by Barbara G. Ellis
By a unanimous vote of its executive board last Tuesday the Oregon Progressive Party became the only political party so far to join the Occupy movement in condemning the upcoming use of U.S. Coast Guard ships and helicopters as an armed scab force. The federal action is designed to protect a foreign freighter headed for the strike-bound Port of Longview in Washington to load grain for Asian ports. In addition, Longview police have called for a backup of riot-equipped reinforcements from several surrounding jurisdictions.
Five OPP board members are part of Occupy Portland. One serves on the Occupy Labor Solidarity committee and at least two are set to participate in the movement’s supportive action for the ongoing port strike called by the International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union (ILWU), Local 21 against an international conglomerate breaking its long-time contract.
Shock and anger is being aroused in activist and union circles with the news that President Obama’s Department of Homeland Security is using taxpayer dollars to fuel and maintain this mission to smash American unionists’ legal right to strike. It’s akin to actions taken recently by dictatorships such as in Syria against public protests. It’s also reminiscent of the 1970 Postal strike when President Nixon sent in the Army and National Guard in an unsuccessful attempt to force union members back to work. Or when President Hoover in 1932 ordered General Douglas MacArthur to send his bayonet-equipped troops, cavalry and tanks to clear an encampment near Capitol Hill of thousands of World War I veterans striking for long-overdue $1,000 war bonuses.
The freighter’s arrival date has been blacked out by the shippers, the Coast Guard, and even the designated pilot-boat captain, but Longview unionists have predicted it’s between mid-January and early February. The blackout means all supporters will have short notice to get to Longview. But like Paul Revere’s 1775 legendary ride to warn that British troops were on the march, coastal spotters will instantly notify Local 21 officials the moment the freighter and its Coast Guard escort arrives at Astoria and enters the Columbia river for that 52-mile sail to Longview. In Portland, car caravans and bus pools are being arranged and an instant notification system to participants will be in place.
The strike started when owners of a new $200 million grain-storage terminal—the global grain conglomerate of Bunge and EGT/ITOCHU/STX Pan Ocean—waited until it was completed to break off two years of contract negotiations with Local 21, which worked the docks under contract for 75 years. They then hired scabs to move cargo. When Local 21’s 225 members began picketing, EGT won a ruling from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to seek an injunction banning such actions and other collective non-violent deeds.
However, a federal court overruled the picketing ban portion as unconstitutional, and now the NLRB is now being prodded by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) shipping companies to seek a second injunction. Its thrust is that if any ILWU locals mount sympathy strikes for Longview Local 21, it would be a violation of the heavily restrictive Taft-Hartley labor law governing strike and negotiation methods and would threaten such unions’ survival.
Beginning last July, Local 21 and hundreds of supporters started picketing the EGT facility and blocking incoming grain trains from delivering cargos. Thousands of tons were spilled on the tracks. Longview police arrested and charged 220 Local 21 members with offenses that could lead to extensive fines, jail, and criminal records. Only 17 have been acquitted or had charges dismissed, the latest six on December 30.
On December 12, hundreds of Portland Occupiers traveled to Longview in a joint West Coast Occupy effort supporting the strike in general and aimed at a one-day shutdown of the major ports in particular. Both Portland and Oakland succeeded.
To stop EGT’s first loading of grain for Asian markets on the freighter, Local 21’s January bulletin issued a call for a “mass labor protest” (“This union-busting must be stopped. It’s the fight of working people everywhere”). It was seconded by San Francisco’s ILWU Local 10, made famous by leadership of the legendary Harry Bridges. Both locals are hoping thousands from all American unions and the Occupy movement will come to Longview and support the strike.
One caveat aimed at Occupiers was handed down by ILWU’s national president Robert McEllrath who fully supported Local 21’s fight. But on January 3, he notified all locals planning to flock to Longview, to abide by Taft-Hartley’s restrictive rules governing picketing. Local 21 has already been threatened with a fine of over $300,000 for last summer’s strike actions and could have its treasury confiscated and offices shuttered for Taft-Hartley violations in the upcoming protest if unionists and outside supporters such as Occupiers fail to be non-violent.
Concerning Occupiers and others, McEllrath particularly warned all ILWU members to “[P]lease take extreme caution when dealing with supporters of non-ILWU sanctioned calls to action relative to EGT. Everything is at stake for the community of Longview and our members—including personal freedom. We welcome outside support for our efforts against EGT, but must make effective use of collective power.”
The Progressive Party’s announcement points out that: “Water pickets—people in small boats—have been used peacefully and successfully for years by Longshoremen, sailors, fishermen, and boatmen in this country.” Though the local Coast Guard marine safety official has warned that “small boat captains who refuse to get out of the way of a ship could face hefty civil penalties.” That doesn’t rule out an Occupy “fleet” of kayaks, canoes, motor boats running just ahead of this grain ship (or alongside it) with bedsheet banners either warning Coast Guardsmen “Don’t Shoot American Strikers” or pointing out that they are “hired goons” for the 1%.
On the ship’s return to Astoria, the signs could switch to some form of “Shame on You, Coast Guard,” noting that their strike-breaking action blackens a sterling reputation for saving lives and instead wrecks lives by robbing American labor of paychecks and homes, not to mention the losses of taxes Longshoremen have paid for decades to Longview, the state of Washington, and the U.S. Department of Revenue.