The ILWU Defends Its Proud Tradition - By Jack Heyman
The following article appeared October 5, 1998, in Open Forum, the opinion section of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Speaking triumphantly to an Oakland rally in 1990, Nelson Mandela thanked the people of California for their help in winning his freedom paying special tribute to Bay Area longshoremen.
In 1984, longshoremen refused to unload a South African cargo. Mandela credited this act of solidarity with reigniting the American anti-apartheid movement.
Labor actions in solidarity with progressive causes have been a proud tradition of the West Coast's International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
But, in today's global economy, defiant acts by workers don't go unchallenged. Global ship-owning and stevedoring conglomerates, represented by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), would like to stop labor actions altogether.
The week of Labor Day, PMA went to federal court in Los Angeles seeking a permanent injunction that would do just that. In tandem with another PMA case presently before Alameda County Superior Court, a chilling legal precedent could be set if employers prevail.
One year ago, labor activists set up a picket line in the Port of Oakland in solidarity with fired Liverpool, England dockworkers. After the ship, Neptune Jade, departed with its nonunion cargo from Liverpool still on board, dockworkers in ports in Canada and Japan followed the example set by longshoremen here, turning it into a virtual "Flying Dutchman".
In retaliation, the PMA launched a witchhunt. It sued pickets and ILWU locals whose members refused to cross that picket line. It sought hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages and has demanded that defendants "name names" of demonstrators and turn over union records, faxes, email, hard drives, floppy disks, telephone bills and diaries. They even sought (unsuccessfully) to force Laney College in Oakland to name the students in its Labor Studies Club because their banner was seen at one demonstration. In protest against this attack, angry longshoremen in Oakland shutdown the port on July 22.
When Superior Court Judge Henry Needham dismissed PMA's suit against the defendants (except for picket captain Robert Irminger), stating that they were engaged in constitutionally-protected activities, the PMA has appealed. Last month the shipowners sought a permanent injunction in federal court against ILWU actions.
West Coast longshore workers support international trade. Their jobs depend on it. But workers' rights and union standards must be defended against capital's rush toward globalization.
Fewer and fewer maritime conglomerates dominate world trade. They're pushing union-busting deregulation and privatization schemes globally. If dockworkers protest, the police or military are called out as has happened in Veracruz, Amsterdam, Santos, Brazil and Vancouver.
Despite anti-labor legislation like the Taft-Hartley Act which bans sympathy strikes, West Coast longshoremen have supported oppressed workers from California farm workers, to Chilean trade unionists under the Pinochet dictatorship, to this year's Australian dockworkers fighting for their union. Labor solidarity has been exercised by longshoremen since the militant 1934 San Francisco General Strike which shook the pillars of the Pacific Exchange.
Revulsion against PMA's tactics has garnered widespread support for the Neptune Jade Defense Commitee and the ILWU. Their defense campaign is endorsed by writer Alice Walker, M.I.T. professor Noam Chomsky, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, and former-congressman Ron Dellums among scores of other prominent individuals in the arts, academia, labor, and politics.
Witchhunts and court edicts won't stop West Coast longshore workers from expressing labor solidarity.