ILWU members demonstrate outside union headquarters in July 2002 over contract. Now longshore workers are set to shut down all 29 West Coast ports against the war.
On May 1, all 29 ports on the U.S. West Coast are to be shut down by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) in protest against the U.S. war on Afghanistan and Iraq. This is a historic event of international significance: labor action against imperialist war by a major American union. The strategically placed port workers in the ILWU can bring commerce with Asia to a grinding halt, and they’re about to demonstrate it. The maritime employers are already screaming, and you can bet it’s got the attention of the warmongers in Washington. All labor should take up the challenge this poses: For workers strikes against the war! Hit ’em where they feel it.
Meanwhile, immigrants’ rights groups are once again mobilizing on May Day. We say: everyone here should have equal rights; otherwise the bosses and reactionaries play one group off against another. Full citizenship rights for all immigrants! Mobilize labor action to stop the ICE raids! And on April 30 and May 1, the independent truckers who move cargo to and from the docks may play an important role in a shutdown, particularly in Los Angeles (where immigrant truckers closed the port on May Day 2006) and possibly some East Coast ports.
The imperialist war on Afghanistan and Iraq is also a war on immigrants, minorities, working people and democratic rights “at home.” As a longshore picketer declared in 2002, the “War on Terror is a War on Us.” We need to defeat this attack here and abroad, in opposition to both the capitalist war parties. The “antiwar movement,” whose aim has always been to pressure the Democrats, is at a dead end. But a battle is brewing. Workers, immigrants, opponents of imperialist war: All out on May Day!
The Bay Area ILWU local was the first American union to condemn the war. In April 2003, as invading U.S. troops reached Baghdad, six longshoremen were injured and a union official was arrested as police fired on hundreds of antiwar protesters in the port of Oakland. Now, while Democrats in Congress keep voting for the war budget, while all the presidential candidates of the twin parties of American capital vow to keep U.S. troops in Iraq indefinitely and to expand NATO occupation forces in Afghanistan, dock workers have decided to shut down the entire Pacific Coast in the most powerful single action in decades aimed at stopping a U.S. war.
When we broke the story last month, many rubbed their eyes in disbelief. Yes, it’s for real. In a notice posted on the ILWU website and printed in the union newspaper, The Dispatcher (April 2008), the union announced: “Longshore Caucus calls for Iraq war protest at ports on May 1.” The resolution by the union’s elected delegates called for this unprecedented labor action to “demand an immediate end to the war and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Middle East” (see ILWU motion, page 3).
The longshore delegates said they were issuing a “clarion call” with an “urgent appeal for unity of action” to all of labor “to bring an end to this bloody war once and for all.” Now it’s up to the rest of us. The workers movement and all opponents of imperialist war should follow the lead of the West Coast waterfront workers.
Industrial action by one of the most powerful and militant American unions against a U.S. imperialist war – this is not just a couple of labor bureaucrats mouthing empty phrases at an antiwar rally, dock workers are using their muscle. Although it is a “symbolic” action – stopping work for the day shift, on May Day, the international workers day – the symbolism is not lost on the ruling class. It is a warning of big trouble on the home front of their imperialist war, a vivid demonstration that American workers have the power to shut down the war machine – and that the most militant sectors are ready to use it.
Around the country, a number of labor bodies have endorsed the ILWU action. As of this writing, this includes the San Francisco, Alameda County (Oakland) and King County (Seattle) Labor Councils, Vermont AFL-CIO, Puerto Rican Teachers Federation (FMPR), U.S. and NYC Labor Against the War, Oakland and California state teachers unions, and others. Postal workers union locals in San Francisco and Greensboro, North Carolina (NALC) and in New York (APWU) are going to stop work briefly on May 1. At the City University of New York, teach-ins and rallies sponsored by chapters of the union of CUNY faculty and staff (PSC) will be held in solidarity with the ILWU port shutdown. Internationally, the ILWU action has been supported by the International Dock Workers Council, the International Transport Workers Federation, UNITE in Britain, and others.
Endorsements are nice, but action is what’s needed – working-class action – more substantial and a lot more of it, and above all independent of the bosses. What that takes is a fundamental break from the Democratic Party and the pro-capitalist politics that infuse the labor bureaucracy.
Maritime Bosses in a Frenzy
The announcement of the ILWU’s upcoming action caught the attention of some in the media. The SF Weekly (12 March) headlined, “ILWU to Shut Down West Coast Ports on Socialist Holiday.” The article reported that after heated discussion, “Union rank and file took a vote and made it official: During the eight-hour day shift on May 1, portside traffic in goods between the U.S. and Asia will cease.” The San Francisco Chronicle (9 April) published an article by Jack Heyman, the author of the motion that was passed by the union’s longshore caucus, who noted:
“This decision came after an impassioned debate where the union’s Vietnam veterans turned the tide of opinion in favor of the anti-war resolution. The motion called it an imperial action for oil in which the lives of working-class youth and Iraqi civilians were being wasted and declared May Day a ‘no peace, no work’ holiday. Angered after supporting Democrats who received a mandate to end the war but who now continue to fund it, longshoremen decided to exercise their political power on the docks.”
The New York Times also expressed interest in publishing an article, but rejected it when it referred to the 1919 Seattle dock workers’ boycott of U.S. arms being shipped to the counterrevolutionary White Armies to fight the Bolsheviks in Russia.
The prospect of a coast-wide work stoppage has certainly shaken up the shipping bosses, particularly coming just as a new contract is being negotiated. The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) notified the union on April 3 that it “doesn’t consent to a stop-work meeting or any other effort to disrupt port operations.” Subsequently the PMA threatened the union tops with heavy-duty court action if they don’t call it all off. The employers are threatening to bring down an injunction under the “slave labor” Taft-Hartley Law. The bosses’ attempt to stop the port shutdown means that a class struggle is already being waged over this issue.
The PMA’s move is no idle threat: the feds issued an injunction during the 2002 bargaining, saying that any stoppage was a threat to the war effort. They could do it again. If that happens, the dock workers should defy the labor-hating government, and all labor must use its muscle to back them up! Can it be done? Yes, and the ruling class knows it. An article by Matt Smith in the on-line business publication Miller-McCune (9 April) expressed amazement that, “Would you believe...blue-collar dock workers” could “bring down the economy.” Smith explained:
“The ILWU, which represents 25,000 dockworkers at 29 Pacific coast ports, is simultaneously the most politically radical, materially comfortable and economically significant group of U.S. workers....
“The union’s industrial might has its roots in a 1930s San Francisco general strike that created one of the most politically radical, democratically run and impenetrably unified American labor syndicates....
“The union and shippers are already butting heads over ILWU plans to shut down all West Coast ports May 1 in protest against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The idea was to exploit a work rule allowing the union to request a day off for a local shop meeting, by requesting simultaneous days off at every port. The shippers refused. And now the ILWU is poised to conduct the equivalent of a one-day walkout.”
In response to the threats, the author quoted a union spokesman saying nobody was intimidated:
“‘For us, folks aren’t going to be working on May 1. Everybody here’s clear about that,’ said ILWU Communications Director Craig Merrilees.”
The maritime employers are particularly worried because bargaining is underway on the union contract. The article quoted a Berkeley economist saying that a dock strike could produce “a chain reaction that’s really rather a nightmare.... This affects the whole economy very broadly and very quickly.”
Earlier, another business publication, the CalTrade Report (14 March) tried some old-style red-baiting in a front-page article with a subhead declaring: “US West Coast action called to protest ‘imperialist’ war in Iraq, Afghanistan” The article declared:
“A number of organizations including The Internationalist Group-League for the Fourth International, a New York-based Marxist activist group, have voiced their support for the ILWU action.
“According to a story on the front page of the organization’s website – www.internationalist.org, ‘This is the first time in decades that an American union has decided to undertake industrial action against a US war.’
“The action, it continues, ‘should be taken up by unions and labor organizations throughout the United States and internationally…and the purpose of such actions should be not to beg the bourgeois politicians whose hands are covered with blood, having voted for every war budget for six and a half years, but a show of strength of the working people who make this country run, and who can shut it down!’”
The smear tactics went nowhere. Despite the hyperventilation in the trade papers, the union has stood its ground.
Break with the Democrats – Build a Class-Struggle Workers Party!
But the battle over the antiwar port shutdown is far from over, including inside the ILWU. As we reported earlier, the union’s International leadership initially tried to divert the call for an antiwar work stoppage, as it has done before and just as it buried Local 10’s call to stop work and march for immigrant rights last May 1. Having failed to “deep-six” the resolution, the union tops are now trying to present it in a “social-patriotic” light. Writing to AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, ILWU president Robert Ellrath said the action was called to “express support for the troops by bringing them home safely.” This phrase was highlighted in the official union announcement. Meanwhile, the union Executive Board has endorsed Democrat Barack Obama for president.
In fact, the resolution passed by the Longshore Caucus has none of these social-patriotic appeals, and it explicitly attacks the “bipartisan and unjustifiable war in Iraq and Afghanistan” which “Democrats and Republicans continue to fund.” Wrapping themselves in the American flag, the bureaucrats are playing the game of the warmongers in Washington. All the talk of “supporting the troops” coming out of the “antiwar movement” is a loyalty oath: they’re saying they oppose the (losing) war in Iraq, but they still salute the flag of U.S. imperialism. Similarly, slogans calling for “jobs not war,” “books not bombs,” etc., pose opposition to the war as a question of priorities. Yet if there was no U.S. war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Colombia and the Philippines, and if there were no U.S. troops in the more than 700 U.S. bases in 130 countries around the world, the U.S. capitalist rulers still would not provide jobs or books or healthcare.
It’s not about foreign policies or budget priorities, it’s about the imperialist system that produces one war after another as the U.S. seeks to nail down its current position as the “sole superpower” in the post-Soviet world. The whole “war on terror” is a war for U.S. world domination. It’s the lead-up to a new world war in which the “enemy” is not a Saddam Hussein or some other tin-pot dictator but the U.S.’ imperialist “allies” and rivals. The Democrats are 110 percent for that war – they just think, as Obama said, that Iraq is “the wrong war.” And their “right” war “against terror” – to terrorize the world into submission – hits longshore workers directly, through the Transport Workers Identification Card. The TWIC is being pushed in particular by the Democrats, and its introduction will bring a racial purge on the docks.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton remarked a few weeks ago, in response to claims by President George Bush and Republican candidate John McCain that withdrawal from Iraq would be a defeat: “Well, let’s be clear, withdrawal is not defeat. Defeat is keeping troops in Iraq for 100 years. Defeat is straining our alliances and losing our standing in the world. Defeat is draining our resources and diverting attention from our key interests’” (Boston Globe, 18 March). Clinton wants to withdraw (some of the) U.S. troops, precisely in order to avoid a defeat for U.S. imperialism. For his part, Barack Obama has said that he would leave residual troops in Iraq among other things to “fight terrorism,” that he wants to up U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, and that the U.S. should launch missile strikes on targets in Iran and Pakistan. The ILWU leaders’ endorsement of Obama hurts rather than helps the struggle against imperialist war and undercuts the May 1 work stoppage.
The capitalist parties also include the Greens, who ran immigrant-basher Ralph Nader for president in 2000. In 2004 they were on the ballot only in “safe” states so as not to hurt the chances of Democrat John Kerry. The likely Green presidential candidate this time around is Cynthia McKinney. McKinney for 12 years was a Democratic Congresswoman from Georgia, joining the Green Party only after she lost in a primary election due to a Republican crossover vote. She has denounced the U.S.’ criminal response to Hurricane Katrina, in which 100,000 overwhelmingly poor and black people were left to die in the flood. She was one of three members of the House of Representatives to vote for a 2005 resolution for immediate withdrawal from Iraq, and she has recently endorsed the ILWU call for a work stoppage against the war. But she emphasized that she was for an “orderly withdrawal,” that she wants to “support the troops by bringing them home,” and her politics are vintage Democratic liberalism. Explaining her switch to the Greens, she said: “I had a place to go when the Democratic Party left me.” Exactly. The red, white and blue Greens are nothing but a home for homeless Democrats.
In order to defeat the imperialist war abroad and the bosses’ war “at home,” class-conscious workers must oppose all the capitalist parties and politicians, and build a class-struggle workers party. Revolutionaries fight to drive the U.S. out of Iraq and Afghanistan – which will be anything but orderly, as the U.S.’ exit from Vietnam showed – by workers action . We would like to see the “diplomats” (spies) and “contractors” (mercenaries) clambering onto the roof of the U.S. embassy desperately trying to helicopter out of the “Green Zone” in Baghdad. A defeat there would put a damper on U.S. imperial adventures around the world, and would aid the struggle of working people, immigrants and oppressed minorities in the United States itself. The drawn-out U.S. defeat in Vietnam set the climate in which women made many gains including the right to abortion, and the racist death penalty was (temporarily) suspended. U.S. rulers gave in on these issues because they were afraid the entire country could blow.
Fighting for workers action against the war and against all the capitalist war parties is a key way to break the political stranglehold of the captains of industry and their labor lieutenants. The ILWU port shutdown can and should be a catalyst for such action. ■