By Jon Agnone
On the heels of a round of crackdowns against Occupy Wall Street (OWS) encampments across the country, the movement turned their attention to shutting down the “economic engines for the elite” through a coordinated shutdown of West Coast shipping ports on December 12, 2011. This action occurred following the shutdown of Oakland’s shipping terminal a few weeks prior on November 2 by the Occupy Oakland protestors, with turnout estimated at 30,000 individuals. According to the movement’s website and many of the published news reports on the event, one of the primary motivations of the coastwise shutdowns from San Diego to Vancouver was to stop “Wall street on the waterfront.” The movement saw this event as a two part solidarity action: First, in support of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) in its ongoing jurisdictional battle at the Port of Longview in Washington against the grain terminal operator EGT; and second, in support of port truckers—who are non-union despite many unionization drives over the years by the ILWU and the Teamsters—who work on the manifold terminals up and down the West Coast owned by maritime shipping giant SSA (the major tie-in for the OWS movements is that Goldman Sachs has a 51 percent ownership stake in SSA).
While its biggest supporters are found among the political left, particularly among the labor movement, the OWS movement may have overreached in its planned shutdown of West Coast ports. Though, by all accounts, the ILWU would be a fitting ally in the struggle. Since its inception, the ILWU has been the most militant left-leaning union in the U.S., with global resonance and political impact—all while being a prime example of the type of governance OWS may well respect in a large organization via its rank-and-file democratic process and strong adherence to Robert’s Rules of order at union meetings. Born out of a series of bloody battles in 1934, the union has regularly taken up political and social causes beyond its own economic interest—something that most American labor unions eschew. For example, in 1937 the ILWU prevented ships from transporting scrap iron from the U.S. to Japan for fear that the materials would return in the form of military armaments. More recently, in 1997, the union refused to handle produce not bearing the seal of the United Farm Workers, and in 1999 the ILWU shut down the ports in solidarity with the World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle. The latest major action occurred on May Day of 2008, whereby the ILWU shutdown all of the West Coast ports to protest the war in Iraq.[i]
Upon first hearing of the port shutdowns, my initial expectation was that this was another in a series of dramatic political actions by the ILWU beyond the scope of its immediate self-interest. This view is portrayed in Amenta’s blog post, whereby he states that the OWS port events were “in alliance with longshoremen in their disputes with companies owned by Wall Street firms,” and in Cook’s post, where she considers the action a “significant victory”—though she does note that public acceptance of the shutdowns was lacking. The OWS planned port shutdown, so it turns out, was uncoordinated with the ILWU leadership and, furthermore, completely opposed by the international, and some local, leadership—as was outlined at the end of Dixon’s blog post.
But why would the most militant and left-leaning labor union in the U.S., if not the world, resist aligning itself with the OWS planned shutdowns of West Coast ports? If at any point support would be welcomed, it would seem that during a long and bitter struggle against EGT at the Port of Longview would be it. Placing the national spotlight on a critical jurisdictional battle at a small port in southern Washington would seem to benefit the ILWU. The issue seems to be quite simple: the ILWU likes to pick its own battles, sometimes in solidarity with other labor unions in the U.S. and abroad, at times to make larger political statements, and arguably to signal their strength going into contract negotiations.[ii]
The importance of self-reliance is made very clear in ILWU International President Robert McEllrath’s response to the planned OWS port shutdowns the week before the event. While I provide the link to the full letter, which is well worth reading in its entirety, this paragraph from the press release gets to the heart of the matter for union leaders:
“While there can be no doubt that the ILWU shares the Occupy movement’s concerns about the future of the middle class and corporate abuses, we must be clear that our struggle against EGT is just that—our struggle. The ILWU has a long history of democracy. Part of that historic democracy is the hard-won right to chart our own course to victory. As the Occupy movement, which began in September 2011, sweeps this country, there is a real danger that forces outside of the ILWU will attempt to adopt our struggle as their own. 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 and jeopardizes our over two year struggle in Longview.”[iii]
Yet, despite the official denouncement of support for the OWS port blockades—which have been castigated by some rank and file—support and appreciation has been forthcoming from the Longview union’s local leadership and from non-leadership up and down the coast. Thus, despite official sanctioning of the event from ILWU International Leadership, many ILWU members were among those found standing side by side with OWS in support of the port shutdowns. Further, some of the ILWU rank and file are no doubt strong supporters of and active participants in the OWS movement.
Whereas a coastwise port shutdown in partnership with the OWS movement seemed consistent with past ILWU actions, the evidence suggests otherwise. Union leadership officially distanced themselves from the shutdown, yet the coordinated shutdowns still took place and surely included large numbers of dockworkers. No doubt what is now labor lore of past ILWU political and social actions is just as nuanced as the contemporary OWS solidarity action. Only time will tell whether future labor leaders will add the recent port shutdowns to their list of dramatic and historic ILWU industrial actions.
[i] See John Ahlquist and Margaret Levi’s forthcoming book, Constructing Communities of Fate, (John Ahlquist’s page: https://mywebspace.wisc.edu/jahlquist/web/), as well as Margaret Levi, David Olson, Jon Agnone and Devin Kelly. 2008. “Union Democracy Reexamined.” Politics & Society, 37: 203-228 (http://depts.washington.edu/ilwu/pubs/levi_etal2009.pdf).
[ii] Ongoing research suggests a pattern between ILWU industrial actions and contract negotiations (John Ahlquist and Margaret Levi. 2010. “Signaling Solidarity: Industrial power and political process.” (http://depts.washington.edu/ilwu/pubs/AhlquistLeviSignallingAPSA2010.pdf)).
[iii] The struggle ended on January 23, 2012 with a deal between EGT and the ILWU, brokered by Washington Governor Christine Gregoire. ILWU Local 21 will be working the grain terminal, effectively winning their protracted battle with EGT in Longview. (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2017315253_apuslongviewunionclash.html)