Tuesday, December 27, 2011

N30: Unions strike a blow against weak government

Fred Leplat
International Viewpoint
December 2011

The strike on Wednesday 30th November in Britain in defence of pensions for public sector workers was the largest seen for a generation. Over 29 unions were involved including the three biggest,UNISON, UNITE, and the GMB. All together, over 2.5 million workers were on strike across the National Health Service, local councils and throughout national government departments.

Demonstrations were held in many places, including in small towns which had never seen a protest since the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003. Over 50,000 took to the streets in London and 15,000 in Belfast, but there were also 100 in Lerwick in Shetland! For the overwhelming majority of those who took action on 30th November, it was the first time that they were on strike. Two out of three schools were closed, museums and tribunals were closed, and non-emergency operations in many hospitals were cancelled.

The strike was a tremendous success not just because of its size, but because everybody knew that it was not just about pensions, but also about the defence of public services and ultimately, who pays for the crisis. It put the issue of fair pensions for all on the agenda.

The Tory-led government has been arguing that it is not fair that public sector workers get a better pension than those working in the private sector. However, they say nothing about the multi-million yearly earnings that bankers get such as the £7million pocketed by the heads of Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland. There are over 2.5 million pensioners living below the poverty level of £178 a week. Pensioner poverty in Britain is among the worst in Europe – there are only three countries in Europe that have worse pension provision that those in Britain, that is Cyprus, Latvia and Estonia ! France spends twice as much on pensions than does the UK.

The strike was a long time in coming. The Tory led coalition government announced as soon as it was elected that it would unleash war on public services, and the pay and conditions of workers in general. Although the TUC agreed in September 2010 to organise co-ordinated national industrial action against these attacks, it took six months to organise a national demonstration on 26th March of 500,000. Despite this tremendous success, the leadership of the three big unions and the TUC were reluctant to organise action. It was only because of a hugely successful strike on 30th June by the teaching unions UCU, NASWUT and NUT and the PCS civil servants union, that all the other unions and the TUC decided to call on their members to strike.

The leadership of most unions were pushed into organising for the strike because of pressure from their members wanting action and because they had no longer any choice but to do something. The government had been dragging out negotiations since the beginning of the year without any concessions, and had even imposed some unilateral changes to the pension schemes including pushing back the retirement age to 67 for younger workers.

The Tory government is now increasing the attacks on the working class as the recession is now on the verge of turning into a depression: public sector workers already suffering from a two-year pay freeze will see any increase “capped” at 1 per cent. With inflation running at 5.4 per cent, this is effectively a 20 per cent pay cut over four years. The government announced that 710,000 will go, up from the 400,000 announced last year! Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said he would do “whatever it takes” to cut the deficit. This means tax breaks for the rich and corporations funded by taking money from the rest of us.

The strike on 30th November can only be a beginning in the resistance against the Tory-led coalition government. The action needs to be escalated with dates for action set for early next year involving private sector workers. Youth and students need to involved as stopping pushing back the retirement age would immediately deal with youth unemployment now at a record level of over 1 million or 20% of those under 25.

This is not just a crisis of the British economy. It is a crisis of the capitalist system which is attempting to make the working class pay for it. The action in Britain on Wednesday 30th November was followed on Thursday by a one-day general strike in Greece and on Friday by joint-union action in Belgium. The need for a European-wide solidarity and joint action is now more necessary than ever to roll back the neo-liberal assault on all of the post-war gains.

Fred Leplat is a leading member of Socialist Resistance, British section of the Fourth International.


Egypt’s labour movement takes a tumble

Yassin Gaber
Ahram Online
December 2011

The perceived gains won by the Egyptian workers and independent trade unionists in the wake of the 18-day uprising have given way to stark realities under the military junta’s ’counter-revolutionary’ rule.

After a wave of strikes and workers’ action fuelled and empowered Egypt’s 18-day uprising, the burgeoning labour movement, subsequently empowered, began asserting itself: unilaterally declaring an independent trade union federation to rival its state-run counterpart and undertaking steps to dismantle the power dynamics and structure of the state’s union. Recently, however, Egypt’s workers and unionists have found themselves fighting to maintain their gains.

In March, Egypt’s manpower minister, Ahmed Hassan El-Borai announced the right of Egyptian workers to establish their own labour unions and federations, an action hailed by the International Labour Organisation. But a new trade union law is yet to be passed by Egypt’s military rulers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

Following the August enforcement of a 2006 judgement, the state-run Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) board was dissolved. However, these steps have been stymied by the government’s continued reliance on members of the old-guard whenever it comes to implementation. This adds up, in the words of Hisham Fouad, a founding member of the Democratic Workers Party, to a government outlook that is “counter-revolutionary and opposed to workers’ progress.” Added to this, their refusal to consult directly with independent unionists is, for him, proof of a deeper intransigence and indicative of the ruling military council’s desire to quell the movement.

The decision by former prime minister Essam Sharaf to dissolve the ETUF board and freeze the general union’s assets was a high point for independent unionists. But a sobering reality set in in its immediate aftermath. A steering committee consisting of independent, state-affiliated and Muslim Brotherhood unionists was tasked with examining the general union’s financial affairs. This de-facto board began reviewing reports by the Central Auditing Organisation: reports that contain hundreds of infractions and financial remarks linked to the ETUF as well as other organisations under its umbrella.

Unionists found to have illicit financial dealings were supposed to be turned over to the prosecutor-general’s office, but interests got in the way. The committee was paralysed by its multi-factional composition.

A coalition of four general unions – the Union of Petrol Workers, the Union of Flour Mill Workers, the Maritime Transport Workers Union and the Transport Workers Union – went on strike in mid-November, calling for the dissolution of the Cabinet-appointed steering committee. Members of the de-facto board also tried, unsuccessfully, to remove its head, Ahmed Abdel Zahir, a carry-over from the dissolved board and an associate of its former head, Hussein Megawer. The notorious businessman was charged earlier this year for playing a role in the 2 February “Battle of the Camel.”

When El-Borai was unable to put an end to the strike, he dissolved the steering committee and replaced it with another one consisting of figures from the old board – associates of Megawer. “We’ve regressed. The situation now is just like when Hussein Megawer was around,” states Wael Habib, member of the steering committee.

Fouad believes that this move is a response by the ruling SCAF to the wave of strikes that swept Egypt in September. “The SCAF felt more in control and needed to clampdown on the empowered labour movement,” Fouad states.

Following the imposition of a new ETUF committee, El-Borai announced on 28 November that the newly-formed Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) had agreed to join the state-run ETUF, creating much alarm and sending signals that the government no longer valued union pluralism or freedoms. Though confusion and speculation is still rife, it would seem that such a consensus between independent unionists and their state-affiliated counterparts never truly existed.

“We will not get involved with them in any respect. We reject the notion of a state-run trade union,” Fatma Ramadan, a board member of the EFITU and labour activist, stresses.

Ramadan had to withdraw her candidacy in the People’s Assembly (Parliament’s lower house) elections, after administrative courts in the governorates of Giza and Menoufiya (both in the upcoming second round of elections) refused to accept candidates who received their workers’ status from the independent general union. According to Ramadan, the EITUF authorised the candidacy of between 300 and 400 workers for Egypt’s three stage People’s Assembly elections. Of those, around ten unionists, including Ramadan, were denied the right to stand for elections as workers.

In a 20 July decree, the ruling SCAF maintained a 47-year-old quota for representatives of workers and peasants in both the upper and lower houses of Egypt’s Parliament. Unionists are divided on whether this quota should be consigned to the fate of the old-regime or refashioned. “The 50 per cent quota for workers and fellahin is meant to protect these sectors: give them a voice, but when the quota is used to fill parliament with businessmen and technicians who do you think they will defend: themselves or the workers?” asks Ramadan.

Saud Omar, a member of the Suez Canal Authority’s workers union and workers candidate in Suez, believes that the 50 per cent quota should remain but that a new law must be put in place to ensure that elected representatives come from the workers and truly stand for them, preventing misuse of the system. “Parliament does not truly speak for the people. The millions of people heading to the streets proves this and negates the supposed role of parliament, but we still must work through these political avenues.”

While the country’s first post-Mubarak elections promise to bring to power what some observers predict will be the most legitimate parliament since the 1930s, the make-up of the forthcoming parliament will to a varying degree determine the course of the workers’ movement.

First round results reveal strong electoral gains by the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and the Salafist Nour Party. Even with two rounds left in the People’s Assembly elections, many observers believe an Islamist takeover is now inevitable. Should Islamists come to power, the labour movement can expect to come up against certain obstacles. The FJP has previously condoned the ruling SCAF’s opposition to strikes, going a step further by attempting to force an end to teacher’s strikes in some governorates last September. The Nour Party has also taken an anti-strike line, calling such labour actions, at this point in time, “undesirable.” The only liberal list to make any substantial gains in the first round was the Egyptian Bloc. The Free Egyptians, the Bloc’s leading partner, also has an unfavourable labour stance which it made clear when it quickly declared its support of the ruling military council’s anti-strike law in July.

Nevertheless, some labour activists are resolute: “We are undeterred by parliamentary elections; the battle for parliament is only part of the struggle. The street is where our main fight lies. We demand the right to freely unionise, an end to the law criminalising strikes, a minimum and maximum wage, the restart of stalled factories and the rehiring of their workers, an increase in pensions and adequate health care,” Ramadan states.

According to labour lawyer and Revolutionary Socialists member Haitham Mohamedein, “The true issue lies in the law.” Specifically Law No 35 (1976), which outlined the structural and electoral regulations of the state-run ETUF among other central organisations. The ruling military junta’s decision to shelve the draft legislation, approved by the Manpower Ministry and then by Sharaf’s Cabinet, is the crux of the matter, Mohamedein believes. The legislation would allow, for the first time since the 1950s, trade union pluralism and freedoms for workers and businessmen to form their own unions and syndicates respectively, but strong unions and syndicates would challenge a system that breeds corruption, oligarchy and social inequality.

The Brotherhood has always fought for control of syndicates and unions, states the labour lawyer, and they will approach the ETUF in a similar fashion. “The FJP wants the general union to be under their thumb and they will control the federation through elections: elections framed by Law No 53. It is not in their interest to radically change this law. The workers movement is a source of anxiety for businessmen and the Brotherhood. They could possibly seek to amend the law but would not allow the same freedoms as the shelved legislation.”


Monday, December 19, 2011

Tactics and the port shutdown

Bay Area activists Ragina Johnson, Alex Schmaus and Dana Blanchard consider some of the political discussions to arise after the West Coast Port Shutdown.
Socialist Worker
December 16, 2011

IN THE aftermath of the West Coast Port Shutdown on December 12, a debate over tactics has emerged in the Occupy movement. The discussion centers on the role of port workers and Occupy activists' relationship to them.

The December 12 actions were an important step for the Occupy movement, especially in connecting to the struggle of workers against some of the richest and most powerful corporations around. But the future of the movement depends on Occupy activists adopting strategies and tactics that treat workers on the docks--and everywhere else in the economy--as allies and potential supporters, not as opponents.

The call for a port shutdown on December 12 produced community pickets at ports up and down the West Coast, from Anchorage to San Diego--and succeeded in stopping operations, partially or entirely, in Oakland, Portland, Longview, Seattle and Vancouver. At the giant Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, activists collaborated with nonunion port truckers to disrupt operations for several hours at SSA Marine, which is half-owned by Goldman Sachs.

In Oakland, our preparations began weeks before December 12, with rank-and-file longshore workers and other unionists working with Occupy Oakland activists to build support for the shutdown, especially among workers at the port. We knew from this organizing work that the criticisms made by some union leaders and even left-wing writers and academics--that the Occupy movement was calling for industrial action without the support of workers--was false.

On December 12, we had a strong turnout despite the rain and cold--more than 500 Occupy supporters met at a nearby public transit hub for a 5 a.m. march to the port to set up community picket lines at three terminals. By the late morning, we got word that ILWU members had been sent home after the port arbitrator ruled on safety concerns. An even larger march on the port that evening caused the evening shift to be closed down as well.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) publicly disavowed the port shutdown call. But ILWU Local 10 in Oakland has a proud history of recognizing community picket lines and calling in a port arbitrator over safety concerns.

With rank-and-file ILWU members taking the lead, the December 12 action was planned in Oakland with this foremost in our minds--and with the goal of building solidarity with workers on the ports as a crucial means of strengthening the Occupy movement.

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THIS APPROACH helped ensure the success of December 12 in Oakland.

Unfortunately, though, that success was jeopardized by the dangerous actions of a minority of demonstrators on the picket line.

The overwhelming majority of Occupy activists and workers worked together--as planned and democratically decided upon--to organize community pickets that were intended to make an appeal to port workers for support, but not blockade them. This was highly effective.

Nevertheless, a small minority took it upon themselves to try to impose their tactics on the rest of us. Within an hour of establishing our early-morning community pickets, a small group of activists at the Hanjin Terminal picket attempted to use their bodies to stop a semi truck from leaving the port. At least two of them sat down in front of the truck, an extremely dangerous act since the driver could not see them. Others screamed at the driver and spat on his windshield.

Naturally, photographers from the mainstream media swooped in to get their photos of the angry truck driver who "didn't support the action that day"--and not pictures of the several hundred people who were holding down an amazing picket 20 feet away. This only gave credence to the false argument spread by the media that we were trying to "impose" a shutdown on workers, rather than seek their solidarity.

The authors of this article attempted to reason with the group of activists sitting in front of the truck. We asked them to move out of the way and allow the truck to leave, explaining that organizers had agreed to allow drivers who had shown up for work to leave--as the point of our action was to build solidarity with workers at the port, not antagonize them. The port action committee had explicitly agreed on the point that the pickets were not to keep workers from leaving, but only to stop them from going in.

At one point, one of us, Ragina, positioned herself between the truck and the group in question to demand that they get out of the way. One person from this group of activists pushed Ragina against the front grill of the truck in an attempt to use her body to get the truck to stop.

Everyone eventually moved out of the way, but the fact is that the lives of several activists were put at risk during this scuffle.

Another dangerous situation occurred at the Hanjin Terminal picket line when a squad car and sheriff's bus, escorted by a line of riot police, attempted to drive through our line.

Throughout the morning, police were being moved around the port in groups in an attempt to intimate protesters. There was a diversity of people on the picket line--old and young, people holding toddlers, union and nonunion workers. Keeping the pickets organized and safe by preventing panic was important to succeeding in our goal.

Only walking picket lines are considered legally protected free speech, but some activists from the same group that blockaded the truck earlier attempted to form an immobile human barricade to stop police from driving through the line. This was another unnecessary risk, since it gave police a possible excuse to use force to break up our pickets.

The same group of picketers then attempted to provoke police who were pointing "non-lethal" assault rifles at the picket. We believe this act played into the hands of at least one provocateur, who said "the cops are going to smash us anyway, so why should we wait for that to happen."

Once again, the authors of this article found ourselves forced into a dangerous situation. We argued that the best way to stop the police was to maintain the walking picket--and that trying to provoke the police endangered not only picketers, but also the truck drivers and ILWU members who were standing by to observe the situation.

We eventually succeeded in breaking up the human barricade and held our ground with a traditional walking picket. The police backed off after about 20 or 30 minutes.

A few minutes after 10 a.m., a port arbitrator ruled that ILWU members would not be expected to cross our community picket lines. This was an important victory because it meant we had shut down the port without forcing unionized workers to lose a day's wages. Port management then has since sent a press release saying workers will not be paid unless the union takes up the issue with an independent arbitrator. This will be a fight for our allies within the ILWU to take up in the coming days.

Thousands marched to the port of Oakland that evening, but the port authority had by that time conceded defeat and didn't even call in the evening shift. Instead of pickets, a General Assembly of more than 2,500 people formed to discuss next steps.

Occupy Oakland had voted weeks ago that in the event of police repression at any of the actions along the coast, the pickets would be extended in defense of the Occupy movement. The original plan of the port action committee of Occupy Oakland was to vote on whether or not to follow through with this, based on the numbers of people who could participate. But there was never a vote.

Dozens of people from the crowd began to signal their frustration with the lack of democracy, but this was ignored. The facilitators told the crowd that anyone who could not stay for the 3 am pickets should stand up and go and those who could should sit down. Thousands of people picked up their things and left the port. Only about 100 to 150 people remained behind for a disorganized picket at 3 a.m. Fortunately, they did not face a police crackdown, which would have undermined the successes of the day.

What happened at the GA was a missed opportunity to get new people who had come out for the port action involved in a conversation about next steps for our work.

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WHY DID a minority of activists act in such an undemocratic and dangerous manner at the morning picket?

To answer this question, we have to look at the different forces involved in the Occupy movement and the December 12 port shutdown.

The December 12 action was a step forward for the movement because it was about taking action at a crucial chokepoint in the economy that affects the flow of commodities and the realization of profits for the 1 percent. The debate that emerged in Oakland was about how to take action at the point of production.

There are two levels to the debate. The first is a strategic argument about the role of workers at the port. Are they central to shutting down it down or not? Do Occupy activists need to build solidarity with port workers or can they take action independently--and against workers if necessary?

The second level is about the tactics that flow from the strategic question. Should we organize for community picket lines that allow for the greatest possible participation and solidarity with port workers? Or should we build barricades to impose a work stoppage?

An article posted on Bay of Rage, an anti-capitalist website in the Bay Area, titled "Blockading the port is only the first of many last resorts", explains the position of activists who advocated taking action "autonomously" of workers. In a section titled "Power to the vagabonds and therefore to no class," the article states:

We need to jettison our ideas about the "proper" subjects of the strike or class struggle. Though it is always preferable and sometimes necessary to gain workers' support in order to shut down a particular workplace, it is not absolutely necessary, and we must admit that ideas about who has the right to strike or blockade a particular workplace are simply extensions of the law of property.

The first point to make about this statement is that its authors are dismissing the actual demands of the port action committee for December 12. These demands were very much about workers on the docks: first, solidarity with ILWU Local 21 members in Longview, Wash., and their battle against EGT; second, solidarity with port truck drivers in their struggle to gain union rights; and third, a coordinated response by Occupy to the police raids of the camps.

These were the three points we used in talking to port workers and other union forces leading up December 12. Linking up these three struggles helped bring together allies in the labor movement with the Occupy community. We were able to connect with radical rank-and-file union members who want to see more action from their unions. By contrast, the Bay of Rage article accepts that the "real" radicals will have to operate in isolation from workers and union members--and sometimes in direct opposition to them.

As for tactics, the Bay of Rage article goes on to argue that the community pickets were unnecessary:

[W]e have been told time and again that in order to blockade the port, we need to go to each and every berth, spreading out thousands of people into several groups over a distance of a few miles. This is because, under the system that ILWU has worked out with the employers' association, only a picket line at the gates to the port itself will allow the local arbitrator to rule conditions at the port unsafe, and therefore provide the workers with legal protection against unpermitted work action.

In such a situation we are not really blockading the port. We are participating in a two-act play, a piece of legal theater, performed for the benefit of the arbitrator.

If this arbitration game is the only way we can avoid violent conflict with the port workers, then perhaps this is the way things have to be for the time being. But we find it more than depressing how little reflection there has been about this strategy, how little criticism of it, and how many people seem to reflexively accept the necessity of going through these motions.

Once again, this statement shows how little respect the writers have for working people and their capacity for action. Anyone familiar with the history of the working-class movement in the U.S. or anywhere in the world knows that picket lines are more than a "piece of legal theater." The labor movement's victories historically have involved mass support from workers, community members, the unemployed and more.

In the specific case of the ports, the role of community pickets is important in building solidarity and involving wider numbers in the struggle. Rather than imagining that we can substitute for such mobilizations through sabotage or physical barricades, we should be looking to more solidarity actions of this kind to support the labor battles that are sure to come.

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ULTIMATELY, THE wrong-headed ideas expressed in the Bay of Rage article share much in common with the claims made in the mainstream media, among conservative labor leaders and even within sections of the left that the action on December 12 was organized from the outside.

This discounts the role that rank-and-file workers, who are part of Occupy Oakland, played in helping to organize the action. There were extensive discussions between Occupy activists and members of the ILWU and Teamsters, as well as with unorganized port truck drivers, both in the lead-up and immediately after the call to shut down the ports.

By reaching out to and including the voices of rank-and-filers and labor activists, we collaborated with them to build the community picket line, rather than scheming in secret about how to blockade them from going to work. As a result, we were able to weather the attacks in the weeks leading up to the action--a barrage that came not only from the 1 percent and the media, but from union leaders who repeatedly tried to stifle participation in December 12.

The port action committee had a well-organized plan in place for December 12. People in the committee organized picket teams, communications and food distribution. There were teams to plan for speakers and rallies, and to make sure signs and banners were printed and brought to the gates. Organizers were also in close communication with port workers about which terminals had ships and which did not, so we knew which gates to picket.

There was also explicit outreach to talk to self-identified anti-capitalist forces who had declared a march at the same time as the port action--to ask them to agree to the tactics decided for the day.

Ultimately, the proof of these preparations lies in the success of the event itself. Hundreds of people showed up before dawn to put up community pickets before the first shift, and even larger numbers came in the evening. No ILWU members crossed picket lines. Teamsters didn't show up that day, and hundreds of non-unionized truckers stayed away. As for truckers who were at the docks, many showed their support in various ways.

None of that could have been accomplished without the support of workers at the Port of Oakland. But unfortunately, a minority believes its adventurist tactics are more radical and politically superior.

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WHAT'S NEXT? We believe the truly radical step following December 12 will be to build on the alliance between Occupy activists and port workers. We shouldn't be satisfied with shutting down the port for a day, but must instead focus on building a working-class movement with power at the point of production--a project that must include union members, Occupy activists and other working people who are sympathetic to the new activism, but who have not yet joined it.

That's why the disorganizing effects of the General Assembly on the evening of the 12th were a disappointment. The GA could have been a space for thousands of people to collectively decide the next steps for building such an alliance.

Such organizing needs to continue--right now. In a matter of a couple weeks, EGT may try to load its first ship at the scab grain terminal in Longview. Labor and community members in solidarity with the ILWU are already planning caravans to support longshore workers in Longview with their struggle. We need to get as many people as we can to join this caravan from all the local Occupy struggles, from the Bay Area to Washington state.

The Longview struggle is just one example of how we can look ahead to the future of the Occupy movement.

The trigger budget cuts in California are devastating public-sector workers and students, especially at the community college level, and this spring will likely be a time of mass actions on campuses and in teachers unions in response to these cuts. There is already a planned occupation of the state capital on March 5, as well as regional actions on March 1 and possible student strikes throughout February.

In addition, immigrant rights activists and workers, both union and nonunion, are making big plans for a militant action on May Day that would shut down production and target the 1 percent, while linking up with struggles for amnesty and human rights.

These are just a few of the ideas that have been put forward for next steps. There will most certainly continue to be struggle on both a local and national level, and some of what it will do has not even been anticipated yet.

With working people under relentless attack, the Occupy movement has an opportunity to broaden its social base. But to reach that potential, we need to learn the lessons--both positive and negative--of what we just accomplished on December 12.

The most important lesson is that Occupy activists and union members share common interests in the struggle against the 1 percent, and the closer that alliance, the more powerful the struggle will be.

The port shutdown on December 12 also showed us that the November 2 general strike call in Oakland was no fluke--and that the Occupy movement can coordinate for picket-line action between different cities and states. This action has truly raised the bar for what is possible in the movement, if we do our work right.


No-Strike Clauses Hold Back Unions

Stanley Aronowitz
Labor Notes
13 December 2011

When leaders of the Occupy movement’s most reliable labor ally, the Longshore Union (ILWU), declared the union would not participate in Monday’s shutdown of West Coast ports, they illustrated a great weakness plaguing our unions.

Labor is confined by contract unionism, whose core is the no-strike clause.

Recall that during the 1999 mass protests against the World Trade Organization, the ILWU used its power to shut down all West Coast ports for a day, a stroke of exemplary solidarity.

The decision not to support the current call was influenced by the fact that, like almost all unions that sign collective bargaining agreements, the ILWU is bound by a clause barring strikes during the life of the contract. The last time ILWU supported a shutdown of the Oakland port, it suffered a fine of $65,000.

For more than 75 years, the labor movement has been enclosed by law and custom by collective bargaining, whose goal is to achieve a contract that seals in wages, benefits, a grievance procedure, and work rules. In return, workers and their union agree, crucially, to surrender their right to withhold their labor.

The penalties for violation are often severe: stiff fines and imprisonment of union officials. After the three-day walkout by New York City transit workers in 2005, a court order barred check-off of union dues, levied $2.5 million in penalties, and handed the union president a 10-day jail sentence.

Even when unionists and their allies flooded Madison, Wisconsin, last winter with huge protests, there was little debate about the limits of contract unionism.


Why do contracts hold back unions?

1. The contract has the force of law. It is a compromise between labor and the employer, private or public. The workers agree to suspend most of their demands for as long as the contract lasts. In the past decade that period has grown, sometimes to as much as six years. Even if conditions change, the union cannot reopen the contract unless the employer consents.

2. The union is responsible for enforcing the contract, including disciplining the workers. Of course, management regularly bypasses or brazenly violates the contract. To remedy these infractions, the union can grieve and finally arbitrate. Although arbitration is heavily weighted on the employers’ side, workers have no other recourse, under the law of the contract.

If they (rarely, these days) resort to a wildcat walkout or other job action, their union is obliged to renounce the strike and “order” workers back to the job.

3. Under these conditions, the union tends to become conservative, at best, or, at worst, an agent of shop floor workers’ subordination. The weight of the law mostly prevails.

With the employers’ offensive of the last generation, collective bargaining is now mostly a form of collective begging. Yet collective bargaining remains a sacred cow. Few are willing to advocate that, at the minimum, contracts leave the strike weapon unrestricted.

The labor movement has forgotten its own traditions: Until the 1930s, labor contracts were fairly rare. Workers—and not only IWW members—used to fight for their demands continuously and agree to return to work only when they were met.

Skeptics ask why employers should sign contracts if they cannot buy labor peace. But European unions do not, typically, agree to limitations on strikes.

The main factor underlying labor relations is the power of workers and their unions. Until they re-examine the trap of collective bargaining, the downward slide will accelerate.

Stanley Aronowitz teaches sociology at the City University of New York.


ILWU solidarty statement in support of ‘Occupy Wall Street’

October 5, 2011

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

On behalf of 40,000 members in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), I want to thank you for organizing your “Occupy Wall Street” protest in New York City which is inspiring millions of Americans.

Most of us are tired of seeing a handful of the richest corporations and executives behave as though they’re entitled to live like kings at everyone’s expense:

They aren’t paying their fair share of taxes, so schools are cutting back and colleges are
raising fees – leaving students with obscene debts. It’s time for the millionaires – the richest 1% – to start paying their fair share so we can support education and other vital services.

They’re destroying our democracy and right to a voice in the workplace. By making it almost impossible for workers to form unions and negotiate fair agreements, corporate America is dragging down the living standards for all working families.

They’re threatening to destroy Social Security and Medicare for future generations. We can’t allow corporations to privatize and profit from these programs. Instead, we should close the loopholes so corporations and the rich start paying the same contributions as everyone else.

Your decision to bring these and other issues to corporate America’s doorstep is courageous – and involves some risks. We weren’t surprised that some of you have faced beatings and pepper spray from overzealous police. Your crusade to shine a light on the corruption and injustice that’s infecting Wall Street is bound to ruffle some feathers. We’ve experienced some similar rough treatment in Longview, Washington, where ILWU families are also taking a stand against corporate greed. Our fight there is against EGT, a multi-national corporation that took taxpayer subsidies to build a grain export terminal – then betrayed workers and the community.

Like you, ILWU members in Longview have been arrested, beaten and pepper sprayed. We know that justice won’t be won by asking greedy employers for permission or waiting for politicians to pass laws. That’s why we hope that you’ll stand your ground on Wall Street while we do the same in Longview – because An Injury To One Is An Injury To All!

Robert McEllrath
ILWU International President


Port actions challenge the 1 percent

Alex Schmaus, Francois Hughes and Lee Sustar look at the port actions shaping up from San Diego to Anchorage and beyond, as Occupy activists target union-busting.
Socialist Worker
December 12, 2011

THE OCCUPY movement will hold coordinated community pickets in every major West Coast port city--San Diego, Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, Tacoma, Seattle, Vancouver and Anchorage--on Monday, December 12, despite mounting pressure from employers and some union leaders.

The model for the West Coast effort is the mobilization of some 15,000 people to picket the Port of Oakland during a November 2 day of action. That protest came after police violence against Occupy Oakland nearly killed Iraq war vet Scott Olsen, prompting a call for a general strike in the city.

Now, Occupy activists again want to take action--not just in Oakland, but up and down the West Coast.

While the initial focus of Occupy activists was union-busting by the grain terminal operator EGT in Longview, Wash., the planned pickets will confront other actors on the docks--such as SSA Marine, an anti-labor terminal operator owned by Wall Street powerhouse Goldman Sachs, and the anti-union policies of terminal operators who employ truck drivers to move goods from the docks to warehouses and rail links.

In fact, the date for the action was chosen by Los Angeles port drivers. December 12 is the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, an important cultural figure in Mexico, and traditionally a day of protest for the largely immigrant port drivers. The drivers been fighting for years against company policies that treat them as independent contractors rather than employees, a practice that forces drivers to be paid per load rather than per hour, and pay for their own trucks.

As Tara Lohan pointed out on Alternet, 82 percent of the 110,000 port drivers in the U.S. are classified as independent contractors. An additional spur for the drivers' protest in LA was the firing in October of some 26 drivers who work for the Toll Group. The reason: they wore Teamsters t-shirts to work.

Thus, on the eve of the December 12 action, port driver activists and supporters said drivers in LA and Long Beach were prepared to stay away from work, and they were appealing to their counterparts in other cities to act in solidarity.

Teamsters in the port of Oakland were also prepared to stay away from their jobs, said Dana Blanchard, a member of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers who is active in the December 12 effort:

This is a huge contradiction to all the press we are getting. After three organized leafleting shifts at the port, the feeling is also that many of the unorganized port drivers will also not come to work tomorrow. The ILWU has also officially e-mailed its members that they are not going to be escorted in by police, and that many terminals have decided to shut down or have skeleton crews in anticipation of the protests. Overwhelmingly, all of the conversations we have had with port drivers when we flier has been positive.

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PREDICTABLY, SHIPPING bosses denounced the effort in a coordinated advertising campaign in Bay Area newspapers and media outlets.

More surprising has been the response of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). Union president Robert McEllrath issued a statement declaring that the Occupy protest was a third-party action not authorized by the ILWU, which cannot call for a work stoppage without violating its contracts.

However, McEllrath's statement outlined steps that union members could take if they felt that the community picket made it unsafe to work--for example, as the result of a large police presence. In that case, members are entitled to notify employers, who would then call upon an arbitrator to make the decision.

But as December 12 approached, ILWU officials ratcheted up their criticism of the community pickets. In an article in Britain's Guardian newspaper, ILWU spokesperson Craig Merrilees was quoted as describing Occupy protesters as "disrespectful, arrogant and misguided." He added: "This is being promoted by a group of people who apparently think they can call general strikes and workplace shutdowns without talking to workers and without involving the unions."

But according to retired ILWU Local 10 member Jack Heyman, ILWU international officials are reacting to pressure from employers, rather than the sentiment in the union rank-and-file to put the heat on EGT in Longview, where the first ship will call on the company's scab grain operation in the next few weeks. He said:

This call by Occupy Oakland for a West Coast solidarity port shutdown is a build-up to when the first ship comes in next month. If Occupy is successful now, then momentum for a coastwide shutdown by longshore workers is highly likely when the scab ship arrives. However, with hostile statements like those emanating from ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees and President McEllrath it drives a wedge between the union and its activist supporters.

ILWU has usually honored community picket lines like the one in San Francisco in 1977 against apartheid. And when the ILWU shut down all West Coast ports on May Day 2008 to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it didn't check with other port workers' unions, like the machinists or the Teamsters.

ILWU union tops have thwarted union democracy at every turn in the Longview struggle--preventing a special caucus or an emergency meeting of all rank-and-file longshoremen in the Northwest. Occupy represents a popular outrage against the excesses of capitalism as exemplified by Wall Street. They should be greeted with open arms by the ILWU, not shunned and castigated, if unions are to prevail against attacks from the employing class.

In fact, rank-and-file ILWU members are also involved in organizing support for the pickets. "I am a longshoreman, and I support the December 12 blockade against EGT," said Anthony Leviege, another member of ILWU Local 10. "EGT is a threat to the survival of the ILWU."

"These ports are public," said Clarence Thomas, a former official and veteran activist in Local 10. "People have a right to come to the port and protest. The ILWU has historically honored picket lines at the port."

Dan Coffman, president of ILWU Local 21 in Longview, has publicly thanked the Occupy movement and Occupy Oakland for supporting Local 21's struggle.

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WHILE THE success of each port action is bound to be uneven, the seriousness with which activists are responding to such an audacious call to action is a sign of the Occupy movement's continuing vibrancy.

Occupy movement supporters along the Gulf of Mexico recently announced that they, too, would join the call by blockading the Port of Houston. This is an ambitious task, however, for several reasons. Houston longshore labor is organized by the International Longshoreman's Association, a more conservative union that doesn't share the ILWU's tradition of honoring community pickets. Moreover, the port of Houston stretches for many miles, making it virtually impossible for a community picket to have much of an impact.

Also away from the West Coast, Occupy Denver plans to show solidarity through a blockade of Wal-Mart's Colorado distribution center, and it has called on all landlocked Occupy supporters to take similar action. And in New York City and Chicago, Occupy activists will target Goldman Sachs with protests as well.

While the impact of the protests will vary widely by city, the December 12 action will have an important impact on the Occupy movement as it debates its next steps following the coordinated police shutdowns of encampments.

For example, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), in the wake of its early endorsement of President Barack Obama's reelection, recently concluded its weeklong "Occupy Congress" actions in Washington, D.C. as part of the union's focus on the 2012 elections. A the same time, Adbusters magazine recently proposed that activists "#OccupyXmas" to disrupt consumer culture.

Occupy Oakland is spearheading a different kind of strategy, which is focused on the struggles of workers at the point of production. As one Occupy Oakland activist put it, "If the mayors of the 1 percent are sharing tactics for class war, then why shouldn't we?"

Occupy Oakland was able to shut down the port on November 2 by setting up community pickets with rank-and-file support. It was crucial to maintain mass community pickets long enough to ensure that a port labor arbitrator rules the picket lines have made it impossible to ensure a safe work environment.

Rank-and-file longshore and trucker support was critical for all of the past Oakland port shutdowns and will be critical for the shutdown on December 12. To build these bonds of solidarity, Occupy Oakland and others on the West Coast have not only been distributing leaflets, but talking with port workers about how to fight union-busting on the waterfront and how to build solidarity between the Occupy movement and organized labor.

By building on this kind of community-labor solidarity seen on December 12 and beyond, we can link the Occupy movement with the effort to organize where workers have power--at the point of production.


West Coast Port Shutdown Sparks Heated Debate between Unions, Occupy

Evan Rohar
Labor Notes
December 12, 2011

For the second time in a month, the Occupy movement called for mass action to shut down port operations. This time, the occupiers targeted the entire West Coast.

The Occupy Oakland General Assembly unanimously adopted a proposal November 18 calling for the “blockade and disruption of the economic apparatus of the 1% with a coordinated shutdown of ports on the entire West Coast on December 12.” (General assemblies are meetings, open to all, that make decisions for Occupy groups, using consensus.)

The motion declares solidarity with Longshore Union (ILWU) members in Longview, Washington, in their struggle against grain terminal operator EGT. The company has refused to hire ILWU members and is now in a drawn-out battle that could shape the future of the 4,000 union members who work the Pacific Northwest’s grain elevators.

Occupiers planned the shutdown without consulting with the union, and the ILWU put out a statement December 6 to its members and supporters disclaiming support for the action and claiming its prerogative in the fight against EGT. “The ILWU has a long history of democracy,” wrote ILWU President Bob McEllrath. “Part of that historic democracy is the hard-won right to chart our own course to victory.”

Members of the Occupy movement interpreted the union’s distancing itself as, at best, a legal safeguard against the fines that could result from a work stoppage that violates the contract’s strike bar. At worst, they saw it as a product of the union movement’s timidity, born of decades of retreat and identification with employer interests.

ILWU members and officials expressed alarm at how the port shutdown was called and questioned why the Occupy movements called for action without consulting the people that action would affect most.

Occupy spokespeople responded that they reached out to union members after the shutdown call was made. Kari Koch of Occupy Portland said they have been flyering at shift changes at the port for a week. “We would not be doing this action if we didn’t have any support from the rank and file,” Koch said.

But occupiers didn’t call ILWU Local 8 there, she said. (They sent an email.) Occupiers were worried the local could be legally liable if it coordinated with protesters.

Huge numbers showed up at the gates this morning in Oakland and shut three port gates. Occupiers, who plan to disrupt the afternoon shift as well, reported no animosity from ILWU members and port truckers.

While it’s certainly the case that the union movement needs a kick in the pants, and the occupiers have done a lot to aim the shoe, ILWU members and officers say democracy in movements—union and Occupy alike—means giving say to the people affected, not assuming their participation or support because an action is just.

But Mike Parker, a retired UAW activist in the Bay Area and co-author of Democracy Is Power, said most strikes are inconvenient for someone, including other workers. Their success relies on all workers affected by an action honoring the line, whether or not they felt appropriately warned.

Other unionists involved in the occupy movement say the ILWU should recognize the need for tactical flexibility.

“The Occupy movement is simply taking from labor history,” said Robbie Donohoe, an Electrical Workers member who has been active in organizing for the shutdown. “We’re making it safer for workers to challenge the boundaries of laws that were created to secure the reins of power firmly in the hands of the 1%.”

Regardless of whether ILWU leaders support the shutdown, union and community members have done person-to-person outreach to make it succeed.

The Oakland Education Association’s executive board backed the call; President Betty Olsen Jones has been leaftleting port truckers at 6 a.m. along with occupiers and union activists.

A largely immigrant workforce of “independent contractors” that move cargo in and out of the ports, the truckers are legally prevented from unionizing. Some criticized the November 2 port shutdown in Oakland because the truckers were unprepared for the huge march that succeeded in shutting down the port, which trapped many of them for hours. Lacking a union, they have few structures to appeal to for support.

Anthony Levierge of the Bay Area’s ILWU Local 10 and a half-dozen active rank and filers have been passing out flyers and explaining the rationale for the shutdown to fellow members. “It’s been a mixed bag of attitudes,” he said, adding that he believed members would "honor the history and legacy of social justice unionism that ILWU members have fought hard for.”

The West Coast longshore union has a history of honoring community picket lines for good causes, but the question of how those actions are decided—and actually brought to bear against multinational employers who move billions of dollars of goods through the ports—is a complicated matter.

Samantha Levens, a Bay Area member of the Inland Boatmen’s Union, an ILWU affiliate, said education and preparation among the members should have been a first priority. She noted that some previous shutdowns took months to prepare—like a May Day work stoppage in 2008.

When confronted with a picket line at port gates, ILWU members have the right under their coastwide contract to stop work and call an arbitrator to rule on possible safety threats or the validity of the picket line.

Success in shutting down ports along the coast depends upon presenting a credible safety threat to longshore workers. If emergency vehicles cannot make it into the port, or if the workers feel threatened by mass pickets and police presence, they will call an arbitrator to decide whether the action presents a bona fide risk. The decision to call an arbitrator can delay the beginning of work, and if the workers are sent home they may not be paid, depending on the circumstance.

Port bosses warned the ILWU that the 2008 May Day stoppage against the military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan was “unauthorized” but members went through with it regardless.

“Because the members had discussed and debated it before they voted on it and had been building support amongst the ranks heading towards the vote, the buy-in and ownership of the action was firmly in the hands of the members,” Levens said.

The Alameda Central Labor Council had a lively debate December 5 when Port Commissioner Victor Uno, who is also an Electrical Workers (IBEW) business manager, moved that the council “does not endorse a Port Shutdown.”

The council’s executive committee approved the motion, but some delegates argued that the Occupy movement deserved labor’s support, others that it deserved at least neutrality. The ILWU Local 10 president’s motion to table passed overwhelmingly.

Eric Larsen, member relations secretary for AFSCME Local 444 and labor liaison with Occupy Oakland, said council leaders wouldn't let him address the council about the port action.

“I pleaded with them to let me speak,” he said. “They would not.”

He said council leaders claimed the reason for rejecting him, and for their lack of support for the shutdown, came from Occupy’s failure to communicate.

On December 9 the building trades council took a position against the shutdown.

Originally, the idea of a December 12 protest was initiated by Occupy Los Angeles, to coincide with immigrants’ rights activities around Our Lady of Guadalupe Day.

Sarah Knopp, a 12-year member of the Teachers union (UTLA) in Los Angeles, said occupiers decided to target SSA Marine, a terminal operator owned by Goldman Sachs with container terminals in North and South America and in Vietnam.

SSA Marine is notorious for its environmental, labor, and human rights abuses and its exploitation of port truck drivers paid piece rates to move cargo containers on and off the docks. Occupiers were also motivated by the firing of 27 port truckers who work for a separate firm, Toll Group. Those fired had worn Teamster shirts, part of a long-running campaign to beat the legal prohibitions on organizing.

After Oakland Occupy expanded the call to all ports on the West Coast, Occupy L.A. decided to stay with its original plan—a march from Harry Bridges Park to an SSA terminal, and a community picket to block a gate. The ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles take up 25 miles of coastland and handle 85 percent of all traffic on the West Coast, an operation too vast to blockade with the numbers the protesters expected.

Knopp and fellow occupiers stood outside a recent ILWU Local 13 meeting and flyered the workers to build support for the SSA action. They received a “totally friendly reception,” Knopp said. “Everyone thinks it’s a great idea.”

“We’re initiating a process where the Occupy movement can build a base in the labor movement,” said Michael Novick, a UTLA retiree.

Saying that L.A. occupiers recognize the ILWU is not a position to act today (and its leadership was not solicited to participate), Novick added that the port truckers may be better placed to carry out the action in this crucial port. With no union contract, they face no sanction except loss of a day’s pay.

A loose association of port truck organizers who helped to shut the port on May 1, 2006, when immigrants rights protests shook the country, met December 9 to decide whether to attempt a similar action December 12.

Ernesto Nevarez, a port truck organizer, said truckers at the Los Angeles-Long Beach port stayed away for hours Monday morning as nearly 1,000 marchers rallied at port gates.

Every ILWU officer and international staffer reiterates the union’s solidarity with the Occupy movement and its goals. But the December 12 action has annoyed many.

Cameron Williams, president of Local 19 in Seattle, said, “It’s kind of like if I planned a party at your house and didn’t ask about it.” Local officers say occupiers circumvented the union’s democratic process.

“The occupiers have been understandably confused by mixed signals from individuals in the ILWU,” said Craig Merrilees, communications director for the international. He believes some members are speaking to occupiers without the backing of the organization’s internal democratic process.

President Scott Mason of Local 23 in Tacoma, Washington, said he hasn’t “felt much movement either way” from the members.

“Local 8 officers aren’t in support of it,” said Jeff Smith, president of the Portland longshore local. “If it went to a rank-and-file vote I don’t know what would happen.”

Rank and filers won’t get a chance to have their say. Local 8’s next membership meeting is December 14.

Occupiers leafleted the dispatch hall but members say they might have succeeded in convincing more of the Portland rank and file if outreach had started before the action was set.

Levens expressed support for the Occupy movement’s goal—to confront corporate power—but not its approach in this action.

“The lack of communication with the members leaves the Occupy activists and union members without the benefit of sharing our [earlier] Oakland experience with shutting down the port and community pickets,” said Levens, who has been active in Oakland general assemblies.

Parker said the constraints on unions are too great to expect a better process.

“Even if Occupy Oakland were the best, most democratic it could be, there is no way that they could consult with elected leaders of the ILWU,” he said. “Unions are faced with a choice of gambling everything [by openly supporting a strike] or of protecting themselves by disclaiming responsibility and honoring lines by using loopholes.”

It doesn’t help that the institutions assessing liability—right-wing courts—are not on labor’s side.

Parker says the occupiers may have to look for new ways to hit the 1%.

“The continued focus on the docks, because it is easy and takes advantage of the solidarity traditions of the dock workers, makes the dock workers themselves the targets and the targets start resenting it,” Parker said.

Occupy Oakland said a big part of the reason for today’s action was solidarity with ILWU Local 21 in its struggle against grain shipper EGT. Some in the movement say the ILWU officialdom, which badly needs to beat EGT, is merely covering its legal bases by distancing itself from the action.

But leaders of locals up and down the coast say a coastwide work stoppage for Local 21 could actually harm its struggle, by uniting employers to support EGT.

A more immediate fear could be legal reprisals resulting from an injunction and contempt charges leveled by a federal judge against Local 21 and the international. Fines for the local’s disruptions, blockades, and grain-dumping this summer have already totaled $315,000.

If a federal judge determines that occupiers are acting on the union’s behalf, Mason said, “we can be charged $5,000 for every incident.”

Still, Local 21 President Dan Coffman, who gave a speech about EGT to Occupy Oakland the day after its general assembly adopted the shutdown call, does not conceal his enthusiasm for the movement.

Coffman cited the November 2 port shutdown as an inspiration to his members, who have been on the picket line for six months.

Supporters of Occupy and ILWU Local 21 are preparing for January, when a ship headed for Asia is scheduled to retrieve grain from the disputed elevator in Longview. An independently organized action could allow the ILWU to circumvent the legal minefield set in front of its own membership.

“We’re going to do whatever we can to stop that ship from being loaded,” Coffman vowed.

Correction: The story originally mischaracterized events at the Alameda Central Labor Council.

Eduardo Soriano-Castillo contributed to this story from Oakland.


Organizing for the port shutdown

Lee Sustar challenges the assertion that the Occupy movement is trying to impose a shutdown of West Coast docks without support from port workers.
Socialist Worker
December 8

THE OCCUPY movement is trying to strong-arm longshore workers and truck drivers into shutting down West Coast ports December 12--or so say critics of the action.

They're wrong.

Those organizing for action on the docks are neither the outside agitators described by employers nor the ultra-left adventurists snubbed by union leaders and their apologists. Rather, they are a grassroots network that includes rank-and-file longshore union members; nonunion port drivers; longstanding labor militants from a variety of unions; and new activists, union and nonunion, who have joined the Occupy movement to try to challenge the country's economic priorities.

Among those new activists is Scott Olsen, who was critically injured in a police attack on Occupy Oakland. In a statement to ILWU members, Olsen wrote: "You do the work--THEY, the global maritime bosses, profit at your expense. Your safety and your jobs are always at stake."

And there's no sharp divide between Occupy activists and ILWU members and other workers who are also organizing to build awareness of the community picket.

"I think people [on the docks] do have sympathy and feel connected with Occupy as a whole," said Anthony Leviege, an ILWU member for 11 years who is active with Occupy Oakland. Working alongside other Occupy activists to leaflet the docks in recent weeks, he estimated that about 50 percent of the workers he's talked to expressed some sympathy for the December 12 action.

Leviege is active in the Occupy movement for the same reason he is active in the ILWU--to improve the lives of working people, he said. "It's because of my background--coming from the ghettos, coming from poverty, seeing young men die early or go to jail," he said.

David Villegas, a member of ILWU Local 13 in Los Angeles and a former truck driver in the port, also reported a sympathetic reception to the flyers for December 12. "Everyone is wondering if they will stand for something, or fall for nothing," he said.

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THE DECEMBER 12 call to action is a grassroots effort to deepen the links between Occupy and longshore labor. Activists are focusing on multiple targets: EGT, the transnational corporation that's trying to eliminate ILWU jobs at a new grain export facility in Longview, Wash.; SSA Marine, the port terminal operator owned by Wall Street powerhouse Goldman Sachs; Toll Group, a trucking employer that fired 26 Los Angeles-Long Beach drivers in October for wearing Teamster t-shirts to work; and port employers generally for their hard-line opposition to truck drivers' union organizing.

Essentially, the call for the December 12 action reflects an effort by the Occupy movement to tap labor's social power at a key node in the capitalist system.

"For the first time in decades in this country, the labor movement is being confronted with a genuine movement from below, a populist movement that is challenging the very fundamentals of our capitalist system," said Jack Heyman, a retired member of ILWU Local 10 who is building support for the December 12 action. "Occupy is resonating very deeply within the ranks of labor."

The potential of this new coalition--which was key to shutting down the Port of Oakland with a community picket of thousands on November 2--has clearly alarmed employers, who have launched an aggressive advertising campaign to denounce the December 12 effort. The Washington Post carried the same line, declaring that workers don't support the plan.

Those views weren't surprising coming from port bosses and the corporate media. But even Cal Winslow, a labor historian and researcher at the University of California-Berkeley, wrote an article claiming that the action is being organized over the heads of ILWU members and other port workers:

I confess to knowing little about the officers of the ILWU, the same for the rank and file. But now, for better or worse, the case is that neither the officers of the ILWU nor any significant section of its members support the December actions planned by Occupy Oakland.

In fact, veteran activists in Local 10, such as Clarence Thomas, have been publicly building support for the community picket line along with Occupy activists.

And if Winslow is correct that labor was united in rejecting the December 12 action, then it should have been easy for the executive committee of the Alameda Labor Council, which includes the Oakland area, to pass a proposed resolution explicitly opposing the protest. At the council delegate's meeting December 5, a motion to disavow the action was presented by Victor Uno, business manager and financial secretary of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 595, who is also a commissioner of the Port of Oakland.

Uno's resolution to oppose the December 12 action reflects the view of trade union leaders who may be sympathetic to Occupy's criticisms, but who are opposed to militant actions that might destabilize labor's relationship with employers and Democratic Party politicians. Given the support of the executive council, Uno may have expected his resolution to pass fairly easily.

Instead, an hour-long debate ensued, in which most delegates thought that a statement of opposition to the December 12 action would send the wrong message, said Jenna Woloshyn, a member of Teamsters Local 70 in Oakland and a driver at UPS, who attended the meeting.

"The executive committee's argument was that all the unions with workers at the port were not endorsing the action," Woloshyn said. "They failed to mention that just because they were not endorsing didn't mean they were coming out with positions against the action, as this resolution would put the council on record for being. The Teamsters are not actively against the shutdown. Local 70 officials spoke against the proposal."

The debate ended when ILWU Local 10 President Richard Mead, rather than support the motion to repudiate the December 12 action, moved to postpone action on the resolution, effectively defeating it.

If labor council delegates were able to defeat Uno's motion, it was because they were responding to activism on the ground in the ports. Those working to build the December 12 action are relating to longstanding organizing efforts by port drivers. They are also building upon a tradition of ILWU Local 10 of respecting community picket lines that have shut down the docks to protest apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s and Israel today, as well as shipments of cargo to support the U.S. war in Iraq.

Local 10 has a history of taking action over political issues, such as initiating a coastwide port shutdown on May Day 2008 in protest of the Iraq war. Earlier this year, Local 10 shut down the docks in the Bay Area April 4 in response to the AFL-CIO's call for a day of action in support of Wisconsin public-sector workers, who lost bargaining rights through anti-union legislation. The employers promptly sued Local 10 for that action.

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WHAT, THEN, is to be made of ILWU President Robert McEllrath's statement disassociating the union from the December 12 call to action? "Only ILWU members or their elected representatives can authorize job actions on behalf of the union, and any decisions made by groups outside of the union's democratic process do not hold water, regardless of the intent," McEllrath wrote.

McEllrath is certainly correct to point out that ILWU members must democratically decide on the actions of their union. And an official ILWU call for a job action on December 12 would invite legal retribution from employers.

But McEllrath, in fact, mischaracterizes the December 12 action. The Occupy movement isn't attempting to "authorize a job action" by the ILWU, but to establish a community picket line and ask ILWU members and other port workers to honor it on the basis of solidarity.

This isn't a far-out idea, given the ILWU tradition of respect for community picket lines and the union's early support for the Occupy movement. In fact, across the bay, the San Francisco Labor Council passed a resolution in October that declared Occupy San Francisco to be a "sanctioned union strike line." In other words, the labor council recognized that Occupy was a workers' movement deserving of union solidarity.

What's more, even ILWU members who sympathize with Occupy's call for a December 12 action must operate under the constraint of a union contract that bans strikes.

As McEllrath's statement explains, if ILWU members stay away from their jobs December 12, it will be the result of a port labor arbitrator's ruling that the picket lines have made it impossible to ensure a safe work environment.

As Villegas of Local 13 explained, "Our contract says we have to work 365 days a year, no matter what"--and an official call to action would violate that. That's why rank-and-file ILWU members who support the community picket are leafleting the ports alongside Occupy activists.

This dynamic--union members expressing sympathy for militant action that labor officials reject--shouldn't be a surprise to Cal Winslow, an editor of the recent book Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt from Below During the Long 1970s. In his introduction to the book, Winslow describes the spread of wildcat strikes, actions called without the authorization of union leaders, which accounted for one-third of strikes in the late 1960s and early 1970s:

Wildcat strikers were the shock troops of the "rebellions from below," and their strikes became all but routine elements in contractual disputes and grievance negotiations. The strikers were often repudiations of the union leadership and, implicitly, of the entire postwar system of industrial relations.

Somehow, Winslow, who can write at length about rank-and-file activism 40 years ago, doesn't recognize the initial stirrings of similar militancy today.

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IN FACT, the idea for a protest on December 12 originated not with Occupy Oakland, but with immigrant rights and labor activists in Los Angeles who support the organizing efforts of port truck drivers in the LA-Long Beach ports.

When Occupy Los Angeles labor activists held a meeting November 6 to discuss how to broaden the movement, the idea of an action in the ports was natural. Some 26 drivers at the Toll Group had been fired a few days earlier for their efforts to organize with the Teamsters, and December 12 was a traditional day of protests in Southern California among Mexican immigrants, who commemorate Our Lady of Guadalupe on that date.

After discussions with labor activists in the harbor area, the Occupy LA group decided to focus their protest on SSA Marine, a terminal operator owned by Goldman Sachs and known for anti-labor practices towards port truckers and labor worldwide, said Michael Novick, a retired LA teacher who has been active in the harbor community for years.

The protest isn't intended to have the movement substitute itself for the ILWU, Novick said. "We understand they have limits on what actions they can take, and we can take action as community people." He continued: "We can't put ourselves forward as representing them. But we can represent the issues and the interests of the 99 percent."

As in Oakland, Occupy activists in LA and Long Beach have leafleted the docks and ILWU union meetings and gotten a friendly reception, said Sarah Knopp, a member of United Teachers Los Angeles.

A key moment of building solidarity came December 2 during a four-hour strike by clerical workers, Knopp said. "Leah Marinkovich, a striking clerk, told me, 'What you guys are doing in the Occupy Movement is helping us to put pressure on our bosses to settle.'"

Meanwhile, port trucker activists are debating whether to carry out a port shutdown in LA and Long Beach on December 12, said Ernesto Nevarrez, a harbor community activist who helped the drivers organize the total shutdown of the ports in 2004 and 2006.

While the 2006 action was in conjunction with the nationwide protests against anti-immigrant legislation, the drivers have been fighting since the 1980s for the right to organize a union. Employers regard the drivers as independent contractors who can't form a union without violating antitrust laws--laws that originally targeted corporations.

Over the last week, Nevarrez and other activists distributed flyers to 60 to 70 percent of port drivers, he said. As in previous years, the drivers will meet to decide what action to take. "The decision on whether to shut the port down will come this Friday [December 9] when all the drivers will show up at payday at the companies," he said. "Someone at each company will say, 'Let's talk about it,' and some of the discussions will be formal. They will form a collective, and the collective at each company will reach a consensus."

Of course, there's no guarantee that the port actions will be successful up and down the coasts. That depends on the actions of port drivers and whether the community pickets are large enough to convince an port labor arbitrator that it's "unsafe" for ILWU members to cross the picket lines. That's what happened in Oakland November 2, when some 15,000 activists marched to the port during the evening shift change as part of a general strike call in response to police repression that nearly killed Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen several days earlier.

Now, Olsen himself is appealing to ILWU members to respect the community picket line on December 12. His statement reflects the spirit of the alliance between the labor and Occupy movements:

The bosses have been getting away with it for far too long. We can beat them, but we have to work together--unions, rank-and-file workers and Occupy.

I was on my second pump to Iraq when ILWU--when you--led by your Vietnam vets, shut down the West Coast ports on May Day 2008 to stop the war. The best support I could have asked for in Iraq was from you brothers and sisters who wanted us home, alive and well--sooner, not later. I spent two pumps in Iraq looking for our enemies. Only after coming back home did I discover our greatest enemy--that is the enemy we are fighting now.

Where the Oakland action can draw upon ILWU Local 10's traditions of solidarity and respect for community picket lines, and the LA-Long Beach protesters are linking up with the ongoing port drivers' struggle, Occupy activists in other port cities are still making connections with ILWU members and other port workers.

But by focusing on labor's potential power at the point of production, the December 12 actions point the way forward for the Occupy movement. Everyone who wants to see the revival of a fighting labor movement should support these actions.


Round up of the December 12 Port Shutdown

Links has a round up of coverage of the Shutdown of West Coast Ports on December 12, by the Occupy Groups up the US and Canadian West Coast. I will be posting some important articles regarding the relationship between Occupy and the labour movement.

While any action by Occupy is likely to draw the ire and opposition of more conservative wings of the labour movement, it is also clear that sections of the leadership the historically militant International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which has given support to the Occupy movement, took a publicly hostile attitude to the shutdown of ports worked by the union's members.

The character of this opposition remains unclear with a number of possible explanations having been raised, hostility by the union to incursions into the ILWU's internal democracy, an effort by the ILWU leadership to separate the union from the action in order to avoid any possible legal action for breaching no strike clauses in the union's contracts, and the development of a more conservative strata within the unions leadership.

In my opinion the lack of clarity of regarding the nature of the engagement or lack of engagement by the ILWU leaderships with the shutdown suggests that a central challenge for progressive movement's such as Occupy, is to build the level of engagement with the labour movement, in order to build real and lasting alliances to empower working people and their communities.


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

We've got the power to win

by Sean Vernell, UCU national executive 
Socialist Worker
10 December 2011

N30 was a historic day for the trade union movement. It could be a turning point in the fight to defend our pensions and stop the government’s austerity measures.

We are constantly told trade unions are in decline and don’t hold the power they once had. But the 30 November strike gave the lie to this.

It saw the rebirth of trade unions as a united mass movement. Working people saw a glimpse of their power and their ability to change things.

Every mass strike lights up the way forward and shows how change can be won.

Workers often have to put up with bullying managers and stress over workloads. But on the day of the strike these concerns seemed a million miles away.

At work the next day, employers faced workers who are more confident, less compliant and more determined to take control of their lives.

This is what every government and boss fears. And their only response is to whip up fear and division.

The government paraded around the media reminding public– sector workers how lucky they were to have pensions at all because many private workers don’t.

It offered a deal to buy off older workers with a promise that the “reforms” would not affect them.

But this attempt to divide workers failed miserably. That’s because ordinary workers recognise that this is not simply a fight for themselves. It is also, crucially, about younger workers’ futures.

The strike was a great success. And it had a deeper impact than protesting or letting off steam.

Public sector workers are in this fight to win. There was a clear consensus among strikers that a one-day strike would not be enough to win.

It is important to push a strategy for all-out action. But the key issue facing us now is how to escalate as soon as possible.

The speed at which we move is important for two reasons.

First, another five month gap before the next strike will allow the government time to get better organised.

Second, any delay in action will send a message that the unions aren’t serious about this fight.

The strategy put forward must match the seriousness of the task. Otherwise workers will simply ask why they are losing pay for a strategy that will not win.


Some unions have already passed motions calling for further nationally coordinated action as soon as possible, including the NUT and the PCS.

Local joint union mobilising committees that were set up for N30 should meet and be part of coordinating the next step.

This should include winning unions that weren’t part of N30 to join future action.

The UCU national executive met on Friday last week. We unanimously passed a motion outlining a possible strategy as a way forward to be proposed to the other unions.

The motion called for another day of nationally coordinated action as early as possible in the spring term.

This would mean from January onwards. This would be followed immediately with coordinated regional action.

The motion calls for “this action to be rolled out across the country creating a Mexican wave effect acting as a bridge to the next day of nationally coordinated strike action” and “this action to end with a 48 hour nationally coordinated strike.”

We need to ensure that this debate is had in every workplace. Don’t delay—hold branch meetings right away to discuss the next steps and pass motions calling for escalation.

Some union leaders are looking for a way out. They need to feel the pressure from below to stop them making a shoddy deal.

A victory on pensions will pave the way for a wider challenge to the brutal austerity programme of this government.


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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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