Thursday, September 8, 2011

ILWU Chief Arrested, Military Force Threatened

Militias Battling Striking Workers, Great Upheaval, 1877

Bob McEllrath, president of the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) was arrested this week at a protest in Vancouver, Washington, along with 18 other ILWU members. ILWU members protested his arrest and quickly secured his release. However, in the process, authorities threatened to call in the army next time, according to the ITF website.

The ILWU was protesting the hiring of non-union workers at the port of Longview, in violation of the ILWU contract with the port authority. Union members blockaded trains headed for the port. Riot police attacked the nonviolent demonstrators with pepper spray and clubs, including women and children, injuring many. The police also carried rifles loaded with rubber bullets. Despite the attack, protesters held their ground forcing the cops and trains to temporarily back off. At least one train eventually did make its way through, according to The Daily News Online.

Unlike the majority of unions in the U.S., the ILWU is still willing to defend its members’ interests with militant actions like strikes and blockades, even at the risk of getting arrested or physically assaulted. They are also willing to confront the federal government, which issued an injunction against blocking shipments to and from the port through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), according to the The Daily News Online article.

Their willingness to violate the law in order to defend their members’ interests is not only courageous, but key to winning this and future labor battles. The NLRB is stacked in favor of business interests and will generally rule against labor. Even the notion of “cooling” off periods, which do not specifically preclude strikes but delay them, works in the interests of the bosses, as it diffuses anger and organizing momentum and gives the bosses and authorities more time to figure out how best to quash the strike.

The general trend toward banning strikes by teachers and other public sector workers, likewise, must be resisted. Regardless of court orders and legislation, if workers’ rights and living standards are under attack, they can and should take job actions. There was a time when unions were not legal and ALL strikes and job actions were therefore illegal. Workers did not recognize or obey the law then. Their disregard for the law helped pave the way for collective bargaining, the eight hour day, paid holidays, overtime pay, free weekends, and a child labor laws. Similarly, African Americans violated Jim Crow laws and risked being arrested, beaten or killed, to defend their rights and freedoms. Yet most labor leaders today seem to be more concerned with playing nice with their politician friends, or avoiding jail time, than doing what is necessary to support their members.

The ILWU also has the backing and solidarity of hundreds of thousands of dock workers from around the world. International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) president Paddy Crumlin said the bosses “need to take a big step back and think about what they are trying to force through, then see sense and talk to the ILWU about how to resolve this issue before it escalates even further. . . 350,000 plus dockers in the ITF will be watching how the company treats their American colleagues and, if the company makes it necessary, will be ready to take lawful solidarity action in support of the ILWU.”

International solidarity is absolutely essential to many jobs actions nowadays, with international capital controlling so much of the economy. The grain terminal in question is owned and operated by EGT – a consortium that includes North America, South Korea-based STX Pan Ocean and Japan-based Itochu Corporation. Simultaneous ITU strikes in the U.S., South Korea and Japan would place much more pressure on EGT than a single protest in Washington state.

Military Used Against U.S. Citizens?
It has been done before and it will likely be done again, though state militias and outfits other than the official U.S. army will be most likely used, as the military is prevented by the Posse Comitatus Act (1878) from maintaining law and order on U.S. soil. On the other hand, the law has also been temporarily suspended and could again, if Capital becomes scared enough of the angry masses. In 2006, for example, Congress authorized the president to suspend the act and deploy federal forces to enforce domestic laws in the event of disasters, terrorist attacks or “other conditions,” which might include labor unrest or general strikes. However, these changes were repealed in 2008.

Regardless of which heavily armed branch of government is used, the threat has been made against port workers and it is not an idle threat. The ILWU has been battling EGT for over a year, with workers shutting down the port on numerous occasions and many of its members getting arrested. EGT’s bosses are clearly getting fed up with the interruptions to profits and have called in the governments’ guns to protect their non-union, low paid scabs and keep the union workers from stopping business.

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