Obama Set to Use Military Intervention Against Longshoremen

A decisive struggle promising to shape the fate of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), West Coast dockworkers, and all organized labor is swiftly nearing a climax in Longview, Washington.

Within weeks, if not days, the international conglomerate EGT Development will seek to commence operations at its new $200 million export grain terminal at the Port of Longview.  In refusing to use ILWU labor, EGT is breaking the precedent in place since the 1930s, which holds that all public port docks up and down the West Coast are to be worked by the ILWU.

As ILWU Local 21 in Longview maintains, the union’s struggle against EGT’s scab facility is indicative of “the fight of working people everywhere.”  It is, as the union continues, “a make-or-break struggle for all organized labor.”

Yet, as the ILWU and its allies ready to fight EGT’s union busting, the US military lies in wait to intervene on the behalf of the conglomerate.

As ILWU International President Rob McEllrath disclosed in a January 3 letter:

We have been told that this vessel will be escorted by armed United States Coast Guard, including the use of small vessels and helicopters, from the mouth of the Columbia River to the EGT facility.

The revelation that the Coast Guard (one of the five armed forces of the United States, and the lone military organization within the Department of Homeland Security) will be utilized to guard the EGT ship has drawn outrage and harsh condemnation from many within the labor community.  A January 9 resolution from the San Francisco Labor Council, for example, read in part:

This is the first use of the US military to intervene in a labor dispute on the side of management in 40 years—not since the Great 1970 Postal Strike when President Nixon called out the Army and National Guard in an (unsuccessful) attempt to break the strike.  The use of the Armed Forces against labor unions is something you expect to see in a police state.  This is part of a disturbing trend where the US military, acting as enforcers for the 1%, is poised to be used against our own people, as exemplified by the new law [the National Defense Authorization Act] allowing the military to imprison US citizens without trial…

…We condemn this use of the military as part of a union-busting campaign to lower the cost of labor on the waterfront and destroy the union.

Other labor organizations, meanwhile, have sent letters to President Obama in protest.  As a letter sent by the South Central Federation of Labor in Wisconsin states in part:

Use of our tax dollars and our military to assist such union busting is horrifying.  Mr. President, as Commander in Chief, we call upon you to order the Coast Guard to stand down, to not interfere on the side of management in this labor dispute.

Mr. Obama’s willingness to deploy military force ought, though, to be of little surprise.  Despite his campaign promise to “walk on that picket line with you as President of the United States of America,” Mr. Obama has consistently shown himself to be no champion of organized labor.  The president, after all, was all too content with leaving labor’s prized Employee Free Choice Act to unceremoniously rot in a Democratically controlled Congress.

But as President Obama clearly sides with management in Longview, the national AFL-CIO and its president, Richard Trumka, continue to maintain an indifference stance on the whole matter.

For its part, the AFL-CIO has maintained a virtual blackout of the Longview struggle, with no coverage of the dispute appearing on the federation’s website or blog.  As a frustrated reader commented on the federation’s blog, “It would be nice if the AFL-CIO Blog gave workers a voice by reporting on the struggle in Longview, Washington by ILWU Local 21.”

Mr. Trumka, on the other hand, has made just one statement on the matter, coming back in July.  In it, he deemed the struggle a mere “jurisdictional dispute.” Trumka’s remarks were prompted by an Oregon AFL-CIO Executive Board resolution condemning the actions of International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 701—an AFL-CIO affiliate currently crossing ILWU pickets to work the EGT terminal—as “scab labor.”

Given that both unions reside within the national federation, Trumka went on to note that no AFL-CIO body had “the authority to intervene or take sides.”  He did clarify, however, that “this should not be construed as a judgment on the merits of the dispute.”

For Trumka, choosing to cloak his muteness in such a technicality may very well stem from the fact that the IUOE provides substantially more in annual membership fees to the AFL-CIO than the ILWU.

But if such a financial incentive is indeed driving Trumka’s public indifference, it is rather shortsighted.  For no matter the national AFL-CIO’s apathy, the struggle in Longview is proving to be a rather seminal event, bringing together organized labor, the Occupy movement, and an assortment of other activists in a direct fight against corporate greed.

And with such widespread support, coming from both within and without the house of labor, ample incentive and political cover would seemingly be in place for Trumka to step forth and take a firm stand against the jurisdictional raiding and corporate colluding of an AFL-CIO affiliate union.

Yet, as labor activist Harry Kelber writes, AFL-CIO leaders to this very day continue to “prefer a passive membership, rather than a militant one that might call for reforms.”  However, continuing to cling to such conservative pragmatism, while ignoring the broad working class militancy and solidarity presently unfolding around the Longview struggle, is a posture Trumka can ill afford to maintain.  For in doing so, Trumka only promises to relegate the AFL-CIO to further irrelevancy.

Thus, as President-“I’ll walk on that picket line with you”-Obama readies to send in the military against longshoremen in Longview, the time has come for all to take sides.  The struggle can no longer be credibly held as a jurisdictional matter; rather, it is a fight for all organized labor.  So, in the words of Florence Reece, the time has come to ask Mr. Trumka: Which side are you on?

Ben Schreiner is a freelance writer living in Salem, Oregon. He may be reached at: bnschreiner@gmail.com. Read other articles by Ben.