Three rank-and-file labor leaders took to the podium Saturday night, July 21, to tell stories of outrageous abuse and inspired fightback in Longview and Seattle, Washington. Members of several different unions, workers in non-union shops, and community activists crowded into a community hall in south Seattle for the public forum, “Unfair to Labor,” sponsored by the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP). The urgent need for solidarity between unions and the larger working class was an overriding theme of the event.
Another popular theme was deep disenchantment with the Democrats, and how best to advance labor’s agenda in the political arena. Agreement was strong on the need for militant strikes and mass actions, such as the December 12, 2011 Seattle port shutdown. Several people also raised the urgent need for a mass workers party, and the FSP presidential campaign of Stephen Durham-Christina López as an important vehicle for building such a party. The evening struck a high note when panelist Calvin Borders, a short-haul trucker, clasped hands with co-panelist Mike Fuqua, a longshoreman, and the two vowed to collaborate to advance the cause of both their struggles.
Two separate battles
Borders, a 14-year veteran driver at the Port of Seattle, is a mainstay of the newly formed Seattle Port Truckers Association, which led a strike in February 2012 to protest deplorable conditions. The truckers, many of them East African immigrants, haul millions of dollars in freight for a profitable industry. Yet most drivers barely make a living. Designated as “independent contractors,” they pay for breakages en route, repair of rigs, and hefty fines for overloads – even though they have no control over the weight of the containers they haul. Borders decried the long hours they sit in traffic and at the dock —without pay. They also are not even allowed to use restrooms at the gates of the ports. Others called these appalling conditions “apartheid” on the waterfront.
In December, Occupy, and community organizations including FSP, organized a shutdown at Seattle’s port as part of a West Coast Shut Down. In February, 400 truckers went on strike. These actions cost shippers millions of dollars, and Borders called the solidarity accomplished a “milestone” in organizing truckers.
Yet conditions remain intolerable and the Association is still trying to change drivers’ job status from “independent contractor” to employee. This would qualify them for workers’ compensation and other benefits under labor law, including the right to unionize. Panelist Annaliza Torres, a leader in Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity (OWLS), expressed dismay over the racism of some longshore workers toward truckers, especially given the International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s (ILWU) proud history of fighting discrimination. Torres, whose father was an organizer in the Alaska Cannery Workers union, said that multiracial solidarity was instrumental in improving conditions for cannery workers. Those workers ultimately became part of ILWU. Mike Fuqua from ILWU Local 21 in Longview, also expressed outrage. “Faulty equipment is not OK!” he said. “Lousy wages are not OK! A fight for humanity is what we have here!”
Fuqua’s Local 21 is locked in its own struggle with Export Grain Terminal (EGT), a story that captured headlines last year when the multi-national consortium tried to bust the Local and end 75 years of ILWU jurisdiction on the docks. Fuqua described how he was radicalized by the fight, and said that “if we didn’t do anything, we were going to lose everything.” Fuqua and other rank-and-filers, backed by ILWU’s courageous Women’s Auxiliary, faced off cops on the picket line, and formed alliances with the Occupy Movement. This led to historic shutdown actions to demonstrate solidarity with Local 21 and short-haul truckers along the West Coast.
The actions helped Local 21 preserve their jurisdiction at Longview when EGT and ILWU signed a contract in February. But the courts, police, and government are still backing EGT, Fuqua reported. The Local lost their hiring hall in the contract with EGT and key union activists are being blacklisted now. Also, President Obama set a terrible precedent, calling on armed Coast Guard vessels to escort EGT’s non-union ship through floating ILWU picket lines. Like the truckers, ILWU’s fight is far from over.
Panelist Torres, who worked on the Port shutdown as an activist with OWLS and the FSP, described some key barriers holding back labor. One problem is union misleaders “who too often collaborate and compromise with the bosses, and keep a lid on the movement.” Another is the Democratic Party which, she said, is “clearly not a friend of labor.” Torres urged the building of a mass party for the working class, because without a political voice of its own, labor is losing. She also advocated a write-in vote for FSP’s presidential ticket — Stephen Durham and Christina López, as an important protest in the electoral arena.
In addition to the above challenges, Torres said labor “must bridge the divisions within our class.” High on the priority list is tackling racism, such as the attitude of some ILWU members toward short haul truckers, and anti-immigrant bigotry, especially toward darker-skinned immigrants. This destroys solidarity and excludes the most militant, Torres said. She also pointed to red-baiting as a problem that has “got to go.”
The discussion that followed was as electric as the speakers. A carpenter declared that members did not support their union leadership’s lack of solidarity with longshore workers. A union bus driver told the crowd, “If we want to change things, we’ve got to step up to leadership in our unions.” An ILWU Local 52 member paraphrased railroad porters union organizer A. Philip Randolph, advising, “You can’t hold onto your victories without an organization.” The Seattle FSP organizer echoed that sentiment, inviting everyone to get involved in the FS 2012 Presidential campaign. A former Teamster said the fight for union democracy is critical. And a female ILWU member from Longview said, “When one wins, it’s a win for everyone.” Following that descriptive conclusion, the crowd stuck around to plan, in sync with one panelist’s remark, “We’re all fighting against the same small group of people. And the fight’s coming.”
Linda Averill, a member of Amalgamated Transit Union 587 and bus driver for public transit in King County.