Black Orchid Collective's look at the Occupy movement, the West Coast port shutdowns and the various conflicts and controversies in and between different union factions and activist groups.
Table of Contents:
I) Longview and Occupy: a warm autumn on the West Coast
II) Birth of the hip hop picket line: the Dec 12th West Coast Port Shutdown and the precarious proletariat.
III) From Dec 12th to Jan 6th: attempts at coastal solidarity, and divisions in Seattle
IV) Our response to Socialist Worker newspaper’s article
V) Workers’ Committees : a stronger fightback under capitalism, pointing toward revolution
VI) Solidarity is a Two Way Street
VII) Critiques of existing union structures
a) Question of Bureaucracy
b) Partial worker self-management under Capitalism, or Territorialism?
c) Labor Law as a Broken Truce
VIII) The Solidarity we actually need
This piece is written by the Black Orchid Collective in Seattle, with contributions from members of Advance the Struggle in the Bay area, members of Hella 503 in Portland, as well as friends in various cities. We have all been deeply involved in Decolonize/ Occupy Seattle, Occupy Portland, Occupy Oakland, and Occupy Wall St., including the Dec. 12th West Coast Port Shutdown.. We have worked to build solidarity between the Occupy movement and the rank and file workers of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). This piece presents our critical reflections on these struggles so far. We welcome criticism and discussion.
I) Longview and Occupy: a warm autumn on the West Coast
In Longview, Washington, multinational corporation EGT is attempting to operate a new grain export terminal by using non-ILWU (scab) labor. In September, workers faced police in riot gear in order to stop scab grain from being delivered to EGT’s terminal. Workers and their families have used their bodies to block trains bringing grain shipments to the terminal. When police beat them back, hundreds of longshore workers came back the next day and dumped the grain all over the tracks. Since then, Longview ILWU members have faced fines, injunctions on picketing, and ongoing police harassment and repression.
The Occupy movements in our cities have also blockaded the flow of capital with picket lines and barricades. Both the Occupy movement and longshore workers have challenged what is considered common sense and legitimate under capitalism, opening up new possibilities for creative class struggle against the corporations who are destroying our lives. But attempts to bring these struggles together have been filled with tension.
Some members of the ILWU, including the international leadership, do not want the ILWU to work with Occcupy, while rank and file members and other leaders have reached out to us. We have no desire to be caught in these debates among union members anymore than we unfortunately already are. Our intention is only to build broad solidarity with rank and file ILWU members who have asked for our support.
II) Birth of the hip hop picket line: the Dec 12th West Coast Port Shutdown and the precarious proletariat
On December 12th (D12), Decolonize/Occupy Seattle organized the port shutdown alongside other West Coast Occupies, in support of the Longview struggle. However, our goals did not end there. The port shut down was an organized retaliation against police attacks on our communities and the Occupy movement. It was also a response to the austerity budget cuts coming down again in Washington State, as well as solidarity with port truck drivers, who are mostly immigrant workers of color. Our efforts to build actions that unite the struggles of longshore workers and that of unemployed, and/or non-union workers, was faced with much resistance.
At a community potluck before the port shutdown, an ILWU Local 19 member came to tell Occupy Seattle folks not to proceed with the action because the ILWU International leadership did not support it. In response, a member of Decolonize/Occupy Seattle stated Occupy’s independent reasons for organizing the port shutdown. He added, “I grew up in the ‘hood and the union was never there doing anything to support us; the least you can do is to honor our picket line.” Another radical longshore worker responded by saying that ILWU Local 10 in Oakland had done a work stoppage to support the struggle against police brutality when Oscar Grant was murdered. Another person responded with, “That’s great, but that’s in California. This is Seattle.”
Our friends’ remarks reveal real tensions in the relationship between organized labor and the 89% of the proletariat  that are not in unions. By proletariat we mean both the exploited working class and the unemployed; we think the term “working class” is too restrictive since it leaves out those of us who do not or cannot work for a wage. The proletariat includes workers and everyone else who is dispossessed, with nothing to loose but our chains. For too long, we have not gotten each others’ backs as the corporations attack and divide us. For too long, union bureaucracies have forsaken the interests of the 89% who include many people of color, immigrants and women, by cutting deals with capital and the Democratic Party. Good, well paying jobs are often preserved for predominantly white workers, through seniority systems and other tiers in pay structures. We recognize that there are many people of color and women in unions, but these particular unions have been less able to maintain higher wages and benefits than the ILWU. The labor movement as a whole has failed to overcome these divides.
To be clear, at this potluck our friends were not saying that unemployed, precarious, non-union workers of color should have more authority than the ILWU to decide tactics in the Longview struggle. Instead, they were pointing out that the D12 port shutdown was not just about solidarity with the ILWU so it was not up to them to decide whether or not it should happen. In Seattle, it was about the proletariat showing our collective power by breaking the norms of capitalist legitimacy and legality. For one day, we were able to exhibit our power to blockade the flow of capital with a barricade at the port, cutting capitalist profits at the point of distribution. It wasn’t an attempt to co-opt the ILWU; it was an action done autonomously from the ILWU as well as in solidarity with port workers’ struggles.
It is in light of constant attacks on the legitimacy of non-union workers and unemployed people to conduct such a direct action, that we began to define ourselves as one big union of the 89% and unemployed, in unity with rank and file union members. We want to express explicitly that we, too, have a stake in class struggle. By using the label “89%,” we do not mean to suggest that the 11% of union workers are our enemy. We are not comparing them to the 1% or the capitalists. Instead, we wish to point out two things. First, that union leaderships who claim to speak for the 11% of union workers, cannot, and do not, speak for the rest of us. In fact, many times they do not even speak for the members of their unions. Second, we use the language of the “89%” to convey that labor struggles in this country must go beyond efforts to preserve existing unions. Those defensive struggles are important, but for those of us who are not unionized, our class struggles in our authoritarian casualized workplaces, communities and neighborhood, need to be recognized as such: class struggle, even when they are not “sanctioned” by unions that are officially recognized by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
This perspective allowed us to build support for the ILWU struggle when we flyered at welfare offices, day labor sites, high schools, and bus stops across the city. When we initially approached people with flyers saying “support the Longshore union,” most people stared blankly at us. The ILWU has not supported their struggles so why would they care about Longview? So we changed it up and said, “If the capitalists cut us through budget cuts, we’ll cut their profits. Occupy Wall St. on the waterfront”. At that point, people got very interested. By presenting the port action as a collective struggle against the capitalists who screw us all, we were able to open up conversations where we could actually talk about the importance of the ILWU union struggle to people who otherwise would not have seen how it relates to their own lives.
Initially, some of us in Seattle were skeptical about Oakland’s call for an urgent coast-wide port shutdown. Its rapid nature did not give us enough time to reach out to rank and file Seattle longshore workers (we flyered at the union hall and held mass meetings nearby, but this was not enough). However, once the call went out, it created an explosion of class struggle energy in Seattle. People we had never met before kept calling us asking for flyers to distribute – we printed thousands and kept running out. This self-mobilization was evident the day of. Consider this video made by high school youth: 700-1000 proletarians, including a large number of youth and people of color came out with militant energy ready to shut it down. Terminal 18 was shut down with a street barricade and Terminal 5 closed because of a hip hop picket line: road flares, barricades, a traditional circular picket, and in the middle a freestyle hip hop cipher session. This is what the future looks like.
Since then, we have been organizing to expand this new rupture of proletarian energy. Alongside others,we have converged around a strategy to build the Occupy movement as a vehicle for forging two-way solidarity between militant rank and file union struggles and militant organizing of the 89%. Concretely, this means building solidarity with the ILWU struggle in Longview and at the same time organizing solidarity actions with immigrant farmworkers in Eastern Washington who face repression as they try to organize on the job. At the Jan 27th farmworker solidarity march, we chanted “From the ports to the farms, fight together arm in arm.” A rank and file member of the Seattle ILWU spoke about unity between the unionized and non-unionized working class. We aim to build alliances among all who are resisting capitalist attacks, regardless of job category, nationalities, NLRB status, and employment. It also means laying the groundwork for long term workplace, community, and neighborhood direct action organizing and occupations in Seattle.
III) From Dec 12th to Jan 6th: attempts at coastal solidarity, and divisions in Seattle
Since both Occupy Longview and the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum counties labor council have called for broad public support to prevent the scab-loaded grain from being loaded onto the first grain ship at the EGT, the Occupy movement coast-wide has been coordinating efforts to bring people out to Longview. We’ve been helping to set up phone trees and caravans from Seattle to Longview to help people get out there.
On January 6th 2012, as part of a coast-wide speaking tour to build support for this Longview convergence, participants in the Occupy movement and rank and file members of ILWU from Oakland, Portland, and Longview arrived in Seattle. The event began with a successful planning meeting, followed by a panel discussion. Rank and file ILWU members spoke about the Longview struggle and the history of solidarity between the ILWU and the community. Daniel B, from Hip Hop Occupies, spoke about his experiences as a barista trying to organize on the job. He expressed solidarity with ILWU members and also emphasized that solidarity is a two way street, and that the ILWU should support struggles of workers without unions who are trying to fight back.
The panel was disrupted by an organized grouping of ILWU leaders who demanded to read a letter from the ILWU International. When told that they could read the letter after the panel, the grouping of drunk white men with alcohol on the breath physically attacked several audience members. They also said several sexist slurs. Here are a few accounts of what took place that day. One is by a former Local 19, Seattle longshore worker. The second is by a comrade, Ryan W, a member of Seattle Solidarity Network. The third is an account by some members of Occupy Seattle who organized the event, including some BOC members. The video footage of the day itself are also included here.
IV) Our response to Socialist Worker newspaper’s article
In response to the conflict at this event, members of the Seattle branch of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) published a piece in Socialist Worker arguing that “a minority of Occupy activists are putting this potential unity [between Labor and Occupy] in jeopardy through attitudes and tactics that are hostile to the ILWU and organized labor.” The piece does not take a firm stance against the bully tactics of the ILWU leaders. Rather than blaming the thugs who came and disrupted the meeting, silencing a panel of rank and file longshoremen from Seattle and Longview, this piece blames those who stood up to their bullying. Beyond its political flaws, the logic of the ISO’s statement is built on a number of factual distortions.
The Seattle ISO authors write, “Allowing ILWU members to read the letter immediately may or may not have prevented the conflict from escalating. But this much is certain: There was no good reason not to allow it to be read.” These statement are completely decontextualized from the events of the day. It would have been one thing if the individuals had shown up early and asked to have the letter read beforehand. It is hard to understand how bowing down to the demands of aggressive heckling and shouting in the middle of an inspiring forum which included the ILWU rank and file, helps to foster the “unity between the two struggles.” In reality, the ISO authors avoid the fact that the demand to read the letter was more of an excuse, than a reason, by the ILWU disruptors to break up the forum. They also ignore the fact that we told them to wait for the question and answer session to read the letter because we refused to let them silence our comrade Maria Guillen who was slated to speak next about building solidarity between port workers, immigrant farmworkers in Eastern Washington, and Decolonize/ Occupy Seattle.
The ISO’s claimed that no one from the Seattle ILWU was invited to speak. In fact, two members of the Seattle ILWU were present on stage – Gabriel Prawl from Seattle Local 52 and member of the Million Worker March Committee emceed the event and Desert Rat from Local 19 presented us with a musical performance and analysis about the Longview struggle (same song performed at another event).
The ISO piece blames the conflict on Black Orchid Collective (BOC). It seems to suggest that the way to build unity in the movement is for the ISO to denounce the Black Orchid Collective to ILWU leaders. In reality, the Jan 6th event was not organized by BOC alone. The entire Occupy campaign in solidarity with port workers has been an effort of a significantly larger and open, nonsectarian, multi-tendency group of radicals and rank and file workers who have built an incredibly positive community together in struggle. Together, we have been consistently radicalizing the political content of Decolonize/ Occupy Seattle. In the past few months in Seattle, our collaboration has included attempts to stop Democratic Party co-optation, to organize for the December 12th West coast port shut down and to build solidarity with farmworkers most currently. This open alliance of radicals has never claimed to speak for all of Occupy Seattle. We, the Black Orchid Collective also do not claim to speak for all of the radicals who — despite our differences — work together. Clearly something exciting is happening here on the West Coast, and the ISO piece overlooks this by focusing so narrowly on BOC. In fact, they unduly give us credit for the organizing that many other comrades did as well.
In fact, only one BOC member was a part of the committee that organized the Jan 6th event. The Seattle ISO members should know this because two ISO members attended the meeting and participated on the email planning threads of this event for which they claim no responsibility in their piece. We are open to the suggestion they make in their article to invite a member of Local 19 with an opposing view beforehand to join the panel. We wish they had raised it themselves in planning meetings before the event instead of over the internet two weeks later. We urge them to take responsibility for their own role in this event instead of throwing us under the bus.
The Socialist Worker piece further claims that Occupy Seattle participants alienated and angered ILWU Local 19 by putting out flyers at the ILWU union hall and communiques online stating that “the Occupy movement has become a new type of movement of unemployed, low-waged, and casualized workers, both in the workplace and outside of it. We are the 89 percent of the U.S. working class that is not unionized.” The ISO members argue that these are “anti-union politics” that exclude or ignore union workers who have been participating in the Occupy movement.
This is highly selective misquoting. What the Socialist Worker leaves out is that these flyers also said that Occupy is a new workers’ movement of rank and file union members who come together across industrial lines: “Some of us are also rank and file union members who realize that we need to expand beyond the limits of traditional labor struggle if we want to stop the attacks we are facing.”
The Socialist Worker article argues that these perspectives indicate Occupy Seattle is trying to exert “greater authority than the ILWU to determine how the Longview struggle should be conducted.” However, we are a new workers’ movement precisely because we believe as an Occupy movement that the ILWU rank and file, not its International, should decide democratically how their struggle is conducted. It is up to them whether they want to work within the ILWU structure, transform it, or join with other proletarians in Occupy to build a larger movement or organizational framework to wage the class struggle. It is not up to their leaders and it is not up to us.
We recognize that their battle requires direct action on the job, something that only the union members themselves can do. There never would have been a broader Occupy mobilization around this struggle if union members themselves had not taken the lead this fall in going beyond legalistic forms of labor struggle and dumping out that grain. Like many of us, they are actually fighting the capitalists by any means necessary. This is what inspires us to build solidarity with them. All we are saying is that for these battles to succeed they also require that other workers and unemployed folks take similar actions, and we are trying to make that happen by organizing and mobilizing the 89%.
V) Workers’ Committees : a stronger fightback under capitalism, pointing toward revolution
The problem that the ISO’s piece glosses over here is that there are few rank and file class struggle committees in the ILWU that are linked up with the unemployed and other sectors of the working class; there are only individual rank and filers who have admirably reached out, often against serious opposition. If such committees were built, they could take leading roles in the historic struggles of the proletariat as a whole, laying the groundwork for one-big-union of the proletariat as a whole – class struggle unionism instead of industrial unionism. In their absence, the ‘authority’ in the union often falls to small groups of bureaucrats who work to prevent class-wide organizing.
Some of us are members of trade unions who are trying to build these kind of committees in our own workplaces. Doing this will hopefully allow us to link our own rank-and-file struggles to the struggles of farmworkers, unemployed folks, prisoners, and the rest of the proletariat.
This kind of organizing, like the early Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), combines struggles for survival under capitalism with long-term struggles to overthrow capitalism. Rank and file committees create more effective ways to fight the bosses now. They also lay the groundwork for future workers’ councils and assemblies that could replace the capitalist state [See the Workplace Papers for a longer discussion]. Both the immediate struggle and the long-term revolutionary one require expanding rank and file power. Numerous historical examples of working class struggle have been sold out by the highest levels of the trade union bureaucracy as they approach revolution. Unless something different is built, history will likely repeat itself. We definitely do not claim that this kind of a class-for-itself organization already exists, or that we are the embodiment of it. Rather, our organizing is aimed towards fostering its development.
Likewise, committees need to built among the non-unionized proletariat. The ISO article states that “The Occupy movement is far from an organization of unrepresented workers at this point.” We agree that it hasn’t gone far enough, but the Nov 2nd strike in Oakland and the Dec. 12th blockade up an down the coast showed Occupy starting to function like a union for the unorganized. We are trying to build off of this energy by organizing in our own workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods. We do think that those of us in Seattle need to do more of the kind of organizing that our comrade Ryan W. from Seattle Solidarity Network (Seasol) calls for in this piece. Seasol, East Baysol and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) offer workplace and community organizing models we can learn from and expand upon. Comrades in Advance the Struggle have been actively building East Baysol and connecting it with Occupy Oakland. Seasol comrades here in Seattle are also working to make these connections.
For those of us without unions, Occupy is all we’ve got and it’s a good start. We are not trying to replace the unions with ourselves. As discussed above, we simply assert that we are every bit as much a part of the proletariat as union members are, and we aim to unite with them. We welcome individual rank and file members of the ILWU to continue to join the Occupy movement where we can bring rank and file workers and the 89% together to wage larger battles that affect all of us. This includes struggles against austerity measures, police repression, racism and sexism, and the overall battle against the dictatorship of the capitalist economy over our lives. Our frequent outreach outside the union hall was aimed toward this. The McCarthyist resolution by Local 19 that prevents our Longshore friends from building with us damages these potentials.
Of course, the goal of coming together as a fighting class is much larger than Occupy and its current limitations. We see Occupy as the beginning, not the end, of broader efforts to build new forms of class struggle that can fight back against the economic massacres the proletariat is facing. This is a global struggle, with the proletariat inventing new forms of struggle – and reinventing old ones – from Tahrir Square to Longview.
VI) Solidarity is a Two Way Street
In the US today, the percentage of workers who are non-unionized has steadily increased. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership among the employed proletariat stands at 11.9% in 2010, down from 12.3 percent a year earlier. This means a total of 12.2 million workers. Among these members, 36.2% belong in the public sector, while only a mere 6.9% belong in private sector.With increasing attacks on public sector unions, this number is likely to decrease, or be rendered meaningless as healthcare benefits are cut and collective bargaining eroded, as in Wisconsin.
The US unemployment rate has been fluctuating, from 10% to a current 8.5%. While official unemployment has gone down, deeper analysis shows that we are still reeling from the recession. When people who have stopped looking for work are included, the rate is 11%. If underemployment is added then the rate is 20%. Youth unemployment is above 19% — 31% for Black youth and 20% for Latinos.
Recognizing that ongoing attacks on unions are steadily eroding the livelihoods of many union workers, the conditions that workers face are a steady race to the bottom — toward that of the least organized, most oppressed layers of the proletariat. Union members should see that the conditions of these most oppressed layers represent the future that capitalists have in store for them.
It is this race to the bottom that is the current reality of the ruling class’s attack. This is the reality that unions in this country, with few exceptions, have been unable to respond to. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)-recognized unions cannot be the only measure of mass class struggle organizations. They have insufficiently addressed these realities because none of them has been able to initiate mass, anti-capitalist, from-below campaigns to organize the unorganized, precarious working poor, that is also independent from the Democratic Party. We are open to critiques of our term “the 89%”. But it arises as an attempt to address this absence, at a time when it is sorely needed in moments of upsurge like Occupy. If comrades don’t like how we are addressing it, they should do it better – but it needs to be done.
In the deepening of the economic crisis, it is hard to tell poor, unemployed, undocumented, immigrants, people of color, that we too, have a stake in the struggles of union workers, especially relatively privileged workers. This is an unpopular reality that many revolutionaries and leftists do not want to confront. But really, what materially is in the struggle to defend union workers in Madison and Longview? What’s in it for the unemployed? What is the connection between Madison and the streets of Milwaukee? What is the connection between Longview and the fields of Eastern Washington? Those of us from the 89% might be impressed with how militantly union workers are fighting back, and we cheer them on when they confront the cops who we hate, but where is our entry point to participate?
When revolutionaries act as if legitimate class struggle only happens through NLRB-recognized unions, they ignore the very real and material divisions between union and non-union workers, many of whom see unionized workers as remote and unrelated to their lives at best and as privileged workers who do not understand the realities of the proletariat at worst. If we do not understand this sentiment by the majority of the proletariat, then we cede this ground to the right wing, who will gladly use it to mobilize anti-union attacks on a populist basis. It’s ironic that the ISO accuses us of supporting right wing anti-union politics when that is precisely what our 89% rhetoric and organizing aim to challenge.
This is in no way meant to question the solidarity we need to have with ILWU workers and other union members. As the Longview struggle shows, ILWU members risk losing their privilege. As they lose it, they’re fighting like the rest of us do, or like we want to. We are asking: what way forward for the proletariat as a whole?
The disenchantment of many proletarians toward unions are also addressed in the fact that unions have not been present in the struggles that proletarians, including their members, have faced outside the workplace. With few a exceptions, unions stayed quiet during hurricane Katrina, Black America’s 9/11. Notably, one of those exceptions was the efforts of rank and file local 19 activists with the Million Worker March, who have also tried to build an ILWU-Occupy alliance today. Where were unions during the prison strikes in Georgia and California, some of the largest, most courageous, and most militant mass strikes in recent US history? Where have unions been during the colonization of Iraq and Afghanistan? The ILWU is one of the few to act to stop it, and their 2008 anti-war work stoppage was initiated by the rank and file. There is a social crisis facing the global proletariat and most of the unions do not have a plan or strategy to deal with it.
If non-union workers are going to support union struggles, the unions need to respond to these crises, which face all of us. At the very least, non-union workers should not be told to leave our own “agenda” or “issues” at home when we come out to support union struggles, especially when this agenda is simply the survival of our communities, something that the unions should be fighting for anyway if they claim to represent the proletariat.
The non-union proletariat, including the unemployed, are not simply warm bodies to be called out to protest at the beck and call of unions. Nor are we shock troops who will do the illegal actions that unions want to take but can’t without risking fines. We will face arrest shoulder to shoulder with rank and file workers but we will also shout about our own struggles as we do so. It is important for union workers to support non-union workers in our struggles, as we too, form unions and engage in workplace struggles, under the banner of “solidarity is a two way street.”
By not confining investment in class struggle to the realm of those in formal unions, we make openings for a conception of “Occupy class struggle” to exist within the movement. We are able to affirm, support, and encourage the self-activity of everyday workers in the various aspects of our lives, from workplace to community and schools. As anti-capitalist revolutionaries, we can offer an understanding of how the looting of the surplus value we provide to the capitalists through our labor goes hand in hand with the looting that takes place in the rest of our lives as we struggle to reproduce ourselves and the next generation of the proletariat as future workers.
VII) Critiques of existing union structures
As we try to build this proletarian movement, we need to develop a critical analysis of the existing union structures. Our goal is not to take sides in inner-union debates or to attack individual union leaders, it is to understand how aspects of the structures of existing unions have limited rank-and-file power and proletarian unity so that all of us – especially those of us in unions- can figure out how to overcome this.
a) Question of Bureaucracy
When fighting for liberation, oppressed people have and will utilize varying forms of organization to succeed. Unions have been and continue to be one of those forms. NLRB-unions have a dual nature under capitalism. They at once ensure that union workers have the ability to negotiate with bosses about wages and benefits by way of collective might. However, they also adhere to laws which hinder the potential of this collective might and it’s ability to end a situation in which a majority has to negotiate for its survival. Our critique of the bureaucracy lies in the fact that regardless of how progressive individual labor leaders may be, their positions rests in some manner on their ability to adhere to the contract which they have negotiated with the capitalists. They end up helping management and the courts enforce this contract even when it goes against the interests of the workers. In other words, they play a role in maintaining labor power as a commodity and in ensuring some level of discipline at the workplace .
At times rank and file workers use the union structure to fight back against the bosses and secure gains; at times they go beyond this structure and create new forms of struggle. In either case, our solidarity should be with the workers themselves, not the union structure.
Some have suggested that our critique of the union bureaucracy does not take into account the specific features of the ILWU as a union, such as the fact that many elected leaders stay on the job, and many decisions are made by democratically stop-work meetings of union members. They have pointed out that the ILWU is not a top-down dictatorship like the SEIU under Andy Stern. They say we should be more cautious of demonizing elected local leaders who participated in the disruption of the Jan 6th event as “bureaucrats.” They think we are using the term “bureaucrat” as a personal insult against ILWU leaders we happen to dislike.
Our problem is not with individual “bureaucrats”, it is with bureaucracy as such. For example, we have no ability or desire to psychoanalyze the leadership of Local 19 to figure out what their personal motivations were for organizing a group of people to act like thugs shutting down fellow union members and fellow proletarians from the Occupy movement. Our criticism is simply of their actions.
Our criticisms of union bureaucracies in general are not a criticism of specific leaders. They are a criticism of the structure of the unions which are shaped by and bound by anti-labor laws in this country. Of course, we recognize some leaders are better than others, and that structures differ from union to union. In particular we recognize that the ILWU has its own particular structure due to its specific history of communist leadership. It has also broken labor laws repeatedly which is a major reason why it’s strong. But this militancy alone does not mean that the ILWU has no bureaucracy. It is still an AFL-CIO, state-sanctioned, NLRB-recognized union in the US, which means its bound by all the same constraints as other unions of this type.
The ISO are part of the Trotskyist tradition, and they claim to adhere to Leon Trotsky’s transitional program, a strategy for building socialism. In that program, Trotsky argued that the crisis of the working class is a crisis of leadership. In their interpretation of this program, the ISO sees the main problem to be that the union leaders have sold out. Their goal is to replace the leaders they think have sold out with new leaders who they think will lead the union to struggle more effectively. Many other Trotskyists would argue that the ISO betrays their tradition when it fails to challenge current union leaders concretely, directly, in practice. It appears there is also debate about this within the ISO; Dana Blanchard wrote a reply to the Socialist Worker piece, arguing that “The article is not critical enough of what the ILWU International is doing right now with regards to the struggle in Longview.”
We agree with this critique of the Seattle ISO piece and are happy to see that its authors do not represent the entire organization. However, both the original Seattle ISO piece and Blanchard’s response focus too much on the individual bureaucrats and their politics. The problem is not just with the current leaders. Replacing them with new leaders through organizing inner-union reform caucuses will not solve the problem. At best, it will help prevent an even worse outcome or could create temporary openings for the rank and file to organize which will soon close. At worst it will be a waste of time or will suck the best rank and file organizers into the constant work that goes into maintaining the union structure instead of advancing the class struggle beyond the limitations of the union structure.
These structrues are limited by labor law, divided up by industry, and confined to the national borders of the U.S. Today, automation, deindustrialization, unemployment and prisons are competing with industrial workplaces as the reality and experiences of proletarian life. The need for global solidarity to win against global corporations is even more apparent. Limitations on union structures prevent adaptations to these current conditions for enhancing class struggle.
Pointing this out does not make us anti-union. We recognize that rank and file workers in the current unions have the power to transform these union structures. This can only be resolved through massive rank and file organizing and self-mobilization, not from better leaders. It also cannot come from Occupy or anyone else helping from the outside. We think that rank and file workers also have the power to team up with the 89% of workers who are not yet in unions to build larger, new types of class struggle organizations across industrial and national borderlines. We are trying to build solidarity with the ILWU because we recognize that many ILWU workers are trying to work through these kinds of transformations, and as workers who are at a key point in the international economy they have the power to help the entire working class make these transformations.
b) Partial Workers’ Self Management under Capitalism, or Territorialism?
Some have argued that Occupy is violating the democratic processes of the union by taking actions at the port without the rank and file voting on them through the official union structures. The idea is that, since the docks are longshore workers’ workplace, they have final say over any action that happens there. Besides the obvious fact that predominantly immigrant port truckers also share the same workplace and have asked for Occupy’s solidarity, this territorialism limits longshore workers’ own power to win the struggles they are facing.
There are positive dimensions to this territorialism, but it is a double-edged sword. It seems to have come from the ILWU’s history of partial self-management that was won through the militant strikes in the 30s. Back then, the union took control over the process of who would be hired. They prevented the notorious corruption, racism, and divide-and-conquer favoritism that occurred when the maritime companies had control of hiring through the “shape up” system. Any attempt workers take to gain more control of the work process is positive because it helps build up our confidence as a class to eventually occupy our workplaces and run them without bosses.
The downside of this, however, is that we can end up self-managing our own exploitation by capital and we self-manage the divisions among the working class that make it possible. This is a problem for many of us who work. We cling to the job category that capitalism assigns us until it becomes our identity. When we get a tiny little bit of control of our job we end up treating it like our property. We end up embracing our own exploitation with pride, saying “I’m a longshoreman, get off my waterfront,” or “I’m a teacher, I’m a professional, listen to me,” or “At least I have a job, what are you unemployed bums doing with your lives?” All of this creates divisions within the working class that allow the bosses to play us against each other. It also limits the horizons of what we can become as human beings. When revolutionaries fall into this it is particularly tragic – they forget Marx’s point that the the proletariat must abolish itself as a class through revolution, so that all of us can become humans instead of alienated workers. In the new society we will have no jobs or job titles; our “work” will be collective creativity, done out of care for each other.
In the case of the ILWU, winning partial union control of the hiring process put the union in the role of partially determining who stays out of the industry as well, which has the danger of creating a sense of hostility toward the rest of the working class. Demands for the hiring of more women, more people of color, etc. have at times challenged current workers’ efforts to make sure their own family members make it onto the job. Some members from the Black community in Seattle have questioned such practices.
We’re not saying every Local 19 member is a white male chauvinist who only cares about his own family; many workers support fair hiring practices even when it challenges their personal interests because they know it strengthens solidarity, or just because it’s the right thing to do. However, there is a real contradiction between the union and more oppressed layers of the working class, especially during this economic crisis where jobs are increasingly scarce. In many cases, when we’ve tried to build solidarity with Longview we’ve faced skepticism from some folks who feel the union’s hiring discriminates against folks in our communities. We need to encourage our communities to mobilize in solidarity with the ILWU in Longview, but to do this effectively we need to be able to show them that solidarity is a two way street and that ILWU members will also get our backs when we struggle. That’s why we appealed to the ILWU to respect our picket line on the 12th as we mentioned above.
Finally, this sense of ILWU controlling its turf is positive if it means that they refuse to be told what to do by middle class activists who try to come in as condescending saviors claiming to know how to run their struggle better than the workers themselves. We can understand that sentiment; we are also proletarians and we don’t want anyone telling us what to do either. We can also understand if some union members or leaders thought at first that Occupy was a bunch of liberal middle class kids coming in from the outside trying to coopt them, especially since some of the liberals in Occupy often do come off as patronizing to working class people.
But these liberals in Occupy Seattle do not speak for all of us just like the conservatives or sexists in the ILWU do not speak for every member of the union. In fact, over the past 3 months, working class people in the Occupy movement have shaken up the liberal, middle class politics that are prevalent in many Occupies and made the movement locally much more proletarian. Specifically, those of us who organized the action on the 12th are clearly a proletarian wing of the movement.
This sense of the ILWU controlling its turf becomes problematic when it involves Local 19 telling Occupy activists that we cannot mobilize at the port for our own interest, in solidarity with truckers who also work there, or in solidarity with Local 21’s, Occupy Longview’s, and the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Counties Labor Council’s call for support. None of these mobilizations involved us telling Local 19 or anyone else what to do; we have simply been trying to organize our own community in solidarity with ILWU members and port truckers who have explicitly called for our support. The Local 19 leadership was breaking this solidarity with immigrant port truckers when they opposed the Dec 12th port shutdown. They also broke the solidarity with their own members in Longview when they shut down the Jan 6th Solidarity meeting.
The struggle in Longview is against a vast multi-national corporation. As such, it requires a vast multi-national working class response. Bunge, which owns EGT, controls a quarter of the world’s grain. Local 21 is essentially fighting Wall St. on the waterfront, not just a local company. The ILWU’s attempt to control their own turf does not account for the fact that globalization began on the waterfront with the rise of the containerized cargo system, whose greater efficiency allowed factory production to be moved around the world, creating a global assembly line that could produce parts in one place, ship them elsewhere for finishing, and sell them in a third place. What that means is that the ILWU’s “turf” is now interwoven economically with everyone else’s workplace, farm, city, and country all over the world. Their enemy is everywhere, and all of our enemies congregate on their turf. Given that, it is in their interests make friends and comrades everywhere. To do this they should definitely maintain their sense of “don’t mess with us and don’t tell us what to do on our job”. But we hope they can untie that sense of autonomy from the sense that they own the docks.
As we argue below, some ports have pushed toward full automation, where computerized cranes replace longshore workers. If this were to be adopted on the West Coast, it would of course be a major threat to the ILWU. It would also be a victory for corporate globalization and a major obstacle to international proletarian solidarity. Goods could be shipped from one highly exploited segment of the working class to be consumed by another, with less of a threat of dockworkers shutting down the port in solidarity with, say, the farmers who produce the food under toxic, near-slavery conditions, or the unemployed rebels who will be exterminated by the military hardware that ships through the ports. (And now some of that military hardware is being used against the ILWU itself in Longview as the Coast Guard turns the Columbia river into a military zone.) We all have a vested interest in building solidarity with Longshore workers to make sure they gain control of these new technologies instead of getting displaced by them.
An article by Oakland’s Bay of Rage about the port shutdown suggested that because of deindustrialization, the proletariat is no longer concentrated in industries that can be shut down through strikes; so to fight global capital, all we can do is blockade its flow from the outside like we did on the 12th. Automation of the ports would be one more phase of deindustrialization and would deepen this shift. However, we don’t think the situation is quite that extreme yet; even automated industries still have some workers, and the ports here are not yet fully automated. There are still port workers with a pulse, backbone, and guts who stand between us and Bay of Rage’s scenario. The ILWU rank and file is still in a unique position to rise up on behalf of all of us- and themselves- and put an end to this nightmare before it’s too late. But Bay of Rage is right that the rest of us shouldn’t wait around for them to save us, and we didn’t on Dec 12th. From that day onward we’ve been recognizing that our own power as dispossessed, precarious proletarians is also valid even if we’re not working in key strategic industries like the longshore workers are. Dec 12th is not the last time we will meet each other on the barricades. How can we expand this militant energy, while welcoming more rank and file workers to join us, so that eventually barricades and strikes can reinforce each other like they do in other parts of the world, like Cairo, Greece, and Chile?
Some of us are the product of the massacres union workers have faced in the class war- there are numerous unemployed teachers, auto-workers, and longshoremen among us on that barricade. We are those who serve the longshore workers coffee, clean the buildings they utilize, and take care of their elderly grandparents in nursing homes. We want to work with them, side by side as equals, to help connect their struggles with the struggles of those of us who produce, transport, and sell the goods they unload from those ships.
We hope for a future where the proletariat as a whole, including longshore workers, can control the docks so we can occupy everything and redistribute everything for everyone. This is why we chanted on D12, “Whose ports? Everyone’s” and “Everything for everyone, the revolution has begun”.
c) Labor law as a broken truce
These slogans are echoes of great union struggles like the IWW during which immediate struggles for survival opened the way for revolutionary class warfare. However, today in the United States, as in many other states, we find ourselves in a historical moment where the state has used a legalistic judo (using your opponents’ momentum against them) to turn the official structure of the trade unions into structures that stifle and negate the revolutionary process, rather than facilitating it.
When the IWW made demands for the 8 hour day, better working conditions, etc. these were tied to an explicitly revolutionary program of trying to unify the proletariat to gain increasing control over production, taking this control away from the capitalist class through strikes and upheavals. Some of these traditions were carried over into the early Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) movement in the 1930s which gave birth to most of today’s unions including the ILWU. The Toledo auto-lite strike united employed and unemployed workers. It was a strike in one industry that became a city-wide insurrection when the unemployed councils reinforced the picket lines. We wonder if Occupy is a possible reincarnation of these unemployed councils? The Flint sit-down strike was a factory occupation which temporarily took the plant away from the capitalist owners.
The state responded by driving a wedge between the CIO’s immediate reform demands and the revolutionary goals of many of the CIO workers. This is how they coopted the unions. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Democratic Party passed the National Labor Relations Act, legalizing unions and setting up the process of collective bargaining which would encourage unions to settle grievances through contract negotiations backed up by the courts and the new National Labor Relations Board. Unions would become legal, and the state would try to mediate between unions and the corporations so that epic battles would be settled in the boardroom instead of in the streets or the shop floor. This allowed the CIO unions to make immediate reform gains for some sectors of the working class – higher wages, pensions, benefits, and new legislation around health and safety. However, in return they were required to give up their attempts to gain more control over their workplaces and over the production process. Most of the contracts negotiated under the new NLRA processes involved no-strike clauses which took away the workers’ most powerful weapon.
The Taft Hartley act deepened this co-optation. Passed just after a strike wave of 8 million US workers shut down the whole coal, railroad, maritime, and communications industries, Taft Hartley made it illegal for unions to engage in hot cargo agreements, solidarity strikes, and secondary boycotts. It forced union officials to take anti-communist loyalty oaths among many other things. While hundreds of thousands of workers immediately defied Taft Hartley in the shipyards and coal fields, over the decades the law’s provisions were more stringently enforced.
The National Labor Relations Act and Taft Hartley were essentially a truce between workers and the capitalists where each side got a little bit of what they wanted in order to establish labor peace. These labor laws became so complex that they require that unions develop bureaucracies and hire lawyers to navigate this whole system. Union leaders are forced to submit to rules that set them up to lose in order to ensure legal protection of the gains that were won before those rules were created. It also made labor law increasingly, and deliberately inaccessible for the regular rank and filer.
Notably, this truce specifically left out domestic workers and farmworkers, majority Latino and Black folks, solidifying and deepening white supremacist divisions within the proletariat. Millions of European immigrants who used to face racial discrimination now became white and upwardly mobile as they built unions like the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the ILWU. Meanwhile, Black and Brown workers continued to face the most extreme forms of exploitation. Some of them made it into the unions, but most did not, and those who made it in were constrained by the labor truce which prioritized collective bargaining around wages and benefits instead of direct action on the job against racist and sexist treatment.
Through all of this, the divisions between the whitest, most privileged layers of the 11% and the most oppressed layers of the 89% are solidified, weakening both. We would love to say “We are the 99%” or “We are the proletariat,” as if it were a current reality. Unfortunately in America, with its legacy of colonial settler brutality and slavery, it is not that simple. Unity is a goal, not a reality, and it needs to be forged through militant struggles and transformations.
This unequal truce is the why the farmworkers at Ruby Ridge Dairy in Pasco, WA today are threatened with guns when they try to organize on the job. The same laws that fail to protect the farmworkers also prevent longshoremen from legally striking in solidarity with them or, in many cases, with fellow longshoremen in other cities facing local struggles.
Those of us who are union members need to remember that people in the early 1900s fought under even more repressive conditions to build the unions. If they faced open warfare, the least we can do is face fines or possible jailtime. While breaking these laws involve real consequences that should not be taken lightly, the alternative is even worse: the bosses have made it clear they are willing to destroy the living conditions of the global working class and unionized U.S. workers will not be spared forever. The question is: are the current U.S. unions going to fight or not? If not, the proletariat may end up voting with its feet and building new types of (probably illegal) international class struggle organizations, reviving the class struggle unionism traditions of the IWW and the early CIO.
While we are not anti-union, we do not see the current U.S. unions as a path to the emancipation of the oppressed from wage slavery. But someone might still ask: if these unions stopped being ways to advance revolutionary struggles, aren’t they still effective ways of securing immediate reform demands? In the short term this may be true, but these reforms will likely be selective concessions aiming to divide the class by buying off one group of workers at the expense of others. And that weakens the class’s ability to fight for collective short term survival, let alone revolution. When the unions laid down their strike, sit-down, sabotage, and occupation weapons in order to pursue collective bargaining, they gained higher wages but they lost their ability to stop the bosses from speeding up the work process. They also lost their ability to stop the bosses from closing the workplace and moving it somewhere else in pursuit of cheaper labor, or replacing workers with machines. So in the end, even those higher wages and benefits are disappearing.
In his piece, “The Remaking of the American Working Class”, Loren Goldner suggests that this will continue to happen because capitalism is in crisis. In order to keep up their profits the capitalist class needs to drive down the American working class’s standard of living to the point where the working class cannot even reproduce itself.
It is clear that bosses are boldly breaking their end of the truce by attacking union workers. Yet they expect us to hold to our end of the truce by following labor laws and our contracts with them.
The ability of capitalism to co-opt proletarian struggles and to continue to exploit our labor requires that we too, dynamically respond for our own liberation. Unions like the IWW and the early CIO could play a militant anti-capitalist role in the past because they found themselves faced with an expanding capitalist system hell bent on bringing more and more labor into its satanic mills. As Marx put it, the capitalists were focused on extracting absolute surplus value by the lengthening of the working day across the board. Workers worked 12 hour days or more. Insurgent unions fought this with great heroism, but this ended up pushing the capitalists to change up their strategies and adapt. The capitalists made their truce, and granted the 8 hour work day to some layers of the proletariat (not farmworkers and not most proletarians in colonized countries). But this did not mean that things were all good for the unionized workers in core U.S. industries. Capitalism figured out other ways to extract profit from them, by speeding up the work process and introducing new technologies that would make their labor more efficient, even if this meant pushing many of them out of the workforce into unemployment. Marx called it a phase of accumulation centered on relative surplus value. The unions facilitated this shift by enforcing the truce and suppressing the agency of workers.
Today, the capitalists are trying to generate more relative surplus value through automation. The EGT Grain Terminal in Longview is an example of this. What used to take human labor to transport, is now achieved for through machinery for much less. The ports in Hamburg and Rotterdam suggest a possible future for West Coast ports:
“there are docks that operate with no visible human presence. Once a container is moved off a ship, it is picked up by an automated crane, which puts it on an automated guided vehicle, which transfers it to the yard, where two automatic rail-mounted gantry cranes, or ARMGs, stack and retrieve containers.”
Edna Bonacich “Pulling the Plug: Labor and the Global Supply Chain,” New Labor Forum (2007)
The drive toward automation exposes the contradictions of capital. Capital measures the value of a commodity based on the amount of average labor time that goes into producing it. At the same time, capitalism drives technological change that constantly lowers the amount of labor time needed to produce and reproduce all the commodities necessary to reproduce capitalist society each generation.
Automation also exposes the contradictions within trade unions. Under capitalist society, existing unions are trapped in the framework of having to defend the sale of labor power. Certain conditions of technological change force them into situations where they choose to defend the sale of labor power on favorable conditions for only a few, at the expense of many. Often, this selection is racialized and gendered.
This is exactly why the proletariat may need to look beyond trade unionism toward a vision of one big union for the whole class, with no one left behind. Such organizations could fight to gain control of these technologies to reduce toil and drudgery for everyone. Some of this technology would need to be destroyed to re-establish ecological health and human freedom, but some of it can be rearranged and transformed to build an ecologically-based society without drudgery . Technologies could be used to reduce the amount of time necessary to reproduce society, so we could spend our time caring for each other, creating art, and organizing our communities without a state dictating our affairs.
VIII) The Solidarity We Actually Need
New forms of workers organization could emerge to confront the phase of capitalism we now face. Struggles like the ILWU fight in Longview, the farm worker struggles in Eastern Washington, and the Occupy movement all contain seeds of potential proletarian organizations of the 89%, the unemployed, and the union rank and file united.
One of the greatest challenges that faces new forms of workers organization is how workers often entrust the ability to wage their struggle to some other entity besides ourselves. We need to challenge the belief that the union leadership, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the NLRB, or a group of labor lawyers has the ability to win lasting victories. Each of these entities operates in a terrain where the proletariat has very little power, as opposed to the globalized workplace where the proletariat can shut down or blockade industry and the flow of international capital. Everyday workers recognizing our own responsibility to strategize, theorize, and actualize winning struggles squarely on our own shoulders is a challenge.
Pointing to examples where workers have done this successfully helps show that it is more realistic than depending on the NLRB. In Buenos Aires, Argentina, subway workers were able to win a 40% increase in payroll after they led a militant strike wave. They organized the strike without the help of the official union leadership, directly electing their own delegates and holding mass assemblies at the different train barns to decide how to proceed. In the final week, services were interrupted three hours per day, then four, five, and finally twenty-four hours. After negotiations broke down, and a 48 hour shutdown was announced, the company and the government signed a backroom deal with the official union leadership. Although the deal outlined a 44% increase in payroll, the delegates and assemblies went ahead with the 48 hour shutdown until each local had voted on the agreement.
This is one successful model of struggle that depends on the militancy of the rank and file, instead of institutions like state labor boards or union officials that don’t have the power to shut down the means of production. Inspired by such victories, we see class struggle workers’ committees that do clandestine agitation, produce literature, and study revoluionary texts, in combination with mass assemblies directing the goals and tactics of struggle, as one viable path forward amidst the contradictions of contemporary US trade unions.
Members of the IWW have also been developing new ways to think about workplace organizing that focus on direct action on the job as a way to develop the confidence, leadership and experiences of the proletariat as a whole. The goal of direct unionism “will not be union recognition from a single boss. Instead, the goal of the actions is to build up leadership and consciousness amongst other workers.” The piece lays out strategies and suggestions for workplace organizing that avoid the pitfalls of contractualism and bureaucracies.
These kinds of methods could be what build new insurgent, class struggle unions among the 89%. In the upcoming months we hope to generalize them among participants in the Occupy movement who are interested in organizing on the job.
Occupy has been a powerful force for the partially-employed, unemployed, and students who are in school racking up debt with no future employment in sight. Those of us in these situations have had the time and sense of urgency necessary to advance the struggle. We should not have to wait for the majority of wage workers to rise up in order to take action. We hope Occupy continues to function like an unemployed council or commune, occupying and redistributing resources that we need to survive. However, we also want to expand this activity into more of the employed workforce, unionized and non-unionized, who still make up the majority of the U.S proletariat. It has been hard for those of us who work long hours to participate in the majority of GAs or street demonstration. But what if we built Occupy committees in our workplaces and neighborhoods, committees that functioned like direct unions or solidarity networks, connecting with the IWW and Seasol who are already doing this work? In this way we can participate and can reach more employed wage workers to expand the struggle. All of this could continue laying the groundwork for new types of class struggle, proletarian, direct unionism that unites the employed and unemployed of the 89%.
These types of struggle are also options for the rank and file of current unions, especially if these unions continue to loose legal protections. Unions in Wisconsin lost collective bargaining rights – it was good that folks fought to protect these rights, but the fight was unsuccessful and now new forms of struggle become necessary. What if union members relied on forms of struggle that don’t rely on collective bargaining? What if they took up direct action strategies such as work slowdown and strikes to directly resolve grievances around the job, the community, and politics? These types of actions can build real confidence among the proletariat and develop authentic solidarity across borders and industries. That is the kind of solidarity we need to win immediate fights and to ultimately bring down capitalism.
We need to learn how to work with one another to make this happen- employed and unemployed, unionized and non-unionized. This is what we’ve been trying to do the past few months. We hope these reflections offer a small grain of sand that could contribute to the broader strategizing going on throughout the proletariat from Longview to Oakland, from Madison to Milwuakee, from Seattle to Cairo and Buenos Aires. We eagerly welcome criticism, feedback, and suggestions as we grow and move forward together.
 We recognize that there are limitations with the concept of “the 89%”, most notably in its implicit populism. The number reflects the percentage of employed people in the US who are not in unions. This means it includes people ranging from CEOs to Harvard professors to the majority of food service workers. When we talk about the 89%, we are referring to the percentage of the proletariat that is not unionized — including unemployed people and prisoners. We use the term “89%” throughout this piece because it has resonated with many militant proletarians around us for the reasons we discuss, but we are open to changing our language in the future.
Orginally posted on 30 January 2012 at Black Orchid Collective