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PORTSIDE  December 2011, Week 4

PORTSIDE December 2011, Week 4

Subject:

Occupy, Workers and their Unions - The Case of Occupy and the Longshoremen's Union: A Reply to Critics

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Date:

Thu, 22 Dec 2011 19:16:47 -0500

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The Case of Occupy and the Longshoremen's Union: A Reply to
Critics

by Cal Winslow

ZNet
December 17, 2011

http://www.zcommunications.org/the-case-of-occupy-and-the-longshoremen-s-union-a-reply-to-critics-by-cal-winslow

On December 5, 2011, Znet published my piece, "The Case of
Occupy and the Longshoremen's Union." The article both in
its introduction and its conclusions was highly favorable to
the Occupy Wall Street movement and its achievements thus
far. It did, however, raise questions concerning Occupy
Oakland's use of the term "General Strike" to describe its
November 2, 2011 demonstrations at the Port of Oakland and
its subsequent call for a West Coast "General Strike" on
December 12.

The article asked what we mean by a "strike," and what we
mean by a "General Strike" specifically, and it offered some
definition as well as historical examples of each. It argued
that the issues involved were not semantic but important
because strikes are important and that strikes, therefore,
"are not to be taken lightly."

The article then turned to the problematic nature of the
December 12 call for a "General Strike" on the West coast
docks, a strike for which there was apparently little or no
support among significant numbers of dock workers or their
unions.

In the event organizers renamed the action a "blockade" and
then "community pickets," an improvement though these two
new appellations concealed as much as they revealed.  Never
mind. The project, however, was pressed forward as
originally intended - a "shutdown of the entire West Coast
Waterfront - from Anchorage to San Diego." And why? The
reasons abounded, nearly all quite valid in themselves: to
support the Longview ILWU members; to retaliate for police
brutality in Oakland; to show the power of the 99%; to
energize the working class; as a manifestation of "hatred
for capitalism."

Thus the problem remained - the blockade was to be
undertaken despite the fact that the International Longshore
and Warehouse Union (ILWU) took the position that it opposed
the blockade: Robert McEllrath, the president of the ILWU:
"Support is one thing, organization from outside groups
attempting to co-opt our struggle in order to advance a
broader agenda is quite another and one that is destructive
to our democratic process."

Neither was support forthcoming from other dockside unions
nor did significant rank and file support emerge. The
Oakland teachers' union (OEA) was the exception.

Hence my criticism of the call and my concern that it
displayed a kind of substitutionism that I could not
support. That is, especially insofar as Occupy Oakland
projected itself as striking in support of the Longview, WA
longshoremen, it was an attempt to substitute Occupy Oakland
for the workers involved and their unions - without their
approval. And that represented in my mind a serious tactical
error and one that might have long term consequences in a
very new movement.

The event itself and replies to my article have only
strengthened this belief. I will mention just a few: an
email from Jay contended "...occupy is... the larger working
class movement..." A Portland, OR writer responded to
CounterPunch, which also published the article: "this action
is conducted by and for the entire working class in order to
send a rebuke to the 1% who own and control distribution and
transportation." Steve D'Arcy replied with this in Znet, "It
is not the ILWU apparatus -- dutifully enforcing the terms
of its collective agreements -- that represents the workers'
movement here. It is the General Assemblies of the west
coast Occupy movement." (my emphases)

I can only respond that, no, Occupy is not the "larger
working class movement" and that it does not "represent" the
worker's movement here. It may aspire to, it may attempt to
organize and lead that movement. But it does not do that
now. And the diminished turnouts, including by workers,
speak for themselves.

Another set of responses seemed not interested in the notion
of "substitutionism" but with the facts concerning the
shutdown as I reported them, arguing that the shutdown did
indeed have significant working class and labor support.

I had written: "I confess to knowing little about the
officers of the ILWU, the same for the rank and file. But
now, for better or worse, the case is that neither the
officers of the ILWU nor any significant section of its
members support the December actions planned by Occupy
Oakland." Readers will have to judge for themselves. I
believe this was in fact the case.

Lee Sustar, writing in one of two responses to me featured
simultaneously in Socialist Worker quoted the above and then
countered with this: "I think people [on the docks] do have
sympathy and feel connected with Occupy as a whole," said
Anthony Leviege, an ILWU member for 11 years who is active
with Occupy Oakland. Working alongside other Occupy
activists to leaflet the docks in recent weeks, he estimated
that about 50 percent of the workers he's talked to
expressed some sympathy for the December 12 action."

I also think there are people on the docks who have "some
sympathy... with Occupy as a whole" but sympathy is one
thing. Support and involvement is another. To offer as
evidence in rebuttal to my concerns, this utterly vague
"about 50% ...express some sympathy" is breathtaking! Sustar
then retreats to the contention that the mis-treated
truckers who work the southern California docks represent an
area of support. Perhaps, but activism amongst these workers
(and they are certainly unfairly treated) significantly
outdates Occupy and again, in the event, very few, if any
participated in the blockades. So Sustar is wrong.

An aside: on a personal note I was happy to see Sustar
commend Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt from
Below During the Long 1970s, a book I edited with Aaron and
Robert Brenner. It contains an excellent collection of
accounts of the last significant upsurge of workers in the
US and should be of interest to Occupy activists. I must
add, however, contrary to Sustar's implication, that
participation in the movements of that decade in fact has
helped me to be able to distinguish between workers'
movements and others.

One last point. I was surprised to see Labor Notes, long
associated with rank and file movements and the fight for
democratic unions report without comment "most strikes are
inconvenient for someone, including other workers." This of
course is true, but it seems a bit cavalier to me. What
about the longshoremen and the truckers themselves? Has
anyone - besides the mainstream press, of course - asked
them? They've been reduced to objects in this whole
discussion, sometimes less. It's my impression that the
union views this episode as representing more than
"inconvenience;" its response was that "The ILWU is not
supporting the action at all... (Occupy organizers) have
been very disrespectful of the democratic decision-making
process in the union and deliberately went around that
process to call their own action without consulting
workers."

(By the way, Craig Merrillees, ILWU communications director,
has been roundly denounced for this and as a result has been
lumped in with "the city's business and political
establishment" and other "enemies" of the movement. My
question is this: does the union have a right to free
speech? Is it allowed to defend itself? Or must such
statements first be vetted?)

There is nothing wrong, in my view, with developing a
critique of the unions and the structures of industrial
relations. It is hardly news, however, that the leadership
of the unions in this country leaves much to be desired,
that there is such a thing as a labor bureaucracy. I said
that right at the start of my piece. It is not news that the
law is used to restrain and confine workers and their
unions. The problem is how to find a way out of these
constraints, to find a way to workers' power. This has been
a project for some time. The ILWU is by all accounts a
pretty democratic union; it allows dissent, debate,
opposition. It's small, so it doesn't cost a fortune to
challenge incumbents. And officers, all longshoremen in
their division as far as I know, have term-limits and most
return to work. We're not talking about Andy Stern, Mary Kay
Henry and David Regan here. Still, it's not perfect no
doubt.

So I suggested that Occupy should work in collaboration with
the longshoremen and their union and I still hope this will
happen. There are battles to come. It's good that labor's
response to Occupy Wall Street has been overwhelmingly
positive. It's good that Occupy wants to support workers.
It's inspiring to see the courage of the young protesters.
Now let's use this winter to better understand the strengths
and weaknesses of Occupy so that in the spring we will be
stronger. And "calm down."

And this brings me back to the conclusion of my Counterpunch
piece: there are fundamental issues here, including the
foundational place of self-activity - "The emancipation of
the working class must be the act of the workers
themselves."

Perhaps few now remember that not so many decades back there
were those who argued in the movement that the revolutionary
impulse would come from outside the working class, or that
socialism could be imposed from above, or, quite consistent
with this, that black people would gain their rights "come
the revolution," same with women. Therefore, no special
demands, no self-activity - no principle of self-
emancipation. And no reforms. It was no small in those
circumstances to raise the banners of self-liberation and
socialism from below. But we did. Let's not go back.

[Cal Winslow is the author of Labor's Civil War in
California, PM Press and an editor of Rebel Rank and File:
Labor Militancy and Revolt From Below during the Long
Seventies (Verso, 2010). He is a Fellow at UC Berkeley,
Director of the Mendocino Institute and associated with the
Bay Area collective, Retort. He can be reached at
[log in to unmask] ].

==========

Organizing for the port shutdown

Lee Sustar challenges the assertion that the Occupy movement
is trying to impose a shutdown of West Coast docks without
support from port workers.

ZNet
December 8, 2011

http://zcommunications.org/organizing-for-the-port-shutdown-by-lee-sustar

THE OCCUPY movement is trying to strong-arm longshore
workers and truck drivers into shutting down West Coast
ports December 12--or so say critics of the action.

They're wrong...

===========

for the original piece that sparked the debate, see:

Who's Speaking for Whom?
The Case of Occupy and the Longshoremen's Union

by Cal Winslow

CounterPunch
December 5, 2011

http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/12/05/the-case-of-occupy-and-the-longshoremen%E2%80%99s-union/

Occupy Oakland has called for a "General Strike" on the West
Coast docks - a significant escalation in the conflict in
the East Bay.

Interestingly, this call is made just as the strike wave in
Europe has intensified - in a rolling series of national
General Strikes...

==========

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