Lessons from the ILWU Battle Against EGT in Longview and the Struggle Ahead

On 29 July, the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee held a forum in San Francisco titled “Lessons from the ILWU Battle Against EGT in Longview and the Struggle Ahead,” which reviewed the long-running fight waged by ILWU longshoremen in Longview, WA against the grain conglomerate EGT and the sell-out contract negotiated by the ILWU leadership. The panel consisted of members of the Occupy Oakland Labor Solidarity Committee and workers from Longview and other ILWU locals, including long-time IBT supporter Howard Keylor, a retired member of ILWU Local 10 in Oakland.

In February, in response to a planned mass mobilization organized by Local 21 rank and file supported by the West Coast Occupy movement as well as trade-union militants in the region, the ILWU International Officers, led by President Bob McEllrath, negotiated a secret, sell-out contract with EGT and Washington Governor Gregoire. ILWU Local 21 members were forced to vote on and pre-approve the contract without having seen it—a set-up unprecedented in the history of the ILWU. The ships' clerks of Local 40 were completely shut out of the negotiations. The integrity of the hiring hall was compromised, with management given powers to approve workers at the EGT facility, and for the first time in ILWU history, the Taft-Hartley slave labor law was written into an ILWU contract. EGT has since blacklisted longshoremen who were active in the strike and excluded them from working at the terminal.

Keylor has previously described the Longview contract as “The worst contract I have ever seen”. Speakers at the forum, including Local 21 longshoremen, agreed that the contract was the worst in ILWU history, that the ILWU International Officers sabotaged attempts by Occupy and others to defend Local 21, and that the extension of this precedent could spell the end of the ILWU.

Jack Heyman of ILWU Local 10 (retired) and the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee discussed the role that various leftist organizations played in covering for the ILWU leadership’s betrayal of the rank and file. Most notably, the ILWU International Officers dispatched a group of bureaucrats and their hangers-on to violently disrupt a forum in solidarity with Local 21 held at the Seattle Labor Temple on 6 January. The leadership’s supporters attempted to silence speakers (they had already banned Local 21’s president, Dan Coffman, from speaking at the meeting) and demanded that a letter written by ILWU President McEllrath be read. The letter called, among other things, for suppressing mass demonstrations and imposing the Taft-Hartley law, which would have restricted pickets at Longview to six people. The Seattle disruption followed a similar attempt by the International leadership to prevent the 12 December “Port Shutdown” called by Occupy groups on the West Coast.

In the aftermath of the Seattle disruption, the International Socialist Organization and the Spartacist League both published articles claiming that McEllrath’s letter should have been read, and other left groups, including Socialist Appeal (International Marxist Tendency), Socialist Action, Committee for a Workers’ International and Socialist Workers Party took the position that the contract was some sort of limited victory.

The union misleaders’ policy of attempting to avoid open discussion within the workers’ movement is the flip side of their policy of slavish compliance with capitalist labor laws, which often make winning strikes impossible. At the time of the Seattle forum disruption, we wrote a rebuttal to the Spartacist League’s alibiing of the ILWU International Officers, “SL Sides with Bureaucrats against Occupy and Union Militants.”

In his contribution, Brother Keylor spoke on the history of strikes in the ILWU being wrecked by the cowardly International Officers and described how a determined fight at Longview could have evolved into the first bi-coastal strike in U.S. history. His remarks are transcribed below, slightly edited for publication.

Video of Howard Keylor’s speech

I want to give some historic ILWU context to this discussion. I began working on the waterfront in 1953, so I think I’m in a small way qualified.

Longview was the first time that a contract was imposed by the International Officers on a longshore local that really abandons the hiring hall. The hiring hall was a main demand in 1934 that was won against tremendous odds. It was the one issue on which longshoremen were quite clearly, in 1934, not prepared to compromise, and the ILWU continued to defend the hiring hall—until Longview.

There is a myth, quite commonly held, that there is a seamless relationship between the leadership of the ILWU and its membership. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is a history of betrayals and capitulation to the employers and the government by the International Officers—betrayals mainly of non-West Coast longshoremen and non-longshore locals who were on strike.

In 1974, the Canadian longshoremen were on strike. The shipping companies diverted their ships with Canadian cargo to the Northwest U.S. ports, who worked the cargo. The ILWU International Officers told Canadian longshoremen not to send pickets to the U.S. ports. At the 1974 ILWU International Convention in Vancouver, British Columbia, six members of the Longshore-Warehouse Militant Caucus, to which I belonged, appeared at the hotel lobby just outside the meeting room where the conference was taking place with leaflets and banners denouncing this betrayal of the Canadian longshoremen. Harry Bridges tried to get us physically thrown out of the hotel, but he wasn't successful. I’m not sure he would fail today.

In 1970, the Trona, CA ILWU local was engaged in a 115-day strike against a Borax mine and processing plant way out in the Mojave desert. I bet nobody here has ever been to Trona. Actually I’ve only met two people who've been to Trona. By reputation it’s supposed to be the most unlivable city in the country.

The Trona workers picketed the ship in the harbor in Los Angeles which was loading the scab-produced products. The ship was not worked; ILWU longshoremen did not cross the picket line. The area contract arbitrator, Rollins, ruled that this was a legitimate picket line under the terms of the contract. Then, an injunction against picketing was issued. At that point, the International Officers ordered the Trona local not to picket ships loading scab cargo. Ships continued to be loaded and the strike was lost. The Trona local had to accept an inferior contract and to capitulate in accepting 12 ILWU members being fired.

In 1974, the Boron ILWU local, way out in the Mojave desert, was forced into a bitter strike. Los Angeles ILWU longshoremen continued to load scab Borax products all during the strike. Boron officers were told by the International Officers not to picket the ships. The strike was lost and 400 ILWU members were replaced by scabs. And again, in the 2010 Boron strike, Los Angeles longshoremen loaded scab products and again Boron officers were ordered by the International Officers not to picket the ships, and a grossly inferior contract was imposed on the local.

The question has been raised sharply: was Longview destined to fail? I think not. The Longshoremen have won against great odds in the past, as they did in 1934. They won also against great odds in 1948. The ILWU in 1948 was forced into a three-and-a-half month strike just to save the union. The U.S. government, the waterfront employers, the AFL and the CIO all ganged up to destroy the ILWU in 1948. The longshoremen remained firm, they stopped the scabbing at Fort Mason here in San Francisco and they came out with a union and their coast-wide contract intact. That was a strike that, if you looked at it objectively, they should not have won.

What would have happened when the ship arrived at Longview to load the scab grain if this sell-out contract had not been imposed? In thinking about this, I think what would probably have happened is a major confrontation would have ensued between the police and thousands of Northwest longshoremen and trade unionists reinforced by Occupy supporters. It would probably have been a major confrontation with many arrests, brutality and so forth. The ship would likely have been loaded, but it is also likely that West Coast longshoremen would have voluntarily walked off the job in spite of what the International Officers wanted them to do, presenting a de facto West Coast strike. If that had happened, it is very likely that the East Coast and Gulf ILA longshoremen would have struck, causing the first nation-wide longshore strike. Given the dependence of the U.S. economy upon ocean shipping, a victory at Longview would have been within the realm of possibility if this had happened.

There is no great puzzle why the ILWU bureaucracy and their hangers-on in the locals shrank from a real struggle. The ILWU officers are committed to labor peace. They are business unionists, who see themselves as having a common interest with the bosses to restrain the impulses of the rank and file for workers to fight to defend their gains. Theirs is the ideology of class collaboration, an ideology which is reinforced by the draconian penalties contained within the 1947 Taft-Hartley slave labor law, which outlaws all of the measures needed to win strikes.

I want to conclude my remarks with a line from a Woody Guthrie song, in which he was giving some advice to people who are engaged in defending the working class. It goes like this:
“If you play the game, they'll call you a gambler,
but if you don't gamble, you never will win.”