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May Day Strike Against the War Shuts Down All U.S. West Coast Ports

by Internationalist Group Monday, May. 05, 2008 at 5:30 PM 212-460-0983 Box 3321, Church Street Station, New York, NY 10008

On May 1, every port on the West Coast of the United States was shut down to demand an end to the U.S. war and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The historic May Day walkout by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) is the first time ever that an American union has struck against a U.S. war. The union ranks defied the rulings of an arbitrator, who twice ordered them to go to work. They overcame the capitulations of the ILWU leadership, which didn't want the work stoppage in the first place, tried to water it down and cowered before the threats of legal action while waving the flag. The employers' Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) declared the May 1 port shutdown an "illegal strike." But after all the huffing and puffing from the bosses' mouthpieces, the dock workers pointed the way to defeating the imperialist war by mobilizing working-class power. In the end, it was more than a work stoppage. The dock workers' May Day strike against the war was a first step, a show of what it will take to bring down the warmongers in Washington. Their "symbolic" action was felt all the way to Iraq, where dock workers in two ports stopped work in solidarity with the ILWU. But it was only a beginning. What is needed is not only industrial action but a political offensive against the Democrats and Republicans, the partner parties of American imperialism, to build a class-struggle workers party.

May 2008  
Historic ILWU Dock Workers’ Action Points the Way
May Day Strike Against the War Shuts Down All U.S. West Coast Ports

Harbor cranes idle and boomed up. Picket at entrance to rail yards at Port of Oakland during May 1 West Coast longshore port shutdown demanding an end to war in Afghanistan and Iraq and withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the Near East. (Internationalist photo)

“We did it, we shut down the Coast,” union speakers told the cheering crowd kicking off a rally at Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco after a march from the hall of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 along the Embarcadero. All 29 West Coast ports were closed May 1 as a result of the action by the ILWU ranks to demand a stop to the war and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Middle East. Longshoreman Jack Heyman, a member of the Local 10 executive board, recalled a local radio announcer who used to say, “if you don’t like the news, then go out and make your own.” “Today we’ve not only made news, we’ve made history,” Heyman told the crowd of dock workers and supporters. They had indeed. On the fifth anniversary of President George Bush’s ill-fated “mission accomplished” speech, workers used their industrial power against the war.

The ILWU’s historic May Day walkout is the first time ever that an American union has struck against a U.S. war. Everywhere on the docks, the giant container cranes had their booms raised, showing they were not working, as if saluting the longshore workers’ action. It was a dramatic show of strength that the ruling class can’t ignore or dismiss. The union ranks defied the rulings of an arbitrator, who twice ordered them to go to work. They overcame the capitulations of the ILWU leadership, which didn’t want the work stoppage in the first place, tried to water it down  and cowered before the threats of legal action while waving the flag. The employers’ Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) declared the May 1 port shutdown an “illegal strike.” But after all the huffing and puffing from the bosses’ mouthpieces, the dock workers pointed the way to defeating the imperialist war by mobilizing working-class power.

In the end, it was more than a work stoppage. The dock workers’ May Day strike against the war was a first step, a show of what it will take to bring down the warmongers in Washington. Their “symbolic” action was felt all the way to Iraq, where dock workers in two ports stopped work in solidarity with the ILWU. A May Day message from the General Union of Port Workers in Iraq to the “brothers and sisters of the ILWU” stated:

“The courageous decision you made to carry out a strike on May Day to protest against the war and occupation of Iraq advances our struggle against occupation to bring a better future for us and for the rest of the world as well.... We in Iraq are looking up to you and support you until the victory over the US administration’s barbarism is achieved.”

The sight of Iraqi and American workers joining hands in common action is a powerful show of what could come. These are not empty words on paper. Iraqi and American dock workers have just shown the world: this is what proletarian international solidarity looks like. Having demonstrated this, we must now generalize it and deepen it.

Importantly, the dock workers’ May Day action was not restricted to narrow “labor” issues. The attractive poster for the longshore union action produced by the Inkworks Press Collective for the Port Workers May Day Organizing Committee linked the struggle to “Defend Worker Rights! Defend Immigrant Rights!” At the ILWU rally in Justin Herman Plaza, speakers called on demonstrators to attend immigrant rights marches later in the day, while speakers from the union addressed immigrants’ rallies on both sides of the Bay. The port shutdown was not simply a West Coast event. Postal workers in San Francisco, New York City and Greensboro, North Carolina held moments of silence. The Vermont and South Carolina state AFL-CIO federations passed motions of solidarity, urging workers to undertake antiwar action on May Day. Chapters of the Professional Staff Congress at the City University of New York called events in solidarity with the ILWU action on eleven campuses of this largest urban public university in the U.S.

Nor was the ILWU’s appeal nationally limited. The union received messages of support from around the globe: from the Doro-Chiba rail workers in Japan; Australian dock workers; the International Transport Workers Federation; Liverpool and Brent trades union councils, UNITE and the National Shop Stewards Network in Britain; Conlutas and Intersindical labor federations in Brazil, and the SEPE teachers union in the state of Rio de Janeiro, among others. On May Day in Rome, Italy, stickers were distributed by a group of American antiwar activists with the message: “We ♥ ILWU.” And above all, there were the powerful messages and courageous work stoppages by dock workers in Iraq.

The Internationalist Group and League for the Fourth International have fought for years for transportation workers to “hot cargo” war materiel and for workers strikes against the war. We encouraged and publicized the ILWU union’s decision to act as soon as it was announced, so that it wouldn’t be buried by bureaucratic inaction or outright sabotage. The West Coast longshore workers’ action dramatically demonstrated that workers action against imperialist war is possible, and we are proud to have contributed to bringing this about. West Coast dock workers decided to “stop work to stop the war.” Now unions everywhere should be mobilized to follow the ILWU’s lead in fighting use labor’s muscle to defeat the bosses’ war.

This requires not only industrial action but a political offensive against the Democrats and Republicans, the partner parties of American imperialism. The bourgeois and petty-bourgeois “alternatives,” such as the Greens and Peace and Freedom that sprout in the lush flora and fauna of California politics, only serve to restrict opposition to the confines of bourgeois electoral politics. A revolutionary workers party would seek to mobilize the working class independent of and against all the capitalist parties, advancing class-struggle actions such as the ILWU’s antiwar port shutdown, and leading them toward a struggle for working-class power. Against the star-spangled rhetoric of the “peace is patriotic” crowd, such a party would fight for international socialist revolution.

“No Peace, No Work” May Day

ILWU contingent in San Francisco May Day march in conjunction with West Coast port shutdown against war and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. (Internationalist photo)

The decision to make May 1 a “No Peace, No Work Holiday” was taken at the February 8 conclusion of the ILWU’s Longshore Coast Caucus, the highest decision-making body of the waterfront division, made up of delegates elected by the rank and file. The motion for union action against the war, authored by Heyman of Local 10, was passed overwhelmingly, by a vote of 97 to 3. Key to the lop-sided vote was the support of Vietnam veterans, some of them politically conservative, who said that the war had to be stopped, whatever it took. There was a lot of anger at the Democrats, who won control of both Houses of Congress in the November 2006 mid-term elections on the strength of an antiwar vote. But once in control of the purse-strings, the Democrats kept on voting hundreds of billions of dollars for the Pentagon war effort.

In the run-up to May Day, the maritime employers tried to use the threat of legal action to intimidate the dock work workers. In late March, they got an arbitrator to rule that the action could not be a regular monthly “stop work” meeting. On April 8, the union leadership withdrew its request for time off, but plans for the work stoppage continued. The PMA requested an injunction, but a judge threw it out. On the eve of the action, the maritime bosses tried again: “A day earlier, an independent arbitrator sided with waterfront terminal operators and other employers who suspected a job action was in the works, and ruled that halting work would be a contract violation. The ILWU was not dissuaded” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle (2 May).

A day before, Steve Getzug, a spokesman for the West Coast shippers declared, “We’re anticipating that May 1 is a regular work day.” The terminal operators’ anticipation was wrong. “The directive [to report to work as usual], however, was apparently ignored by the union's rank and file,” reported the Long Beach Press-Telegram. Up and down the Coast, the workers were no-shows. “Port in San Diego shut down as dock workers go on one-day strike to protest the war in Iraq,” read a Reuters dispatch. “There were locked gates and few trucks at the Port of Seattle on Thursday despite an arbitrator's order telling dockworkers not to take the day off for May Day protests,” broadcast KIRO-TV. Fox-TV in Los Angeles showed images of idle ports from Tacoma to L.A. In article titled, “Dockworkers take May Day off, idling all West Coast ports,” the Los Angeles Times (2 May) quoted a history professor saying: “This union looks at itself as the vanguard of the working class on the West Coast.”

The media reported that the stop-work action by the 25,000 ILWU dock workers was solid everywhere. More than 10,000 containers a day and other cargo would normally be handled by 6,000 longshoremen. “There’s no work happening so that means there’s no cargo being unloaded and certainly being loaded either,” lamented Getzug of the PMA. During the 2002 lockout by the maritime bosses, it was estimated that economic losses around the country were a billion dollars a day. At the Los Angeles-Long Beach ports, “America’s trade gateway to Asia,” handling 40 percent of all imports coming into the U.S., the Long Beach Press-Telegram (2 May) reported that “operations at most shipping hubs were at a standstill most of the day.” A spokesman for the Southern California Maritime Exchange said 18 ships were scheduled to arrive May 1, and another 12 were already berthed. Holding a ship idle in port for a day costs around 0,000.

All quiet on the docks. One of several ships berthed at port of Oakland during May Day port shutdown. (Internationalist photo)

In the San Francisco Bay Area, all 34 cranes in the port of Oakland were shut down, most of them with their booms up. Port authorities tried to minimize the impact, saying there was only one ship in port, but we observed at least four berthed at the docks and from the Bay Bridge you could spot several others in the harbor. Stevedoring Services of America (SSA) tried to run a skeleton crew, evidently to show it wasn’t affected by the union action. But ILWU members rushed to the terminal early in the morning and shut down the scab operation before it started.

Bay Area Direct Action Against the War set up picket lines with some 60 protesters at the two entrances to the Santa Fe-Burlington Northern rail yards. At 7th Street, a couple dozen members of United Transportation Union Local 239 didn’t cross, some deciding to show up late for work while others left for the day. At the entrance off Middle Harbor Road, truckers lined up, many refusing to cross the line. Most were Latino independent “owner”-operators, who get barely a box, hardly enough to cover the skyrocketing cost of fuel. They were uniformly supportive of the picketers. A Teamster driver told The Internationalist, “All power to them, they’re really doing it. Somebody needs to stop the war.” He recalled the struggle by janitors at Century City in Los Angeles a decade and a half ago, which eventually led to their unionization.

At the Local 10 union hall across the Bay in San Francisco, members were gathering for the march along the Embarcadero. The turnout exceeded all expectations. The ILWU contingent included many who had never demonstrated before. As a couple hundred union members filed out of the hall, there were a thousand people waiting for them in the street. The march stepped off with the Local 10 Drill Team in the lead doing their precision routines. A band struck up Solidarity Forever. There were banners from the Oakland Education Association (OEA), UTU Local 1741 and other unions. Anarchist, syndicalist and socialist groups participated. There were students who walked out from S.F. State University. It was very S.F.: in front of the ILWU’s May Day 2008 banner marched a group of unionized dancers (SEIU Local 790) from the Lusty Lady strip club in North Beach with signs proclaiming “Exotic Dancers Solidarity with ILWU.”

The rally was held in Justin Herman Plaza, near where two longshoremen were killed by cops on “Bloody Thursday,” 5 July 1934, setting off the San Francisco general strike. The crowd was most animated when actor Danny Glover read from Martin Luther King’s speech against the Vietnam War calling for a “radical revolution in values” and restructuring of the U.S. economy. A powerful message was played from Mumia Abu-Jamal, on death row in Pennsylvania for over a quarter century, who saluted the ILWU action (see accompanying box). Jamal cited the words an earlier class-war prisoner, Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs: “It is the master class that declares war, it is the subject class that fights the battles.” 

Class Struggle vs. Popular Front

Truckers lined up outside SF-BN rail yards at Oakland refused to cross picket line, solidarizing with antiwar protesters. (Internationalist photo)

If the port shutdown and march showed the power of the S.F. labor movement, the rally showed many of its weaknesses. While disappointment with the Democrats fueled the vote for the antiwar stop-work action, the unions are still chained to the capitalist parties, particularly through the labor bureaucracy. Among the speakers were former Democratic Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, now running for the Green Party nomination for president, who praised the longshore workers for “drawing a line in the sand” while appealing to “my former colleagues” in Congress to stop the “Bush-Pelosi war”; by Cindy Sheehan, the antiwar activist whose soldier son was killed in Iraq, who is running for Congress in S.F. as an independent against Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi; and by an aide to Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee, hailed for casting the lone vote against the declaration of war on Afghanistan (although two weeks later she voted for the war budget).

A number of union speakers made “butter not guns” appeals, linking budget cuts in education and social services to the war. Yet a real fight against the war on Iraq and Afghanistan is not about budget cuts. It’s about U.S. torture and state terrorism, about colonial occupation and U.S. imperialist domination of the world. Fighting against attacks on education and other social services, or demanding health care for all, is certainly in order, as part of a broader class struggle. But to pose opposition to the war as if it is a matter of spending priorities is saying that the speakers only want to change policies, or at most “reform” the economy. It is an appeal to the Democrats to shape up and oppose Bush, which is what the popular-front antiwar movement is all about. Taken together with calls to “support the troops by bringing them home safely,” this amounts to a loyalty oath, when what’s needed is sharp class struggle to defeat the U.S. imperialist war and bring down the capitalist system that produces war after war.

The “social-patriotic” appeal was explicit in a letter read to the crowd from ILWU president Bob McEllrath saying that “Longshore workers are standing-down on the job and standing up for America. We’re supporting the troops and telling politicians in Washington that it’s time to end the war in Iraq.” Saying, “Big foreign corporations that control global shipping aren’t loyal or accountable to any country,” McEllrath declared: “But longshore workers are different. We’re loyal to America, and we won’t stand by while our country, our troops, and our economy are destroyed by a war that’s bankrupting us to the tune of 3 trillion dollars.” This has been the tune of the ILWU bureaucrats from the outset, wrapping themselves in the Stars and Stripes in order to make the port shutdown as inoffensive as possible to U.S. rulers. This only undercuts the impact of the longshore workers’ action, which is why the union tops make these appeals, to denature and defang the strike they never wanted.

Co-chairmen of Port Workers May Day Organizing Committee Clarence Thomas (left) and Jack Heyman (at microphone). (Internationalist photo)

ILWU Local 34 president Richard Cavalli told the crowd that “this war is not going to end because of the politicians we put in office two Novembers ago, who have failed miserably.” It is certainly true that the Democrats are not going to stop the war, since they are now the main war party fueling the Pentagon in Washington. But they have hardly “failed” – they are doing their class duty, as representatives of U.S. imperialism. Alone among the speakers, Jack Heyman of Local 10, called for “a working-class party, a workers party to fight for the interests of workers.” It’s no accident that he not only wrote the resolution calling for the “No Peace, No Work Holiday,” but also originated the call for the ILWU’s previous shutdown of West Coast ports, demanding freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal. Heyman said there and in a subsequent interview with the “Democracy Now” program on Pacifica Radio, that “what this action was, was raising the level of struggle from protest to resistance.” That is a pretty accurate description, and it raises the challenge ahead: to go from resistance to a struggle for power, to drive out the warmongers, the racist oppressors and exploiters and put the working class in power, here and internationally.

It has been obvious from the outset that there has been a split between the union ranks and the leadership over the port shutdown. We noted in our first (March 1) article on the action, “The ILWU leadership could get cold feet, since this motion was passed because of overwhelming support from the delegates despite attempts to stop it or, failing that, to water it down or limit the action” (see “ILWU to Shut Down West Coast Ports to Protest War”, reprinted in the special issue of The Internationalist [19 April]). We warned how the ILWU tops would try to distort the action with star-spangled rhetoric, even though there isn’t a word of social-patriotism in the Longshore Caucus resolution and not one speaker at the Caucus appealed to support the troops. We have also pointed out how the opportunist left for years has dismissed the fight for workers strikes against the war as an ultraleft pipedream [see “Why We fight for Workers Strikes Against the War (and the Opportunists Don’t)” in the same issue]. Now that there has actually been a workers strike against the war, no thanks to these fakers, they will deny that what’s needed is to broaden and deepen these workers actions into a fight for workers revolution.

No Substitute for a Revolutionary Party

The success of the strike against the war in the U.S. was due centrally to the determination of the most militant sectors of the ILWU membership to take a stand. They refused to back down in the face the shilly-shallying by their leadership before the threats of the PMA bosses. The overwhelming sentiment against the war in the union ranks held the union bureaucrats in check so that instead of calling off the action, as they dearly wanted to do, they tried to duck threats of legal action by making the strike formally a matter of individual “conscience.” But this fooled no one. In various interviews, the PMA spokesman complained: “We are severely disappointed that the union leadership failed to keep its end of the bargain.” “It’s of more concern to us because it signals something that is more sinister.” “Is this a voluntary war protest or a strike aimed at leveraging labor negotiation? We're not sure.... We're concerned. We thought these kinds of old tricks were a thing of the past.” The reality is that this was an organized workers’ action from top to bottom in which the union as a whole stood firm. That’s why it was successful, and why the message it sends is powerful: for workers action to stop the war.

The Internationalist Group contributed significantly to the success of this first-ever strike by American workers against U.S. imperialist war by insistently propagandizing for such class-struggle action over the last decade; by intervening directly among Bay Area dock workers for industrial action against the war (fighting for “hot-cargoing” of war materiel, particularly during the 2002 PMA lockout, fighting for antiwar strikes at a December 2002 Bay Area labor conference, and building the October 2007 Labor Conference to Stop the War called by Local 10); and by encouraging practical steps to arrive at this goal, which required several years of preparation. With the initiative of the IG, our general calls and particular suggestions, we sought to mobilize the power of organized labor, which alone could turn this class-struggle program into reality. And on May Day 2008, the workers of the ILWU did just that: they made the first step toward a workers offensive to bring the war of colonial occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan to a grinding halt. In doing so they also struck a blow against the assault on democratic rights and the bosses’ war on immigrants, oppressed racial minorities and working people “at home.”

Now it is necessary to go beyond this vital beginning to generalize the struggle for working-class action to defeat the imperialist war abroad and on the home front. This requires the building of a class-struggle opposition within the unions and mass organizations of the working class (including non-unionized immigrant workers) to oust the pro-capitalist misleaders who have sold out one labor gain after another. They are incapable of withstanding the capitalist offensive because they support the capitalist system, particularly through their support to the Democratic Party (and even, in some cases, the Republicans). Today, with their policies of class conciliation and collaboration, these “labor statesmen” are presiding over the relentless destruction of the labor movement itself. Meanwhile, “community leaders” tie immigrants to their exploiters through foundation grants and government-financed “non-governmental organizations” (NGOs). Such misleaders can never revive the workers movement or achieve full rights for immigrants.

Above all, as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels emphasized in the Communist Manifesto, “every class struggle is a political struggle.” Engels wrote in his 1883 introduction to the Manifesto that Marx’s core concept was that in the history of class struggles, “a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class – the proletariat – cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class – the bourgeoisie – without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinction, and class struggles.” Thus in order to win against the exploiters, the working class must break with narrow trade-unionism and become the champion of all the oppressed. It must lead the struggle against imperialist war, it must fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants and mobilize its power to stop the raids and deportations. A class-conscious workers movement must fight for black liberation and oppose each and every instance of police brutality; it must stand for the liberation of women from double, and often triple, oppression.

To carry out these tasks will take a real revolution in workers’ consciousness, which can only come about through the intervention of a party of the proletarian vanguard which, as Lenin defined its tasks, must act as a “tribune of the people” rather than a trade-union secretary. We seek to build the nucleus of such a revolutionary workers party through propaganda, through education of future cadres, and through active intervention in the class struggle. This struggle is far from easy, and has seen many setbacks, from the bloody defeat of the Paris Commune, to Stalin’s victory over Trotsky and over Lenin’s program of international socialist revolution, to the counterrevolution that destroyed the Stalinized Soviet Union and the bureaucratically deformed workers states of East Europe. Yet the class struggle does not let up, and after every setback the working class must take stock, analyze its mistakes and rearm politically. When we have successes, such as this first workers strike against the war in U.S. history, we must warn of the limited and temporary nature of such partial victories and prepare for new battles ahead.

Today “anti-party” sentiment has become fashionable among petty-bourgeois leftists. Yet the West Coast dock workers’ antiwar port shutdown did not fall from the sky. The ranks’ militancy was there, but for years it has been stymied by the bureaucracy, the “labor lieutenants of capital,” in Daniel De Leon’s famous phrase. Someone fought for workers strikes against the war, while others did not. Not only opportunist pseudo-socialists but also many syndicalists and anarchists originally dismissed reports of the port shutdown. As Trotsky wrote in his pamphlet Lessons of October (1924), summarizing the experience of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the failure of repeated revolutionary attempts in Germany from 1918 to 1923: “Without a party, apart from a party, over the head of a party, or with a substitute for a party, the proletarian revolution cannot conquer. That is the principal lesson of the past decade.” That lesson is no less valid today, as we in the League for the Fourth International seek to reforge the world party of socialist revolution.


ILWU Strikes for Peace
By Mumia Abu-Jamal

It should surprise no one that the mighty ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) is in the forefront of this eight-hour dock shutdown for peace. The ILWU’s proud and illustrious history is one of supporting people’s movements for life, freedom and workers’ solidarity, and also immigration rights, worldwide.

They remember the stirring words of Eugene Debs, who said, almost a century ago, “It is the master class that declares war, it is the subject class that fights the battles.” For these words and his antiwar sentiments, Debs was cast into prison. That the ILWU is echoing his words today is proof of their power and truth, 100 years later.

It also proves how little we have moved, from the dawn of the 20th century to the dawn of the 21st, for war is still a tool of imperial power, to fuel corporate wealth and global domination. Who can deny that this is a war for oil? Who can deny that this is an illegal occupation, more concerned with what’s under the earth than for the millions living in dread upon it.

For Iraq may not have been a barrel of laughs before the invasion and occupation, but is surely hell now. And Congress, like Nero amidst the fires of Rome, does little more than twiddle its thumbs. It’s labor power that makes the wheels go round, and this powerful demonstration of the denial of labor, for May Day, for peace and an end to occupation in Iraq, is workers’ solidarity made real.

Kudos to the ILWU. For labor power, peace and anti-imperialism, I thank you. Ona Move. Long live John Africa. From Death Row, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal.

To contact the League for the Fourth International or its sections, send an e-mail to: 


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IWW meta4 Wednesday, May. 07, 2008 at 6:19 AM
Whoops! Forgot to refrain from delivering war material at Concord Naval Weapons Station Nestor Makhno Thursday, May. 08, 2008 at 8:54 AM
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