Local 10 needs your support

June 7, 2011

Ragina Johnson looks at the campaign to defend Bay Area longshore workers who stood in solidarity with the labor movement in Wisconsin.

THE ORGANIZATION that represents most West Coast shipping bosses is suing the longshore workers' union local for the Bay Area over a one-day work stoppage earlier this year to show solidarity with the struggle against union-busting in Wisconsin.

International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 was answering the call by the AFL-CIO for a day of solidarity with Wisconsin workers on April 4--the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tenn., where he was supporting striking sanitation workers. Following the AFL-CIO's slogans of "We are all one" and "No business as usual," rank-and-file members of Local 10 decided unanimously to stay off the job.

Now, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) is suing ILWU Local 10 and its president Richard Mead for "unspecified damages" over the work action.

The PMA is citing the notorious Taft-Hartley Act--an anti-union law passed in 1947. Taft-Hartley law was crafted to ban solidarity strikes--secondary boycotts, mass pickets and wildcat strikes--actions that built the unions in the 1930's. The law was also used to purge radicals from the unions.

ILWU Local 10 members and supporters gather for a rally
ILWU Local 10 members and supporters gather for a rally (Robert B. Livingston)

The last time Taft-Hartley was used against the ILWU was in 2002, under George Bush Jr., when the PMA locked out longshore workers who were facing attacks on their working conditions, wages and benefits. A court order obtained by Bush required the ILWU to return to work for 80 days in the event of the lockout being judged a "national emergency."

At a May 24 organizing meeting for a defense campaign for Local 10, longtime activist Jack Heyman explained why the PMA is going after the longshore workers:

We're running a defense campaign for the only union that stuck its neck out for Wisconsin workers by stopping work. The PMA wants to intimidate a local that has a stellar record in coming out in solidarity with oppressed peoples. That's why the PMA is legally attacking Local 10. If the employers are successful, it will have a chilling effect on the entire labor movement.

THE MEMBERS of ILWU Local 10 decided in favor of the action on April 4 against their union leadership as a show of solidarity with their brothers and sisters around the country. As Clarence Thomas, the past secretary-treasurer of Local 10, explained in an interview with Democracy Now!:

What you can do

As part of the defense campaign, ILWU Local 10 is collecting statements of solidarity and campaign endorsements. You can sign onto the solidarity campaign on the Internet or send your solidarity statement directly by e-mailing defendilwulocal10@gmail.com.

Activists in the Bay Area can attend the next defense campaign meeting on June 15 at 7 p.m. at 400 Northpoint in San Francisco. Come out to help organize future actions, including a possible mass picket outside of PMA, to get the bosses to drop the lawsuit.

[O]ne of the reasons that we don't see more solidarity action coming from unions is the threat of the employers [with] lawsuits [against] secondary boycotts and so forth. This is a means of intimidating the rank and file. We believe that in light of these attacks on the working class, the rank and file must have rank-and-file unity. And we believe that solidarity is not an empty slogan. Solidarity means making a sacrifice. And on April 4, our members did not go to work. We did not get paid. And for 24 hours, international commerce was shut down. And we believe that more unions need to do the same.

In fact, the ILWU has a rich history in standing up not only for workers but oppressed peoples, in the U.S. and internationally. "An injury to one is an injury to all" is not just a slogan slapped on placards and banners for the members of Local 10.

As point four of the "Ten Guiding Principles of the ILWU" states:

To help any worker in distress must be a daily guide in the life of every trade union and its individual members. Labor solidarity means just that. Unions have to accept the fact that solidarity of labor stands above all else, including even the so-called sanctity of contract. We cannot adopt for ourselves the policies of union leaders who insist that because they have a contract, their members are compelled to perform work, even behind a picket line. Every picket line must be respected as if it were our own.

Many of us who were activists in the movement to stop the invasion of Iraq first saw the ILWU in action in a March 2003 port shutdown in Oakland, when longshore workers refused to cross a community picket line at 6 a.m. In that experience, the word "solidarity" came alive for us and showed the power of the working class to not only fight for better wages and working conditions, but also to end wars and occupations and stand against injustice.

This wasn't lost on the port bosses nor the politicians in Oakland. Our peaceful pickets were attacked by police that morning. Former Oakland Mayor--and now Governor--Jerry Brown gave the green light for police to attack the pickets, using wooden dowels, rubber bullets, pellet bags, concussion grenades and tear gas. This use of unprovoked force was later condemned by a UN Human Rights Commission investigator, who characterized the attack as "the most violent" against antiwar protesters in the U.S.

THE ILWU's fighting tradition dates back most famously to the 1934 general strike that led to the union's founding, but it has carried on this legacy of putting sentiments of solidarity into action ever since. For example, in the 1980s, the ILWU took action in support of Black workers in South Africa against the racist apartheid regime.

In 1984, the ILWU refused to unload cargo from the South African Nedlloyd Kimberly ship for an unprecedented 11 days. Despite millions of dollars in fines imposed on the union, the longshore workers did not give up. As Clarence Thomas noted, "When Nelson Mandela came to the Bay Area in 1984, he cited the ILWU Local 10 for its action in raising the consciousness of the anti-apartheid struggle."

Before that, Local 10 refused to handle cargo destined for Chile and El Salvador in protest against the military regimes in those countries.

The fight against racism and oppression at home has also been a core principle for the ILWU. With unemployment and poverty rates double or more for African Americans in California and nationally, the fact that ILWU Local 10 is a majority Black union is striking.

In 1999, longshore workers on the West Coast organized a work stoppage to protest the planned execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal, an innocent Black man on Pennsylvania's death row. A decade later, Local 10 shut down the port to highlight the fight for Oscar Grant, an unarmed Black man killed by transit police in Oakland on New Year's Day in 2009.

Most of the labor movement has shied away from talking about justice for Palestinians, but ILWU Local 10 supported an action at the port of Oakland following the Israeli attack on the Freedom Flotilla that was bringing aid to Gaza in May 2010. In the first-of-its-kind action in the U.S., Local 10 adapted a similar attitude as it did to South African apartheid. When labor and community activists came together to picket the Israeli Zim Line ship, Local 10 members refused to cross the picket line in solidarity.

In 1998, in solidarity with 500 fired Liverpool dockworkers, Local 10 refused to cross picket lines to work a ship filled by scab labor. In Seattle in 1999, members of Local 10 participated in the mass protests for global justice with actions against the World Trade Organization meeting. In 2000, the local authorized a 24-hour strike to support five dockworkers in Charleston, S.C., who were attacked by police and then charged with felonies. The five served nearly two years under house arrest until a solidarity campaign, in which the ILWU played a key role, won their freedom.

Today, Local 10's fight is not only a struggle against the PMA and corporate interests, but with their own international union bureaucracy, which has so far refused to mount an active defense of members at Local 10 over the April 4 work stoppage.

In fact, the AFL-CIO and International ILWU leaders didn't truly want rank-and-file workplace actions to occur on April 4, especially in California where Democrat Jerry Brown is now in charge of implementing cuts similar to the ones that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker pushed through in Wisconsin.

ILWU Local 10 needs our support now. If the PMA succeeds in its campaign, the labor movement will be pushed backward in a period where we need rank-and-file union activism and solidarity to grow. The battle against the current attacks on all workers in the United States and internationally needs Local 10 and they need us now, more than ever!

Jenna Wolshyn contributed to this report.

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