. Occupy, along with the rest of the working class, must learn that the only way to end this misery is through building real unity and solidarity across categories, race, gender, and nationality lines as they have started recognizing: by extending the struggle and keeping it firmly in their own hands and outside of unions’ and activists’ control.

Ana, March 2012