Longshoreman Struggle Poses Critical Question: When Is It Worth Breaking the Law?

Mike Elk

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On Friday, a federal judge fined the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) $250,000 for vandalism and trespassing that occurred during a spout of confrontational protests against a newly opened, largely non-union port facility in Longview, Wash. Despite the fine, it appears that union activists will continue to protest the opening of the port.

On September 7, 2011, 500 workers blocked the railroad tracks leading into Longview’s Export Grain Terminal (EGT) port as a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway car attempted to enter the facility. According to ILWU Spokesman Craig Meirelles, police with batons charged protesters and their families in an effort to disperse them from the train tracks. Police ended up arresting 19 people that day.

The next morning, 800 dockworkers from all over the Pacific Northwest entered the dock and dumped out tens of thousands of grain from a 107-car long grain train. On September 21, 12 union workers and family members were arrested for attempting to block another train from entering the port. Since the protest at least 135 pro-union protesters have been arrested on various occasions, including 100 longshoremen who were arrested for invading the port back in July (a story which In These Times was the first national publication to cover).

As a result of the multiple incidents leading to arrests on charges of trespassing and vandalism, a federal judge issued an injunction, claiming the union broke the National Labor Relations Act’s Section 8(b)(4) by attempting to prevent a rail company from delivering grain to the port. Last Friday, the judge fined the union $250,000 for breaking the injunction. The judge also said that he would fine individuals $2,500 each and union officers $5,000 each for future trespassing or illegal activities in protests against the EGT port facility. Union leaders vowed to continue to appeal the ruling by the judge.

Despite the heavy fines and the threat of further legal action, it appears that protests will continue. The local longshoremen’s union has even launched a campaign to recall the sheriff who has been arresting protesters attempting to block grain trains from entering the port.

Unions up and down the West Coast have engaged in illegal, sometimes uncoordinated wildcat strikes in solidarity. In response to police brutality on September 7, workers in Tacoma and Seattle went out on illegal wildcat strikes on September 8. In response to the arrest of ILWU President Robert McEllrath, ILWU members up and down the West Coast went on an illegal 15-minute strike in a sign of solidarity with the union workers at Longview, Washington.

Everyone came to the tracks of their own free will to stand up for justice and protect good jobs in the community,” said McEllrath, who stood with the volunteers during protests on September 7. It shouldn’t be a crime to fight for good jobs in America.”

The continued protests have made the port difficult to operate, thus hurting the terminal owners’ bottom line. Rarely are unions able to disrupt the operations of a company as the Longview workers have, as labor law strictly prohibits this and imposes heavy fines on unions that engage in such disruptive protests. Most unions therefore choose to take legal, safe route and protect their campaign, rarely engaging in such action and engaging in nondisruptive picketing that does little more than to attract occasional media attention and maintain moral witness.

The way that labor law is set up, longshore workers had to engage in illegal actions to have any chance of success. To allow an employer to refuse to use ILWU labor and undermine hard-won ILWU standards would threaten unionization on West Coast ports,” says union organizer Joe Burns (a Working In These Times contributor and author of Reviving The Strike). The problem is, labor law allows an employer to refuse to use union labor and then judges protect the employers with injunctions and threats against the union. Here, longshore workers decided to fight by labor’s rules, not management’s.”

Burns argues that in order for unions to revive themselves, they must get tough and be willing to break labor laws and incur fines in order to win. It looks at this point as if the ILWU is going to disregard the fines and continue to break the law in order to hamper the production at a nonunion facility and force the company to settle.

In 1989, Richard Trumka chose to break labor law and launched his rise as labor leader by leading the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in a successful nine-month strike against Pittston Coal Group for cutting off medical benefits to pensioners and the disabled. A full 37,000 miners went out on wildcat strikes in solidarity with the Pittston strikers. The long strike led the UMWA to the brink of bankruptcy, and it was fined nearly $64 million during the strike (fines which were later settled out of court). But the workers stood firm, and the Pittston Strike became a rallying cry against the tide of union busting that had swept the nation during the Reagan era.

Now president of the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest labor federation, Trumka has recently been talking about how a new Super PAC will help labor act more independently of the Democratic Party, and help organized labor to stay alive as a movement. Perhaps he should revisit the idea of breaking the law as a strategy for victory.

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Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.
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