The Case of Occupy and the Longshoremen’s Union: A Reply to Critics

On December 5, 2011, Znet published my piece, “The Case of Occupy and the Longshoremen’s Union.” The article both in its introduction and its conclusions was highly favorable to the Occupy Wall Street movement and its achievements thus far. It did, however, raise questions concerning Occupy Oakland’s use of the term “General Strike” to describe its November 2, 2011 demonstrations at the Port of Oakland and its subsequent call for a West Coast “General Strike” on December 12.  

The article asked what we mean by a “strike,” and what we mean by a “General Strike” specifically, and it offered some definition as well as historical examples of each. It argued that the issues involved were not semantic but important because strikes are important and that strikes, therefore, “are not to be taken lightly.”

The article then turned to the problematic nature of the December 12 call for a “General Strike” on the West coast docks, a strike for which there was apparently little or no support among significant numbers of dock workers or their unions.

In the event organizers renamed the action a “blockade” and then “community pickets,” an improvement though these two new appellations concealed as much as they revealed.  Never mind. The project, however, was pressed forward as originally intended – a “shutdown of the entire West Coast Waterfront – from Anchorage to San Diego.” And why? The reasons abounded, nearly all quite valid in themselves: to support the Longview ILWU members; to retaliate for police brutality in Oakland; to show the power of the 99%; to energize the working class; as a manifestation of “hatred for capitalism.”

Thus the problem remained – the blockade was to be undertaken despite the fact that the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) took the position that it opposed the blockade: Robert McEllrath, the president of the ILWU: "Support is one thing, organization from outside groups attempting to co-opt our struggle in order to advance a broader agenda is quite another and one that is destructive to our democratic process."

Neither was support forthcoming from other dockside unions nor did significant rank and file support emerge. The Oakland teachers’ union (OEA) was the exception.

Hence my criticism of the call and my concern that it displayed a kind of substitutionism that I could not support. That is, especially insofar as Occupy Oakland projected itself as striking in support of the Longview, WA longshoremen, it was an attempt to substitute Occupy Oakland for the workers involved and their unions – without their approval. And that represented in my mind a serious tactical error and one that might have long term consequences in a very new movement.

The event itself and replies to my article have only strengthened this belief. I will mention just a few: an email from Jay contended “…occupy is… the larger working class movement…” A Portland, OR writer responded to CounterPunch, which also published the article: “this action is conducted by and for the entire working class in order to send a rebuke to the 1% who own and control distribution and transportation.” Steve D’Arcy replied with this in Znet, “It is not the ILWU apparatus — dutifully enforcing the terms of its collective agreements — that represents the workers' movement here. It is the General Assemblies of the west coast Occupy movement.” (my emphases)

I can only respond that, no, Occupy is not the “larger working class movement” and that it does not “represent” the worker’s movement here. It may aspire to, it may attempt to organize and lead that movement. But it does not do that now. And the diminished turnouts, including by workers, speak for themselves.

Another set of responses seemed not interested in the notion of “substitutionism” but with the facts concerning the shutdown as I reported them, arguing that the shutdown did indeed have significant working class and labor support.

I had written: “I confess to knowing little about the officers of the ILWU, the same for the rank and file. But now, for better or worse, the case is that neither the officers of the ILWU nor any significant section of its members support the December actions planned by Occupy Oakland.” Readers will have to judge for themselves. I believe this was in fact the case.

Lee Sustar, writing in one of two responses to me featured simultaneously in Socialist Worker quoted the above and then countered with this: "I think people [on the docks] do have sympathy and feel connected with Occupy as a whole," said Anthony Leviege, an ILWU member for 11 years who is active with Occupy Oakland. Working alongside other Occupy activists to leaflet the docks in recent weeks, he estimated that about 50 percent of the workers he's talked to expressed some sympathy for the December 12 action.”

I also think there are people on the docks who have “some sympathy… with Occupy as a whole” but sympathy is one thing. Support and involvement is another. To offer as evidence in rebuttal to my concerns, this utterly vague “about 50% …express some sympathy” is breathtaking! Sustar then retreats to the contention that the mis-treated truckers who work the southern California docks represent an area of support. Perhaps, but activism amongst these workers (and they are certainly unfairly treated) significantly outdates Occupy and again, in the event, very few, if any participated in the blockades. So Sustar is wrong.

An aside: on a personal note I was happy to see Sustar commend Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt from Below During the Long 1970s, a book I edited with Aaron and Robert Brenner. It contains an excellent collection of accounts of the last significant upsurge of workers in the US and should be of interest to Occupy activists. I must add, however, contrary to Sustar’s implication, that participation in the movements of that decade in fact has helped me to be able to distinguish between workers’ movements and others.

One last point. I was surprised to see Labor Notes, long associated with rank and file movements and the fight for democratic unions report without comment “most strikes are inconvenient for someone, including other workers.” This of course is true, but it seems a bit cavalier to me. What about the longshoremen and the truckers themselves? Has anyone – besides the mainstream press, of course – asked them? They’ve been reduced to objects in this whole discussion, sometimes less. It’s my impression that the union views this episode as representing more than “inconvenience;” its response was that “The ILWU is not supporting the action at all… (Occupy organizers) have been very disrespectful of the democratic decision-making process in the union and deliberately went around that process to call their own action without consulting workers.”

(By the way, Craig Merrillees, ILWU communications director, has been roundly denounced for this and as a result has been lumped in with “the city's business and political establishment” and other “enemies” of the movement. My question is this: does the union have a right to free speech? Is it allowed to defend itself? Or must such statements first be vetted?)

There is nothing wrong, in my view, with developing a critique of the unions and the structures of industrial relations. It is hardly news, however, that the leadership of the unions in this country leaves much to be desired, that there is such a thing as a labor bureaucracy. I said that right at the start of my piece. It is not news that the law is used to restrain and confine workers and their unions. The problem is how to find a way out of these constraints, to find a way to workers’ power. This has been a project for some time. The ILWU is by all accounts a pretty democratic union; it allows dissent, debate, opposition. It’s small, so it doesn’t cost a fortune to challenge incumbents. And officers, all longshoremen in their division as far as I know, have term-limits and most return to work. We’re not talking about Andy Stern, Mary Kay Henry and David Regan here. Still, it’s not perfect no doubt.

So I suggested that Occupy should work in collaboration with the longshoremen and their union and I still hope this will happen. There are battles to come. It’s good that labor’s response to Occupy Wall Street has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s good that Occupy wants to support workers. It’s inspiring to see the courage of the young protesters. Now let’s use this winter to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of Occupy so that in the spring we will be stronger. And “calm down.”

And this brings me back to the conclusion of my Counterpunch piece: there are fundamental issues here, including the foundational place of self-activity – “The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the workers themselves.”

Perhaps few now remember that not so many decades back there were those who argued in the movement that the revolutionary impulse would come from outside the working class, or that that socialism could be imposed from above, or, quite consistent with this, that black people would gain their rights “come the revolution,” same with women. Therefore, no special demands, no self-activity – no principle of self-emancipation. And no reforms. It was no small in those circumstances to raise the banners of self-liberation and socialism from below. But we did. Let’s not go back.

Cal Winslow is the author of Labor’s Civil War in California, PM Press and an editor of Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt From Below during the Long Seventies (Verso, 2010). He is a Fellow at UC Berkeley, Director of the Mendocino Institute and associated with the Bay Area collective, Retort. He can be reached at cwinslow@berkeley.edu. 

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