This interview was originally pubished by Workers World.
As pressure builds for the Dec. 12 West Coast port shutdown, the capitalist owners and their media began a battle of ideas to blunt this powerful threat to their profits and control — even for a day.
Two International Longshore and Warehouse Union members — Clarence Thomas, who is a third-generation longshoreman in Oakland, and Leo Robinson, who is now retired — spoke with Workers World reporter Cheryl LaBash. Both men have held elected office in ILWU Local 10 and have been key labor activists during their years of work in the ports.
WW: The Nov. 21 ILWU Longshore Coast Committee memorandum states, “Any public demonstration is not a ‘picketline’ under the PCL&CA [Pacific Coast Longshore & Clerk’s Agreement]. … Remember, public demonstrations are public demonstrations, not ‘picketlines.’ Only labor unions picket as referenced in the contract.” What is your reaction?
Clarence Thomas: A picket line is a public demonstration — whether called by organized labor or not. It is legitimate. There are established protocols in these situations. To suggest to longshoremen that they shouldn’t follow them demands clarification. It is one thing to state for the record that the union is not involved, but another thing to erase the historical memory of ILWU’s traditions and practices included in the Ten Guiding Principles of the ILWU adopted at the 1953 biennieal convention in San Francisco.
Leo Robinson: The international has taken the position somehow that the contract is more important than not only defending our interest in terms of this EGT [grain terminal jurisdictional dispute] but having a connection to the Occupy [Wall Street] movement in that when you go through the Ten Guiding Principles of the ILWU, we’re talk about labor unity. Does that include the teachers? Does that include state, county and municipal workers? Those questions need to be analyzed as to who supports whom. The Occupy movement is not separate and apart from the labor movement.
CT: Labor is now officially part of the Occupy movement. That has happened. The recent [New York Times] article done by Steven Greenhouse on Nov. 9 is called ‘Standing arm in arm.”
The Teamsters have been supported by the OWS against Sotheby’s auction house. OWS has been supportive of Communication Workers in its struggle with Verizon. Mary Kay Henry, International President of the Service Employees, has called for expanding the Occupy movement by taking workers to Washington, D.C., to occupy Washington particularly Congress and congressional hearings demanding 15 million jobs by Jan. 1.
LR: There was the occupation in Madison, Wis. That was labor-led. People are trying to confuse the issue by saying we are somehow separated from the Occupy movement. More than anything else the Occupy movement is a direct challenge or raises the question of the the rights of capital as opposed to the rights of the worker. I don’t understand that the contract supersedes the just demands of the labor movement. It says so right here in the 10 guiding principles of the ILWU.
Article 4 is very clear. Very clear. “‘To help any worker in distress’ must be a daily guide in the life of every trade union and its individual members.” Labor solidarity means just that. Unions have to accept the fact that solidarity of labor stands above all else, including even the so-called sanctity of the contract. We cannot adopt for ourselves the policies of union leaders who insist that because they have a contract, their members are compelled to perform work, even behind a picket line. It says picket line. It doesn’t say union picket line. It says picket line.
CT: Only 7.2 percent of private sector workers have union representation today, the lowest since 1900. Facing a critical moment, the labor movement has been reenergized by the Occupy Wall Street movement.
LR: Any number of times this union [Local 10] has observed picket lines, including Easter Sunday 1977 when the community put up a picket line at Pier 27 to picket South African cargo. Longshoremen observed that picket line for two days. So I don’t understand how all of a sudden the sanctity of the contract outweighs the need to demonstrate solidarity. It just does not compute. It doesn’t make sense.
WW: What were the similarities between that event and what is going on now with the Occupy movement?
CT: The first action against South African apartheid was a community picket line. It was not authorized by the union. It was a community picket line from start to finish.
LR: It was about 5,000 people out there on the Embarcadero [eastern waterfront and roadway of the Port of San Francisco] for two days running a community picket line opposing South African apartheid. Local 10 officers took the position that it was an unsafe situation and our members were not going to cross that picket line, period. It was ruled as such by the arbitrator.
WW: Who determines whether a situation is safe or unsafe?
LR: We have never waited for the employer to declare what is safe or unsafe. It is always the union that moves first. We don’t ask the employers what is safe or unsafe. They wouldn’t give a damn one way or the other as long as they got their ship worked. If the police have to escort you in or out, that is patently saying it is unsafe. What if someone decides to throw a rock while you’re being escorted in by the police? Does it make it hurt any less? A longshoreman determines what is safe for him or her — on the job and off.
CT: Our members have been hurt by the police and so has the OWS movement. In 2003 when we were standing by at a picket, police shot our members with wooden bullets. In Longview, Wash., at the EGT Grain Terminal, ILWU members and their families have been hurt by the police. We don’t want the police to do anything for us.
WW: What is happening at the grain terminal in Longview?
CT: Our union is at an historical juncture. Our jurisdiction is being challenged up and down the coast — the issue of logs and Local 10 and use of “robotics.” There has been nothing like this since 1934. If ILWU members don’t honor the community picket lines, it will cause an irreparable breach with the community. If the ILWU can’t support the community, why should the community support the ILWU in 2014 contract negotiations or when the new grain agreement is up next year? Who knows what the employer has up their sleeve when they demanded only a one-year contract.
LR: Grain work provides 30 percent of our welfare contributions. Who knows … let’s say that EGT is successful. It will open the door for other grain operators to try to work anybody.
WW: Aren’t the ports private?
CT: These ports are the people’s ports. Ports belong to the people of the Pacific Coast. The money came from the taxpayers in California, Oregon and Washington. EGT was subsidized by the Port of Longview. So the people have the right to go down there and protest how their tax dollars have been ripped off.
WW: Wall Street is in New York City. What do the West Coast ports have to do with that?
LR: To show you the link, last year in the ILWU Dispatcher - a sister from Local 10 was foreclosed on. I am certain she’s not the only one.
CT: Fifty-one percent of Stevedoring Services of America is owned by Goldman Sachs. EGT is a multinational conglomerate trying to control the distribution of food products around the world. The face of Wall Street is in the ports.
WW: Any closing comments?
CT: The ILWU is not some special interest group. We are a rank-and-file militant, democratic union that has a long history of being in the vanguard of the social justice and labor movement.
We don’t cross community picket lines. When people begin to do so they have completely turned their backs on the ILWU’s 10 guiding principles. Is it coincidental that Harry Bridges’ name has not been asserted in relation to the OWS movement and the history of militancy? Is it an accident? How can we not talk about Harry Bridges? That is how we got what we have today.
Clarence Thomas is past secretary-treasurer of ILWU Local 10 and co-chair of Million Workers March movement, which was initiated by Local 10 and supported by the ILWU Longshore Caucus. Leo Robinson is retired and co-founder of African American Longshore Coalition. He is a former member of the ILWU Local 10 executive board, a national convener of the MWM movement and its major benefactor.