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An open letter to ILWU rank and filers on the war cargo

By Alexis Buss, Industrial Worker, November 2002

The news came Sept. 30. The UPI wire quoted ILWU President Jim Spinosa as saying, "We have told the military that our obligation to this country and to our military effort is one that we will not move away from. ... Anything our country needs in the interests of national defense, this union will provide." Two days later, Local 10 issued a release which read, "The ILWU is committed to shipping all military cargo."

Those weren't a good few days. As someone trying to help organize solidarity actions on the East Coast where I live, and as an anti-war activist, this course of action was very discouraging. The ILWU had my admiration for a number of actions that its members had taken: in solidarity with workers organizing against the apartheid regime in South Africa; in support of the thousands of workers, students and activists demonstrating against the World Trade Organization; and in support of a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal, political prisoner on Pennsylvania's death row. I understand the desire to want to get back to work, but other strategies were available. For instance, I thought highlighting the dependence of Alaska and Hawai'i on West Coast shipping provided an excellent foot in the door. Untieing this ship sent just one person back to work for only a short time, and the people most likely to be impressed by this show of loyalty went ahead and issued a Taft-Hartley injunction anyway.

Meanwhile, thousands and thousands of unionists across the world are rallying against the war. These are the same unionists whose support will be key as the West Coast dockworkers' struggle continues. To offer to return to work for the express purpose of loading cargo that is going to harm other working people must be discussed within the ranks of the union.

The IWW, which had job control in major ports on the East Coast from 1912 - 1923, also had to have this discussion. During World War I, the government was arresting our leaders at the slightest provocation. Our membership refused to sign no-strike pledges during the war because we saw no possible benefit. A prominent longshore worker and IWW organizer defended himself at trial against an accusation of being anti-American by saying that he and his coworkers had loaded war cargo. America's role in WWI was debated heavily, but even more so within the IWW because we had some key labor power organized and could have slowed, though probably not stopped, the war drive.

Something very significant happened a few years later, during the Russian Civil War. There was an internal squabble in the IWW, and one faction wanted the Philadelphia Wobblies out of the union. An accusation was made that they loaded ships with munitions destined for the Russian General Wrangel so that he could use them to kill peasants and workers. The accusation was untrue, and the indignant tone the Philadelphia longshoremen used while defending themselves tells me that the question of loading munitions was really dissected and they had reached a firm decision, based in part on what happened during WWI, and also on their feelings of solidarity through international shipyard workers.

Even later in 1936, after the IWW no longer had job control but was still a real presence, Wobblies were able to interrupt munitions headed to Spain to be used against workers and peasants who were defending themselves against Franco's fascist takeover. That is because those workers believed in the power of connecting their own labor with solidarity actions with workers across the globe. Anti-fascists reached out to their Wobbly counterparts to take action. Some Wobs even decided to go to Spain and help hold the line against Franco.

Because we are American workers, we are in a position of grave responsibility. We are the workers most able to stop the military aggression of our own country, and to interrupt the profits derived by American multinationals from wars all over the globe. That is why the recent ILWU decision, especially in the circumstance of the bosses' lockout and the government's clear intention to destroy all our unions, is so discouraging. Working people all over the world ask Americans to use our labor power to help them in their simple desire to not be murdered. If we talk about it now, talk with these workers, we could very likely come to the conclusion that we do not want to see them murdered, and we would like to do what we can to stop it from happening.

One such occasion happened in 1971, when a Bengali woman named Sultana Krippendorff got involved with a fledgling direct action movement protesting the U.S.'s supplying of arms to West Pakistan for use in a war against Bangladesh. I read about this story in a book called Blockade by Richard K. Taylor, but it was first told to me by George Lakey, a Quaker activist from Philadelphia.

Sultana went on a speaking tour. In Baltimore, the ILA decided to shun the cargo of the Pakistani ship the Padma for two days. An ILA officer in Philadelphia, John Resta, invited her to attend the ILA's convention a few days later in Florida. On first arriving at the Miami hotel where the convention was held, the anti-war activists were greeted with a banner which read, "I.L.A. Means 'I Love America.'" But Sultana had the courage to tell how American sponsorship of West Pakistan's military and economic war with Bangladesh was endangering the lives of her friends and family. The upshot? The ILA made it a policy not to load arms to Pakistan, and to support congressional efforts to end military and economic aid altogether.

Consider this an invitation for discussion. How will we use our labor power? Whose interests will it serve, the government that is trying to crush our organizations, or the working class of the world?