It is a year now since all hell broke loose in Longview, Washington, an industrial town on the Columbia River, 45 miles downstream from Portland, Oregon. On Monday, July 11, 2011, more than 100 dock workers, including the leaders of Local 21, International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), were arrested there.
The crime? They occupied the Port of Longview’s huge new, ultra-automated grain terminal, a $200 million dollar facility, built by EGT, the grain shipping conglomerate. It was scheduled to begin testing operations with non-union labor. The workers used a pick-up truck to pull down the terminal’s gates, tore down the chain-link fencing, and stormed the facility, effectively blocking EGT employees from entering and working.
Sheriff’s deputies and city cops from Longview and neighboring Kelso arrested the protesters, who did not resist; one by one the police issued citations for second degree trespassing, photographed and handcuffed the workers, then loaded them into cars and a corrections department van. “We have worked this dock for 70 years, said Dan Coffman, President of ILWU Local 21, “and to have a big rich company come in and say, ‘We don’t want you’ is a problem. We’re all together. We’re going to jail as a union.” They were taken to the Cowlitz County Fairgrounds and released. “We just wanted them out of there,” said County Sheriff Mark Nelson.
The next day, Tuesday, there was a raucous, noisy rally in Longview. Then, Thursday, six hundred dock workers and supporters seized the railroad tracks that serve the Port; at 1:30 am they stopped a train, 107 cars hauling corn, originating in Split Rock, Minnesota, headed for the Longview elevators. The mile-long train had to be rerouted back up river to Vancouver, WA; in response railroad officials at the Burlington Northern Santa Fe suspended (for “safety concerns”) train traffic indefinitely. No arrests were made, the police being “severely outnumbered.” “Parts of the crowd were fairly aggressive” said Nelson, “shouting and hollering… They refused to leave, refused to move.”
This was just the beginning. Before it was finished, more than 200 longshoremen, wives, neighbors and supporters were arrested. This included Bob McEllrath, the International president of the ILWU (a Vancouver, WA longshoreman who still lives there part-time) and Dan Coffman (arrested twice) president of local 21. The conflict lasted into the next year. It exploded again in September, in an escalating series of militant confrontations, fueled by outbursts of rank-and-file anger rarely seen these days in the US. It seemed set for a bloody showdown in January, 2012, with a confrontation possibly involving thousands looming; EGT had announced its intension to begin regular operations – the first big grain freighter was expected to load before the end of the month.
This story has been told before, though mostly in pieces and here and there. It bears repeating. The Longview conflict became an issue for longshoremen world-wide – there was an international response from waterfront workers, with messages of solidarity from virtually every continent. In addition, the conflict became a centerpiece, for a time of the then thriving Occupy movement, at least in its West Coast incarnation. Now, a year on, the dust has settled a bit, EGT is open for business and there are still ILWU men on the docks. There is time for some reflection.
I suggest we begin with the conclusion: the battle at Longview was won by the workers, the members of Local 21, and their union, the ILWU. It was a victory, an important victory for unions, all the more so for rank-and-file members. It came in a period of ongoing trade union defeat and decline. It dashed EGT’s plan to employ a non-union workforce at the Longview terminal. It set back those employers’ who imagined that this time the ILWU might be cracked.
The background is important; this story can be properly understood only in a larger context. The year 2011 began with high hopes, nowhere more so than in Madison, where hundreds of thousands rallied to defend working class and trade union rights. Yet by mid-summer it was increasingly clear that Governor Scott Walker had won; the public sector unions he attacked were reeling, in the end they lost many of their most basic rights. In Indiana, the right-to-work movement returned with a vengeance; in Ohio similar anti-union legislation was beaten back but not in Michigan. The Verizon strike had petered out. Even the news from North Africa became unsettling. But by fall, Occupy Wall Street was center stage.
The Longview story stands out in this setting. Why? For the most part the cast of characters was all too familiar – a giant, intransigent corporate predator, an indifferent governor, the partisan judge, a compliant National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), local law enforcement quite happy and willing to do the bidding of all the former. It also stands out because the workers won, and in this it raises welcome questions. First of all, given the times, given the odds, just how did these longshoremen win? There are answers and lessons here. There is also debate. But the lessons, it seems to me, are simple and quite clear enough. The Longview longshoremen responded to the attack on their union by fighting back; they refused to be bullied. It was David v. Goliath, yet they were not intimidated by EGT, the giant grain shipper with its millions, nor by the courts, nor by the police. Then, they were not alone. They had the support of their union and its leadership; they had the support of the county and state labor movements. In the course of the conflict, they won widespread “community” support, and here I mean their own actual community –friends and neighbors, relatives, fellow workers, a significant section of the local population. This came to include but was certainly not at all limited to local and coastal Occupy contingents. Finally, they persisted; they wouldn’t stop fighting.
There was more. The Longview longshoremen also employed the full power of their tradition and the pride they have in their union, including their knowledge of the roots of the union in the great West Coast Waterfront strikes of 1934. Intangible, this was critical all the same.
We also need to remember, here, that these were just 220 workers, workers in a small town, albeit still a blue collar town, one strategically located in between mail line rails, Interstate 5 and the river, nevertheless rather remote. And, as elsewhere, times in 2011 were not so good in Longview; the recession continued, unemployment was high at 12%. The timber industry remained in steep decline, so there were no guarantees of work in Longview, and there was no shortage of people in need of work.
Still, these Longview workers were longshoremen, and the history of longshoremen has been – and still is – in the words of the historian Eric Hobsbawm, “filled with dramatic events, and personalities,” great triumphs as well as tragic defeats. Writing in the 1950s, Hobsbawm explained, longshoremen were known for their “raw power” and their strikes “are feared from Santos to San Francisco, from Sydney to Liverpool.”
Today, things have changed a bit, but the world’s ports, hundreds of years on, are still critical intersections in the commerce of industrial capitalism, and as such they continue to be centers of conflict. In the aftermath of victory in the 1934 General Strike, the West Coast longshoremen christened themselves “Lords of the Docks” – the “most militant body of men the world has ever seen” and inspired in fact (in and attendant myth) a “pentecostal” era of West Coast insurgent unionism, including along the banks of the Columbia. Today there are still about 4,000 ILWU members working in Washington and Oregon.
This is a powerful inheritance – never mind, then, that the great congregations of sailors and longshoremen that once crowded the mean streets of the world’s waterfront are now gone, as are the gangs upon which their legendary solidarity was based; their numbers have everywhere diminished, the result of relentless “modernization and mechanization.” Nevertheless, the work can be physical, heavy; it can be dangerous. Grain workers can be trapped in moving mountains of grain; dozens have suffocated or been crushed in silos over the years. There are explosions.
Today, longshoremen work in highly automated systems that deliver spectacular volumes with astonishing speed. Ships can be in and out of ports in hours. EGT expects its Longview facility to be the most efficient on West Coast; with 20 monthly ship calls, workers there will unload 110 car trains in four h