On April 4, thousands of longshore workers shut down the ports of San Francisco and Oakland for 24 hours in support of the national day of actions in defense of collective bargaining. According to Working in These Times, over 90% of the members of ILWU local 10 took part in the work stoppage. Their employer, The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), filed a federal lawsuit against Local 10, arguing that their leaders deliberately violated the no-strike clause of their contract by promoting the action. ILWU members argue that their leaders had nothing to do with the action, which was organized by members during a general membership meeting. Working in These Times quoted Trent Willis, chair of the Local 10 Defense Committee, who said "Our officers, whether they supported it or not, were powerless."
There are several lessons in this for teachers and other workers. Local 10 has been one of the few unions in recent years to engage in solidarity strikes. They have shut down the ports in order to block weapons shipments to the repressive Salvadoran regime in the 1980s. They shut down the ports in solidarity with Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is being threatened with execution for a crime he most likely did not commit. They shut down the ports in solidarity with the anti-Apartheid movement. (For more, see here)
The problem is that while such actions are a necessary part of any attempt to change state or employer policies, they are unlikely to be successful in isolation. Large numbers of workers from across the private and public sector must join in such solidarity actions for them to be successful.
Another lesson is that the ILWU rank and file not only understands the importance of solidarity and the power of the strike, but they are willing to take great risks in carrying them out on a regular and ongoing basis. Each time they strike, workers risk arrest, injury, and possibly even death, should the state or company goons choose to unleash the full force of their power, while their union risks lawsuits and penalties. Indeed, during a port shut down protesting the war in Iraq in 2003, the Oakland police fired upon ILWU members and their supporters with rubber bullets, wooden dowels and bean bag rounds. They also threw concussion grenades at them, and used tear gas and “sting balls,” which spray BB-like pellets. (See here and here).
When a union refuses to stand up for what is right or to use the only effective weapon they have out of fear of jail, injury, lawsuit, or any other excuse, they become impotent and irrelevant. The fact that unions and strikes were once illegal, did not stop workers from forming unions and taking strike actions.
The current lawsuit against the ILWU is not simply about recouping corporate losses from the April 4 shutdown. More importantly, it is about intimidating ALL workers so that no one else considers solidarity actions, general strikes, or even actions to defend their own members in local disputes. It should be noted that the April work stoppage by Local 10 was in solidarity with the public sector workers of Wisconsin, who had shut down their state capital with demonstrations and an occupation, and who were on the verge of a general strike. Nothing terrifies the ruling elite more than a general strike, not only because it has the potential to cause huge losses in profits, but also because general strikes have a tendency to radicalize workers and encourage them to increase their demands.
Unfortunately, the mainstream unions in Wisconsin backed down and told all their members to go home, thus undermining the chances of a general strike or even localized strikes. It is also unfortunate that the rank and file listened and followed their union bosses’ orders, as it would have been relatively easy to parlay their existing demonstrations and occupation into a general strike, with so many already skipping work and with the support of Wisconsin’s South Central Federation of Labor.
PMA has recently reached out to Local 10 to discuss an out of court settlement. According to the Working in These Times article, PMA has offered to drop the lawsuit without damages, though they did not mention what, if anything, the ILWU would have to concede. It is also unclear why the PMA is backing down, except that numerous organizations and unions have come to the defense of Local 10, including Labor Secretary Robert Reich, the San Francisco Labor Council, Wisconsin’s South Central Federation of Labor, and the World Federation of Trade Unions.