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How Working Outside the Law Helped Labor Win on the West Coast

Occupy movement support and defiance of labor law yield a union victory in Washington state.

This story was originally published at Salon.

Earlier this month longshore workers in Washington state  reached a contract with a boss that has spent the past year fighting to keep their union out.  That company, the multinational EGT, sought to run its new grain terminal in the town of Longview, as the only facility on the West Coast without the famously militant International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).  A victory by EGT would have emboldened employers up and down the coast to seek to free themselves of ILWU influence.  And if the union — with the help of the Occupy movement — had not defied the law, EGT would have succeeded.

The Longview struggle began last March when, after initial discussions with ILWU Local 21, EGT announced its intention to run its new grain terminal without them.  The ILWU held protest rallies, and joined the Port of Longview’s lawsuit charging that EGT was bound by the union’s contract with the publicly owned port.  The union may have had a good legal case.  But so did Washington’s Boeing workers when their boss blamed their strikes for its decision to take new work to South Carolina. Boeing mostly  got away with it anyway.

Rather than putting all their faith in the law while EGT did its work without them, ILWU members chose to get in the company’s way.  Literally.  Beginning in July, union members blocked railroad tracks to prevent grain shipments from passing.  According to media  reports, workers also tore down fencing and dumped grain.  Police  charged that workers threw rocks at them; labor denied members were violent, and charged that police beat and pepper-sprayed workers without justification.  The ILWU did not formally endorse its members’ actions, but its international president was among the dozens arrested.  In September, 200 union members and supporters  lined up outside the building housing the sheriff’s office and announced they had arrived to turn themselves in for nonviolently defending their jobs.

Pre-planned arrests for blocking traffic have become a common, and sometimes effective, tactic for unions seeking to embarrass employers or draw attention to their struggles.  But what took place in Longview was something very different: willful, repeated refusal to obey laws restricting union power.

As union negotiator Joe Burns documents in his recent book “Reviving the Strike,” it was once commonly assumed – and even taught in economics textbooks — that labor’s leverage came from the power not just to refuse to work at a company, but to prevent any work from taking place.  Today, following decades of laws and court rulings, the production-halting strike is nearly extinct.

Indeed, when ILWU members moved from protesting EGT to blocking the tracks, a judge slapped the union with fines and injunctions.  The National Labor Relations Board — the same agency Republicans love to hate for enforcing labor law against companies – had  asked the judge to act.  Workers’ production-halting actions continued despite an early September restraining order.  Whereas the town’s political establishment would otherwise have been content to wait for a judge to sort out both sides’ claims, the unions’ escalation sparked the town sheriff and county commissioners to  publicly request a judge to expedite the case.  But after a judge  issued a $250,000 fine and the threat of increasing punishment, the ILWU trimmed its sails, returning to more traditional protests and an unsuccessful attempt to recall the sheriff.

That’s where Occupy came in.  “It’s pretty impressive, the level that [ILWU members] were willing to fight,” says Paul Nipper of Occupy Longview.  Inspired in part by ILWU’s industrial activism – including repeated San Francisco Bay Area port shutdowns as well as the Longview blockades – Occupy repeatedly set out to shut down West Coast ports, beginning with coordinated actions Dec. 12.

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