Jan 6th 2012: Unity vs. Union Bureaucracy
Occupy Seattle in Solidarity with Longview, WA
Note: The following piece has been written by some organizers of the January 6th Longview, WA action planning meeting and solidarity panel in Seattle. It does not represent the opinions of all the organizers of the Friday, January 6th meeting. For unaffiliated updates on the Longview solidarity actions please check out this website: http://westcoastportshutdown.org/ or email: email@example.com.
In order to contact the writers of this article specifically, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
On Friday, January 6th, members of Occupy Seattle organized an event to build for an endorsed solidarity action to block a grain ship owned by union busting corporation EGT in Longview, WA. Longshore workers in Longview, members of the ILWU Local 21, are being displaced from their jobs by the international EGT and replaced with scab labor. They are fighting back, with support from the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Labor Council. Occupy Longview has also actively reached out to the Occupy movement to join them. Occupy activists up and down the coast have answered this call and committed to mobilizing large numbers of people to caravan to Longview to take direct action in solidarity with Local 21’s struggle.
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 the December 12th West coast port shutdown (D12), speakers dared to envision forms of class struggle that exceed the limits set by 20th century labor laws purposed to constrain past struggles into tame truces that are being broken now by companies like EGT. There was a sense that if Local 21 (Longview) wants to win the fight for its life, it will have to embrace the new forms of struggle that Occupy represents.
Together with members of Occupy Portland and Occupy Oakland, we organized a panel where longshore workers from Longview, Oakland, and Portland spoke alongside organizers from Occupy Seattle and Occupy Oakland. The speakers at the event reminded us of the militant struggles that ILWU workers have participated in historically. They reminded us of the need for working class solidarity, between non-union and union workers, as well as with unemployed workers, as the only way we can defeat big capital – the 1%. Through the retelling of these stories, we learned from the ILWU members that the toughest, most controversial decisions are most often the simplest, most important to make. When grounded in principles of solidarity, class struggle, and fighting state oppression, our actions will unify. The speaker from Local 21, a rank and file member, revealed the conditions in Longview where police harassment has become an everyday affair to punish the workers for participating in direct action, against union busting efforts by EGT. The moving speeches can be seen and heard through Occupy Seattle’s livestream.
On Thursday, January 5th, the night before the Seattle event, Occupy Portland hosted a similar panel. The Local 21 (Longview) President Dan Coffman, spoke on the panel. Coffman had been slated to come to Seattle the next day to participate in a similar conversation. When Coffman spoke in Portland, the lights and microphone at the hosting facility went out suddenly. The electricity had cut out, right when the Longview union president was to begin speaking.
During the open microphone, the Local 4 (Vancouver, WA) President Brad Clark took the microphone. To the Occupy crowd of longshore, unemployed, students, and non-union workers, he offered an impassioned plea which reflected the position of the International, “We support Occupy, we support Longview, but please keep your mistaken efforts at solidarity away.” His message was contrary to the voices of the workers and community members in Longview.
Later, long after the announcement of the close of stack to wrap up the meeting which had already gone 15 minutes over time, Local 8 (Portland) President Jeff Smith demanded to speak. Jeff Smith had made a name for himself in the weeks leading up to the event, evicting Occupy Portland members from the union hall in the lead-up to the D12 Port shutdown, denouncing the event in local media, and even threatening to rip fliers from the hands of Occupy members. In a blatant act of disrespect to the event, Smith took the stage, preceding to read a long, publicly published letter from the leadership of the ILWU international. As the crowd in attendance filed out of the room in protest, Smith finished his letter to a mostly empty hall, while rank and file longshore and retirees stayed behind to rebut him for what audience remained.
Subsequently, after Longview workers spoke in Portland, Oregon, the leadership of ILWU International allegedly ordered picket support from Locals in Portland and Vancouver for Longview’s longstanding picket be immediately ceased. We would soon find out that this form of disruption and sabotage would not be an isolated incident.
The next day, Friday, January 6th, we heard from Portland organizers that the ILWU International had clamped down on the Longview members for their public speeches and organizing. We were told that they would be forbidden from attending the speaking engagement in Seattle.
Our initial disappointment at finding out this news was reversed when we received a phone call only hours before the event, saying that some Longview rank and file members would come after all. They arrived minutes before the panel began, but they were determined to build with the Occupy movement in Seattle for the Longview convergence.
Prior to the panel, we had a planning meeting for the solidarity caravans. Working groups formed to organize logistics and local solidarity actions for the arrival of the EGT ship. As the meeting went on, groups of people wearing ILWU jackets began showing up at the door. We recognized individuals from Local 19 (Seattle) leadership, including Richard Austen (president of the Pacific Coast Pensioners Association), Cam Williams (President) and Richard Eisner (Vice President of the Labor Relations Council). They were debating with some other longshore workers and members of Occupy Seattle outside the event.
We had initially thought we had a functional relationship with the officers of Local 19 (Seattle). Prior to D12, 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 had 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.” On D12 itself, Terminal 5 owners violated their contract with ILWU and withheld pay for the longshore workers even when the arbitrator ruled it was unsafe for them to cross our picket line. We were encouraged by a well-respected union officer to picket outside Terminal 5 in the morning, to help the longshore workers make the point that a violation of their contract was not acceptable. Workers refused to cross our line, delaying the start of the December 13 dayshift for an hour.
Things were not so friendly the night of January 6th. Around 5:50pm, 10 minutes before the panel began, a self-identified longshore worker in the audience came up to one of our organizers. He told her that there would be a disruption of the panel, and that any Longview rank and file member who spoke would be physically removed from the stage. Audience members also heard ILWU members in the audience who had arrived prior to the event, talk about going to the bar across the street to get drinks before the event started. Because of the short time notice, the organizers were unable to strategize any further, apart from making sure that the stage was guarded by a few Occupy participants with security experience.
The disruption took place when Jack Heyman, retired ILWU member from Local 10 (Oakland) spoke. Cam Williams, President of Local 19 (Seattle), along with several ILWU members behind him, rushed to the microphone that was set up in the middle of the room. He interrupted Heyman’s speech and demanded that the letter from the International be read. Organizers of the event went up to him telling him he would get the chance to speak during the open discussion period after the panel was over. An indigenous Latina woman, organizer with Occupy Seattle, was our last speaker after Jack Heyman. She intended to speak about connecting the Longview struggle with the farmworker struggles, many of whom were trying to unionize under harsh and authoritarian conditions. Occupy Seattle has recently started to mobilize in solidarity with farmerworkers, as an initial step toward a mass action on May Day. We requested that the ILWU members show respect to the event and the speakers by waiting their turn.
Cam Williams shoved the organizers aside and grabbed the microphone. Subsequently, about 15-20 ILWU members and union officers, who had spread themselves out across the hall, took the cue to disrupt. Presidents of Local 4 (Vancouver, WA) and Local 8 (Portland) made sure to throw their weight around. When asked to leave, they threw punches, shoved people, swore and yelled. Their breaths reeked of alcohol. One man wearing ILWU swag was holding a megaphone he had brought along. Audience members surrounding them chanted “shame, shame” and “sit down or leave.” They had come prepared to prevent the unity of Longview rank and filers and the Occupy movement. They were goons, doing what exactly the bosses want them to do. The leaders of the most militant union in this country, was acting like company goons.
It was unsurprising that these goons who were set to destroy any form of class solidarity, were also sexists. They were preventing a woman of color from speaking by disrupting the panel. Among those who asked them to show respect, were two female members of Occupy Seattle. In response, two individuals called one of these women “baby” and told the other to “put a muzzle on her.” In response, the man was slapped across the face by the first woman, with his glasses knocked off. Him and the other goons he had come with, proceeded to shove the women, only to be met with more physical resistance from Occupy Seattle folks who had had enough of this sexist behavior.
An ILWU member also proceeded to call the police on the event. We believe it is important to let everyone know, that some in the Local 19 (Seattle) goonsquad, in their efforts to stop the class solidarity between Occupy and Longview workers, were willing to rely on the state, the apparatus that has been known to suppress labor movements, including in Longview.
We know however, that the actions taken by those individuals on Friday Jan 6th, does not speak for all of Local 19. To those who oppose the actions, we hope to continue building with you.
Efforts that had been focused on building and organizing quickly transitioned into protection and safety measures. We, of Occupy Seattle, reject sexism and misogyny in any form. Neither will we welcome undemocratic goon squads, and it became clear to us that despite our best efforts to remove them, the disruptors had come prepared to halt our important coalition work by any means. In the end, only the State and corporations benefit from these divisions.
We believe that Local 19 (Seattle) of the ILWU owes an apology to Occupy Seattle for disrupting our event with drunk goons. The presidents of Local 8 (Jeff Smith, Portland), 4 (Brad Clark, Vancouver, WA) and 19 (Cam Williams, Seattle) were involved in the disruption, as were elected officers of Local 19. This appears to be an action led by the ILWU leadership. We wonder if they had received prior approval from the rank and file of the union.
Further, the individuals who participated in the sexist misogyny directed at the women in the audience need to apologize for their actions. We have your photos.
Implications for Longview struggle
Many of us came away from Friday’s action more determined to support Longview rank and filers who risked so much to be present in Seattle to build with the Occupy movements. We believe that together, we can present a 21st century version of class struggle based on the principle: An Injury to One is an Injury to All. Narrow minded, parochial tunnel visions held by bureaucrats and their loyal followers, will only destroy class struggle. It is exactly the tunnel visions of union bureaucracies that have brought us to a 2012 where only a tiny percent of the workforce is unionized and where Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO is simply a tool of the Democratic Party. The problem is not simply that union leaders keep betraying us because they cowardly or greedy. The problem is that old forms of struggle that gave birth to the unions no longer work in this globalized world, and the union leaders are sending goons to prevent us from building something new that actually would work; they are trying to prevent us from transcending their dying structures, and they are insisting that we all go down with the ship.
Some members of Local 19 (Seattle) have told us that this was primarily a beef within the ILWU and that we had been caught in the middle. We were told that some union members loyal to the ILWU International are beefing with what they perceive to be a progressive or left wing of the bureaucracy, lead by Jack Heyman from Local 10 (Oakland). That’s why they chose to launch the disruption during his speech. We have been told that we are perceived as Jack’s shock troops, or foot soldiers, which is why we were also attacked.
It is unclear to us whether Jack and his crew represent a progressive wing of the bureaucracy, or an inner-union reform caucus that could attempt to take positions in the bureaucracy in the future. In any case, we are nobody’s foot soldiers and our struggle is not in any way confined to attempts to reform the ILWU from within. Occupy is a fiercely independent movement, consisting of working class people from different unions, who are unemployed, employed, and non-union as well. We have working class demands that cannot simply be confined to an individual workplace union nor addressed by any political party. As one Occupy Seattle panelist said, we can act like a bottom up union fighting collectively, like the Longview ILWU rank and file and other ILWU members in their best moments, except we don’t have an “up.”
We were happy to share the stage with Jack Heyman because he is doing good work, helping mobilize in solidarity with the Longview workers. But our ultimate interest in this matter is to support Occupy Longview and fighting longshore workers, as we attempt to develop new ways of struggle that transcend the limits of 20th century unions. We will face down goon squads from the Longview workers’ own union to get their backs because they are facing the same kind of job insecurity and police harassment that many of us face. We are not some “naive” youth who can be used a pawns by union activists. We are oppressed people ourselves – workers and unemployed – and we are doing this as our own organizational force with our own interests.
As members of Occupy Seattle who were active with the D12 port shutdown, we would like to reiterate that we did not shut down the port on D12 because Jack Heyman told us to! As we had stated before, we shut down the port to resist police harassment and austerity cuts that are destroying our communities. We asked the ILWU to be in solidarity with us on that day by refusing to cross our line. We also expressed solidarity with Longview rank and file because they are fighting like we are fighting, and like us they are considered outlaws by this decrepit system.
Occupy is no one’s tool and we will not be co-opted or intimidated. We are a new movement of the working class, including the 89% of the US workforce that is not unionized, and rank and file members of unions who believe that the traditional ways of fighting no longer work, and the unemployed who are increasingly on the move. In our schools, workplaces and neighborhoods, we resist the intrusion of Capital – the 1%, and the race to the bottom, the economic nationalism and white supremacy that pits workers against one another based on national origin.
The upcoming battle against EGT can only be won if workers, both union and non-union, and community members respond to the call by Occupy Longview and Local 21 workers, to mobilize their forces. We need longshore workers on the East Coast, international longshore workers across the Pacific Ocean, as well as all workers, union and non-union, to fight back against big capital – the 1%. Food justice organizations concerned about the manufacture and distribution of food can also target the main investor of EGT, Bunge Grain , that owns 30% of the world’s grain supply. Bunge’s storage facilities in the South, along the Mississippi River are also campaign targets for Occupy movements in the South that want to be in solidarity with the Longview struggle. There are countless stories of small towns where union busting and deindustrialization have left towns poor, open to the building of the next new privatized immigration detention center or prisons, herding in yet more immigrants and people of color, in the 21st century human trade. The battle in Longview is crucial to prevent exactly this.
An Injury to One, Is an Injury to All
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