U.S. Dockers Take Historic Step

Anti-War Strike

On 1 May 2008, 25,000 dockers of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), traditionally one of the most militant unions in the United States, shut down every port from San Diego to Seattle to protest the occupation of Iraq. Promoted as a “No Peace, No Work Holiday,” the union's action defied the shipping bosses and labor arbitrators who denounced it as an “illegal strike.” This was the first successful political strike ever conducted by American workers against an imperialist military adventure, and it sent a powerful message of international solidarity to all those suffering under the jackboot of U.S. imperialism.

As we noted in a 19 April 2008 statement, “In resisting the imperialist war-makers, the ILWU's action points the way forward for the entire international labor movement.” The ILWU ranks rebuffed attempts by their national leadership to derail the action, which was counterposed to the labor bureaucracy's dead-end strategy of reliance on Democratic Party “friends of labor.” The May Day port shutdown struck a blow at U.S. imperialism and established an important precedent for future working-class political strikes. This is why all genuine socialists wholeheartedly embraced the action, despite the patriotic drivel about the U.S. military spouted by the ILWU tops.

While the strike was big news on the West Coast, the media outside the area all but ignored it, as did the international press, out of fear that it might inspire similar actions elsewhere. Much of the left also ignored, or downplayed the significance of, the strike. Some no longer really consider the organized working class to be a potential agent of social transformation. Others are hostile toward the initiator of the action, Jack Heyman (a well-known labor militant and executive board member in ILWU Local 10), and/or the Trotskyist political tradition he identifies with.

On 27 September 2008, the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) was honored to sponsor Brother Heyman as a guest speaker at a public forum in Toronto. Before the presentation, a short clip from the Labor Video Project was shown that vividly documented the May Day action. With a couple of notable exceptions, the 50-odd people who attended the meeting were extremely enthusiastic about the “illegal” anti-war strike and repeatedly applauded Heyman throughout his remarks.

The exceptions were two representatives of the Trotskyist League (TL), Canadian affiliate of the Spartacist League/U.S. (SL). The SL once had considerable influence in the ILWU, but abandoned its trade-union work in the early 1980s. The first TLer to speak, Arthur Llewellyn, conceded that the May Day strike “does point the way to the kind of working-class action that needs to be mobilized,” and even ventured to “salute the workers who withheld their labor during the port shutdown.” He then spent the rest of his time denouncing Heyman and the other militants who organized the strike, as well as leftists who supported them. Llewellyn charged: “The BT provides a left cover for Heyman, who in turn covers for the ILWU tops, who in turn chain the union to the Democratic Party.” The spontaneous laughter provoked by this and similar idiotically sectarian comments became so loud that at one point the chairperson had to request members of the audience to contain themselves.

A second TL speaker, Oliver Stephens, was indignant to find materials about the strike written by the New York-based Internationalist Group (IG) on the IBT literature table:

“We've got the Internationalist Group literature there, we've got the IBT there, we've got a nice big love-in trying to say something that isn't true. That unfortunately the action on May 1st was not one of conscious class struggle—that's just true. To lie about it is to prettify and to be able to make little arrangements between groups and people that otherwise quite hate each other.”

This was seen by the audience for exactly what it was—an expression of petty sectarianism. If the TL/SL does not consider a workers' political strike against the imperialist war machine to be a form of “conscious class struggle,” why should they want to “salute” those who carried it out? Unlike the Spartacists, we welcome the opportunity to work with other leftists when there is a principled political basis for doing so. We are pleased that the IG enthusiastically supported the initiative of the militants who organized the May Day action.

The shared recognition by the IBT and IG of the import of the ILWU May Day strike does not change the fact that there are significant political differences between us. For example, we consider that the SL's turn away from trade-union work in the early 1980s was both an expression and an accelerant of a process of political degeneration that was already far advanced. The IG, on the other hand, has a generally positive assessment of the SL in that period. Sometimes agreement on one issue opens the door to substantive discussion of differences; sometimes it does not.

During the round, Heyman brusquely dismissed the TL's complaints as “nonsense,” and noted that on May Day, SLers in San Francisco refused to join a march of several thousand strike supporters. He pointed out that only a few years earlier (in Workers Vanguard, 4 February 2005) the SL had issued a public self-criticism for a similar refusal to participate in an April 1999 demonstration the day the ILWU shut down the West Coast in solidarity with black political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. The TLers squirmed when Heyman went on to reveal that while all the best militants in Local 10 had actively participated in building the May Day action, the SL's lone supporter “didn't do a damn thing.”

One of the most important points that Heyman sought to drive home was that the May Day anti-war strike did not “just happen.” It was the result of a lot of hard work and cooperation by many different people with different views on a wide range of issues. He was quite open about the limitations of the action, and particularly about the fact that many of the participants have illusions that the Democratic Party under Barack Obama can somehow turn U.S. imperialism into an instrument for social progress.

In response to a question from the floor about what he considered to be the most important lesson from his decades as a union militant, Heyman pointed to the necessity to forge a class-struggle leadership within the labor movement: “The lesson that I learned is that you have to organize caucuses in the union based on a class-struggle program to oust the trade-union bureaucracy, to remove them so that workers can then fight against the employers that exploit them and the government that stands behind those employers.” The idea of creating programmatically-based caucuses in the unions is one that goes back to the early years of the Communist Party in the U.S. (see “Early Communist Work in the Trade Unions,” reprinted in the IBT edition of the Transitional Program).

Heyman returned to this vital question in his final summary, and concluded his remarks with the observation that, “It would be better had there been a class-struggle caucus that had been built in the ILWU,” but that it is necessary to address the crisis of working-class leadership on a broader political basis: “A class-struggle caucus does not exist in and of itself—it has to be directed by a revolutionary party, and that is the key lesson that I impart to all of you tonight.”


The following is a slightly edited version of Jack Heyman's talk. Bryan Palmer, James P. Cannon's biographer, introduced Heyman and outlined some of his history in the union movement.

I do have a long history of promoting class-struggle politics working within the trade-union movement. I actually began in the maritime industry in 1969 in the National Maritime Union (NMU). At that time, I was part of a class-struggle caucus called the Militant Solidarity Caucus that was initiated and supported by the Spartacist League, which was then a revolutionary organization.

From the NMU I moved to the West Coast and became active in the ILWU, the longshore union. The first important campaign that I was involved in out there was in 1984, around the question of apartheid in South Africa. And from that struggle I learned a lot of my politics and how to function as a revolutionary within the trade-union movement. I credit a lot of what I learned—those lessons—to someone who's here tonight, and I want to acknowledge him: Howard Keylor. Will you stand up, Howard? Thank you. [applause]

Howard was able to raise a resolution within our local [ILWU Local 10—San Francisco] that became the basis for an 11-day anti-apartheid cargo boycott—an action that, in 1984, built or reignited the anti-apartheid movement in the United States. That's not my opinion—that's what Nelson Mandela said when he was freed from prison and he did a world tour. He came to the Oakland Coliseum, and the first thing he said was that he credited the longshore union for reigniting the anti-apartheid movement in the United States. The spark that struck off the anti-apartheid movement came from Howard Keylor's motion. Thank you, Howard. [applause]

So that 1984 strike against the ship that came in from South Africa, the Nedlloyd Kimberley, was an exemplary action. But more than that, it emboldened workers and showed them how they have power—not only in terms of a contract, but in terms of the social reality in which we live. In the end, apartheid was brought down, and that particular action played a key role in the United States.

I'm just giving you a little bit of background to lead up to how May Day 2008 was able to be organized, because you need to know the background. A lot of people will say, “ah, that's the ILWU—they're always doing actions.” That's not the way it happens; it's got to be organized, and it's got to be organized around a class analysis—a program, a transitional program.

In 1997 and '98 there was an important strike in Liverpool, England by the dockworkers. That struggle brought out many of the best elements of the trade-union movement internationally. The key thing about a longshore union is that it's at the nexus of global trade; and that's the power that we have—to withhold our labor at that point of the production process. And we did that for the Liverpool dockers, when the ship called the Neptune Jade came into the port of Oakland. There was a community/labor picket put up, longshoremen refused to cross that picket line and for four days that ship stood idle. It scared the hell out of the capitalists. You could go to their various websites (we also had a website up) and see that the number of hits went up exponentially as soon as that action began. Because they recognize—the employers understand—that the power of labor is there, on the docks. That was a good example of how workers can actually solidarize and support each other's struggles internationally. Unfortunately, the Liverpool dockers eventually lost their struggle. But the lessons that we learned from that have been sort of like a torch that's been handed on.

So, a couple of years after that, black dockworkers in Charleston, South Carolina were faced with a scab stevedoring company that came in to do their work (the union had a contract with the shipping line, Nordana, for 25 years). South Carolina is a “right-to-work” state, and it's a bastion of reaction in the U.S. And yet, the black workers uniting with white workers—the whites have the more privileged jobs (doing the paperwork and checking off the cargo), while the blacks do the heavy physical work of longshore. They united together and were able to wage a very significant campaign, particularly for the southern United States. The dockers who were arrested in the struggle were called the “Charleston Five.” The point is that the defense campaign for them really got going because of the role that the West Coast longshore union [ILWU] played. And I encourage people to get a copy of the flyer on the booktable—it's called, “On the Global Waterfront: The Fight to Free the Charleston Five.” It provides a well-researched and documented account of that struggle.

Basically, what we did in that struggle was we went to Charleston, because their own labor bureaucracy in New York was not supporting their struggle and they were isolated. So the ILWU's San Francisco Local 10 sent two delegates to Charleston, and we were able to tell them, “you're not alone in this struggle. We stand with you.” We brought news of their struggle back to the ILWU longshore caucus, which is a convention of all the longshore locals up and down the West Coast. Our caucus voted to organize solidly behind the Charleston dockers—and we brought their campaign to the entire organized labor movement, not only in the United States, but internationally. And they won.

The lesson of that is that even in reactionary times when things look difficult in terms of trying to fight employers and fight the government, it is possible to win—but you've got to be willing to struggle. The Charleston longshoremen were willing to make that stand. They together—black and white—fought on the picket line against the cops (the South Carolina state riot police were called in at one point). They challenged the system, and in the end, they won because we were able to build solid support, not only in the United States, but internationally.

The way that worked was the same as for the Liverpool dockers' struggle: the best militants in the dockworkers' movement came to the defense of the Liverpool dockers. I met the head of the anarchist-oriented dockworkers' union in Spain. And I said—it was an email actually—“Julian, there's an important struggle going on in Charleston, and those ships that leave Charleston go to Valencia, Spain; they need your help.” As soon as the next ship hit the dock in Valencia, longshore leaders went up the gangway, they talked to the captain and they said, “this ship is not going to get unloaded. None of your ships are going to get unloaded until you sign a contract with the longshore union in Charleston.” And that was done within 48 hours. That's the power of the working class. [applause] That's how solidarity works.

I think most of you know of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a political prisoner, an innocent man framed by the U.S. justice system for the killing of a police officer. In 1999, there was going to be a big demonstration for him in San Francisco. Our local put forward a motion at the caucus once again that we take action to defend Mumia Abu-Jamal and call for his freedom. And that call resonated very strongly in my local in San Francisco and Oakland because the majority of our local is African-American. We took it to the caucus, and the caucus backed the action. On April 24th, 1999, all the ports on the West Coast were shut down to demand freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal. [applause]

Now that was the first time that we used the tactic of having a stop-work meeting for an action. Contractually, we have the right to have a stop-work meeting one shift a month, but up to that point there had never been a situation where every port on the West Coast stopped work at the same time for a political cause—an important cause: to free Mumia Abu-Jamal! And so that was an important step forward as well because it gave some encouragement to workers once again that we do have power that we can exert and use it in creative ways. This was one of those creative ways.

We led the march in San Francisco of 25,000 people and demanded freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal. There's no question that the official leadership of that march organized under the banner of calling for a new trial. Our slogan, which we chanted, was: “An Injury to One is an Injury to All—Free Mumia Abu-Jamal!” [applause] Whether you had differences or not with the leadership of that march, it was important for every leftist to be out there marching under their own banner.

A couple of years after that, as Bryan pointed out, we had a contract struggle. Now the significance of the 2002 contract struggle was that it took place six months after “9/11,” and so fear was pervasive within the trade-union movement. The employers capitalized on that and they lobbied the White House for action against the union. And so Donald Rumsfeld, who was then secretary of defense, and Tom Ridge, then homeland security czar, phoned the leadership of the ILWU, and said that if you have any actions on the docks during your contract negotiations (and they knew we have always done that), if you have any actions that disrupt the flow of cargo, we will consider that a national security risk and we will occupy the docks with federal troops.

That was in the wake of “9/11.” But we fought back. We were locked out by the employers. Now mind you, the federal government threatened the union that if we slowed down, or had any kind of job action, they were going to send in the troops. But the employers' association locked us out of every port on the West Coast and nothing happened with that! For ten days every port on the West Coast was shut down and that was followed immediately by the government invoking Taft-Hartley [a draconian anti-labor law] against us—largely because of Democrat Dianne Feinstein's lobbying of the Bush administration.

The war on Iraq began just a few months after the contract was signed and there were demonstrations on the docks in Oakland. I was Local 10's business agent at the time and our members honored the picket line. We stood on the side as the picketers were demonstrating. The police came in with riot gear, which reminded me of what happened in Charleston. But in this case they were loaded for bear and they had the green light because of “9/11.” In fact, the head of the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center said that anybody who demonstrates against the “war on terror” could be considered a terrorist. So we were “terrorists” out there on the docks! They shot “non-lethal” weapons at the demonstrators. Scores were injured. They also aimed at longshoremen who were standing on the side, and a number of our brothers were injured seriously—five were taken to the hospital. I was trying to defend our brothers as the business agent and was pulled out of my car and pummeled by five cops. The UN Human Rights Commission deemed that episode the most violent police attack that had taken place since the start of the war.

That's why when you see this video [on the May Day strike]—this came five years after the start of the war in Iraq—it was a sort of sweet justice for us. We got revenge; every port on the West Coast, from the Canadian border to the Mexican border, was shut down. Every port! And that sent the message to the employers that we do have the power. It also sent a message to the rest of the trade-union movement that workers have power to change things.

Now there were problems with the action itself. I should step back one second and say that there was a “Stop the War” labor conference in October of 2007 that was sponsored by Local 10. The main motion that came out of that conference at our union was for the delegates who came from other unions nationally and internationally to go back and raise a call for actions at the point of production wherever they worked. That was the basis for us passing the motion to shut down all the ports on May Day. Now, was it flawed? Yeah. But was it something that advanced the class struggle in the United States and internationally? Definitely. In the United States we had never had a workers' strike against a war before. It hadn't happened. While we called on workers around the world to strike with us on May Day, it only actually occurred in one country, and that was in Iraq. The dockworkers in Iraq struck in the face of military occupation! They risked a lot—I mean they were putting their lives on the line, literally, in striking against the war and the occupation.

So we went out and it would have been wonderful had other workers joined in with us, but it didn't happen. We turned over every stone to get the port truckers to join with us. We had conference calls weekly with the port truckers. Most of them, many of them, are immigrant workers. And we had conference calls with port truckers from Boston, New York, Houston, Savannah, Charleston, LA—all over the country. And they promised—now these are unorganized workers, they're not in unions—that if we went out (because it wasn't certain that every longshore local, every port was going to be shut down), they would go out with us.

The reality is that they didn't come out with us. They're not organized and it's very difficult to carry out any kind of a strike action if you're not organized. That was unfortunate because, had that happened, it would have been the first ever nationwide port strike in the U.S., and it's something we've got to work on. I think that it is possible, particularly given the opportunities now where workers are saying, “what's happening to the economy?” Homes are being foreclosed, people being thrown out of work, inflation is skyrocketing. The conditions are ripe for class-struggle politics in the trade unions. They're ripe for workers to take actions and the question of what kind of system do we want to live under is being posed now in a way that it has not been for decades.

One thing that is of interest about the debate at our caucus that resulted in the action is that it was not the first time it had taken place. Delegates from Local 10, the San Francisco local, had raised this sort of resolution since the beginning of the war. We got a motion opposing the war passed at the convention in May 2003, but in the dockers' section, the longshore section of the union, we'd proposed actually having actions in opposition to the war and had been defeated every time. Every time that we raised it, it was defeated. But we tried again, and this time it passed. The situation had changed. The dynamics were different because workers had illusions that the Democrats, who had just gained control of Congress in 2006, were going to end the war somehow. Yet Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the Democrats continued to fund the war. That was part of what the resolution said—that we have to take the struggle to a higher level; that the war is a bipartisan war. Both big business parties are supporting it and yet we have the power to bring it to an end if we on the docks, along with the rest of the working class, exert the power that we have.

So what happened was the resolution was introduced and at first it was all sort of pro forma. Two fairly militant guys from the San Francisco local got up and they supported the motion. Then a few members of the largest local on the West Coast, Los Angeles, opposed that resolution on the basis that we're in very difficult negotiations with the employer and now is not the time to take that kind of action. But then something very interesting, and rather unusual, happened—a real surprise to everyone: one of the more conservative guys, who happened to have been a Vietnam vet from the port of Seattle, stood up and he said, “You know, this resolution speaks to the truth. We've been pounding the pavement for the Democrats to get elected and the war is continuing. We have the power to end the war. Let's do what this resolution calls for, let's shut down the whole West Coast.”

That started a whole dynamic of one speaker after another getting up and saying, “Yeah, we've got the power. Let's shut it down.” It became clear after about a half an hour that this sentiment was going to prevail and it scared the hell out of the trade-union bureaucrats, who tried to undermine it from the very beginning. As you saw in the video, the original resolution was for a 24-hour shutdown of the whole West Coast. The leadership of the union asked if the makers of the resolution would be willing to amend it to 8 hours, and that was done. It was amended to 8 hours with a stop-work meeting. So it was contractual. It would have been legal, as it was in 1999 when we shut down all the ports with a stop-work meeting for Mumia Abu-Jamal.

But the employers wouldn't agree to it. They said no, and when you change the date of your union meeting you have to have agreement from the employers, and they didn't agree. So we were faced with a predicament: we had industry arbitrators rule twice against us, and the employers went to the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board], went to the federal government, and got secondary boycott charges against us through the Taft-Hartley Act. Taft-Hartley! This was something that I don't think we had really anticipated. But we stood firm even with the threat of Taft-Hartley being used against us, because it was evident that if we broke ranks—if we showed any kind of disunity—there would be no negotiations at the table. The employers would simply impose their conditions. It wasn't clear up until the very last hour whether all the ports were going to shut down, but it did happen: every port shut down. We all stood in solidarity together and sent a message to the powers-that-be in the U.S., not only the White House and the government in Washington, but also to the employers, that we want an end to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and to withdraw the troops immediately.

The union bureaucrats limited it to 8 hours, but their backs were to the wall—they had to make sure that every port shut down; otherwise there would have been no negotiations. But what they also did was undermine the intent of the resolution. There was nothing in the resolution that said, “we support our troops,” and all the social patriotism that came along with that. It basically said get them the hell out the Middle East: Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. And then there was quite a bit of to-do about how we have to support the Democrats and Barack Obama, whose program is the same as Bush's, really—to gradually withdraw the troops from Iraq and send them over to Afghanistan. So the bureaucrats played their role, but militants in the union did what we had to do.

We were shutting down all the ports on the West Coast, and we had to get out and tell the public what this strike was about. The word from the international was: “No actions, don't do any actions; no rallies, marches or anything like that.” And we in the rank and file insurrected. In San Francisco, Portland and Seattle, ILWU members participated in demonstrations against the war on that day. The international officers were nowhere to be seen, as they haven't been since the beginning of the war, despite the 2003 resolution that was passed in opposition to the war and for the immediate withdrawal of troops. They had not spoken at one anti-war rally. So they were consistent.

One of the significant things about this strike was that it was the first time since the 1978 miners' strike where workers actually defied the government, defied the employers and stayed out, because we knew that they were coming after us with secondary boycott provisions of Taft-Hartley. But we held tight, we held strong and we let the employers know that unless all charges were dropped against the union there would be no contract. And so we organized the first strike ever held in the United States against a war.

The stunning thing about the whole debate in the union was the fact that it was not the usual radical militants who carried the day; it was regular working-class guys, many of whom had been to Vietnam, who had seen what an imperialist war is like, and they said, “We've been lied to. People are dying over there for nothing.” In their own words, they said, “We gotta get the troops out of there.” And that's what I think carried the day.

Now I don't know if most of you know the Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher, but he made one really important observation about the power of the working class when he came to the U.S. in the 1960s and spoke at an anti-Vietnam War rally. He said that he would trade all of the demonstrations against the war for one solid dockworkers' strike. He knew that under capitalism, workers' action has the power to really change things. And I think that was the lesson of this May Day action—that we have the power to change things.

I think times are ripe for developing class-struggle caucuses within the trade-union movement and for raising militant demands as we did around the war. This is something that is not pie-in-the-sky. The transit workers' union in New York sent a delegate or two to come to our conference in October 2007. They raised demands in their union. Their union is very similar to the longshore union on the West Coast in some ways: it's predominantly a minority union, an African-American and Latino union, and it's in a part of the country where popular sentiment is against the war.

I believe that if there were class-struggle caucuses within unions around the country like the New York transit workers, that we could begin to change what the trade-union movement looks like today. We could fight for a new leadership, a class-struggle leadership—a leadership that's willing to fight for a workers' party, not to continue that same old game of Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Republicans or the Democrats. I think some of you were around during the Vietnam War and know that the protests in 1968 weren't at the Republican National Convention—they were at the Democratic Convention. They were the ones in power. They were the ones that led the imperialist slaughter in Vietnam. We don't forget that. So I think the time is right to build class-struggle caucuses in the unions and hopefully we can have more actions like we did on May Day. Thank you very much.