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PORTSIDELABOR  October 2011, Week 4

PORTSIDELABOR October 2011, Week 4

Subject:

Longview Labor on the Line

From:

Portside Labor <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

[log in to unmask]

Date:

Wed, 26 Oct 2011 21:28:19 -0400

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (184 lines)

Longview Labor on the Line
Josh Eidelson 
October 25, 2011  
http://www.thenation.com/article/164182/longview-labor-line

On September 16, 200longshore workers and supporters 
lined up outside the sheriff's office in Longview, 
Washington, and announced they were ready to turn 
themselves in for arrest. For thirty minutes, they 
stood in the parking lot with their hands behind their 
backs as sheriff's deputies photographed them from 
above. Dozens of longshore workers had already been 
arrested for trespassing and blocking railroad tracks in 
defense of their jobs.
Deputies declined to arrest any of the workers in the
parking lot that morning, but hours later they resumed
tracking down and arresting longshore workers throughout
the city--at home, at gas stations, outside a
church--for repeatedly halting commerce through the 
Longview port.

Seventy years ago, the actions that got these
workers arrested were commonplace. But over the past
half century, such tactics have become nearly extinct in
the American labor movement. American strikes have
severely declined, not only in number (the 2000s saw
one-seventeenth the number of major strikes in the
1950s) but in militancy. The strikes that do take place
now are shorter in duration and far less likely to shut
down the operations of the workplaces they target. That
makes the Longview workers' struggle exceptional--and
instructive--because they may just win.

As the Occupy Wall Street protests attest, unions didn't
stop striking because they brought big business to heel.
Rather, plummeting union membership and the contraction
of strikers' legal rights have led to fewer, shorter and
less potent strikes--and an economy in which workers have
worse compensation and a weakened voice. As amended by
Taft-Hartley, the National Labor Relations Act prohibits
labor's most effective strike tactics: massive pickets,
spreading the strike to other sites within the industry
or other industries within the supply chain, occupying
your own worksite so no one else can do your job.

In his recent book Reviving the Strike, veteran
Communications Workers of America union negotiator Joe
Burns argues that the decline in effective strikes is
the cause of falling union membership, not the
consequence. "No matter how militant the union is,"
Burns told me, "it's almost impossible to effectively
fight back if you follow the content of labor law."
Instead, he argues, workers should refuse to comply.
That's what Longview's longshore workers are doing.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union has a
long history of production-halting actions that defy
legal constraints. In recent decades, ILWU members have
shut down ports in protest of deaths on their docks and
in opposition to American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,
apartheid in South Africa and attacks on public workers'
collective bargaining. Faced with a threat to their job
security, Longview longshore workers are continuing this
tradition.

ILWU members have worked the Longview Port for decades,
including operating its grain operations. In 2009, the
port signed a lease--featuring local and state
subsidies--with an international consortium called EGT to
build and manage a new $200 million grain terminal.
After beginning negotiations with the ILWU, EGT broke
off talks in March and moved instead to staff Longview
as the only West Coast grain operation without ILWU
members. The union held protests and joined the publicly
owned port in suing EGT for violating a contract clause
requiring ILWU labor.

But starting in July, rather than waiting for the courts
while EGT kept the trains running without them, ILWU
members repeatedly sat down on the tracks to prevent
grain from passing. Workers continued coming back after
a federal judge issued an injunction in early September
ordering them out of the way. In a stark reminder of the
legal barriers to old-school activism, on September 30
the judge imposed a $250,000 fine on the union, with
threats of hefty future fines on individual protesters.
Since then, workers have met two grain shipments with
protests that did not prevent their passage. It's too
soon to say which form future protest will take. But
it's already clear that rather than let the crisis stay
confined to their families, longshore workers have
created a crisis for the city. The town sheriff and
county commissioners have pleaded with a judge to
expedite a ruling (otherwise slated to take months) on
whether EGT has to bring the workers back.

ILWU communications director Craig Merrilees says that
if labor wins in Longview, it's "more likely to result
from sustained community support than a gift from the
courts." Merrilees says hundreds of small businesses in
the area now sport "We Support the ILWU" signs. (The
ILWU officially is not commenting on members'
production-halting tactics, though its international
president is among those cited by police, and Merrilees
says workers' "passion and concern is certainly
understandable.")

Could the Longview struggle lead more unions to follow
suit, reviving tactics that were far more prevalent when
the labor movement had far greater strength? University
of California, Santa Barbara, labor historian Nelson
Lichtenstein points out the structural advantages of
workers in the longshore industry, where labor is a tiny
fraction of costs, globalization has benefited the
workforce and ports serve as bottlenecks for global
commerce. That means workers in many other industries
face greater obstacles to effective strikes. When 25,000
railroad workers voted on October 3 to strike, for
example, President Obama exercised his authority under
the Railway Labor Act to deny their right to a work
stoppage.

For a labor movement on the ropes, a greater resort to
aggressive solidarity actions may be the worst
choice--except for all the other ones. The recent abuse
of RICO law to curtail unions publicly shaming
anti-union companies is just the latest example of the
past century's trend: every effective union tactic
eventually comes under legal threat. Declining
unionization makes organizing new members even harder,
weakens the impact of remaining legal tactics and hurts
the bargaining position of remaining union members while
strengthening right-wing efforts to foster resentment
against them.

"The real big question," says historian Steve Fraser of
New Labor Forum, "is, can the labor movement break out
of [the] cul de sac of its ever-shrinking sector of the
workforce.... If it can't do that, its future is pretty
grim." Fraser adds that a "defensive, head-down posture
has perhaps blinded people in the labor movement to
making more vigorous use of the strike." Workers are
increasingly choosing organizing approaches that depend
less on labor laws' weak protections. More workers may
conclude it's not worth honoring legal restraints
either--opting instead, in Burns's words, to "repeal" the
laws "through noncompliance."

When the labor movement has grown historically, it has
happened in surges, as victories beget victories and
successful struggles inspire other workers to take
greater risks. "It's not enough to denounce the rich,"
says Lichtenstein. "You have to demonstrate the power of
the poor, of your side, and show that you could win."

The paradox facing unions, suggests Fraser, is that even
"when they're very, very weak, or they don't exist, they
have to prove to people they have the muscle to win." If
longshore workers win their defensive battle by putting
their bodies in the way of their boss, they could
inspire new labor offensives elsewhere. "The only way to
overcome your weakness," says Fraser, "is to show your
incipient strength."

Josh Eidelson October 25, 2011  

____________________________________________

PortsideLabor aims to provide material of interest to
people on the left that will help them to interpret the
world and to change it.

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