If the Occupy Movement, with all its energy and its avowed opposition to the powers that be, is to avoid recuperation by the very forces that it arose to combat -- what it designates as the power of the 1% -- and cooptation by those very powers, it needs to directly confront the power of capitalism, and to forge real political links with the collective worker and its struggles against the juggernaut of austerity. On the West Coast, in the ports, faced with the assault against the working class represented by the new Export Grain Terminal (EGT) (dominated by Bunge, one of the world’s biggest agribusinesses) at its new facility at Longview, from which grain would flow from the US to Asia, the Occupy Movement from LA to Oakland, from Portland to Seattle, mobilized over the past several months in support of the workers. Bunge’s avowed plan was to replace the dockworkers union, the ILWU with a “company union” that it could easily control, as part of its plan to “rationalize” work at the new port as the lynchpin of its central position in the world-wide grain trade. It was in support of the dockers, and the rest of the working class engaged in the ports and in the grain trade, casualized workers in ancillary trades, port truckers, the merchant marine, etc., that the Occupy movement sought to organize flying pickets and mass demonstrations that shut down the port of Oakland on November 2, and ports along the West Coast on Dec. 12, to culminate in the shutdown of the Longview facility itself as events moved towards its opening, and the first ship arrived in February.
Yet as that first ship approached Longview EGT and the ILWU signed a five-year agreement recognizing the right of the ILWU to represent the dockers, an agreement that in the words of EGT “… provides us the dedicated workforce and the flexibility to run this 21st century facility efficiently and safely.” The President of the ILWU hailed the settlement as one in a long line of agreements that “… have made many companies profitable while also providing family wage jobs for communities like Longview.” A “dedicated workforce” guarantees labor peace for five years; “flexibility” portends a continuation in the decades long reduction in the labor force. As to the other workers in the vast network constituted by the movement of grain across a continent and then the Pacific Ocean, the contract provides nothing: casualized workers, the port truckers, no less vital than the dockers themselves, were left to the mercy of the bosses, of capital. Notwithstanding those grim facts, many in the Occupy Movement echoed the euphoria of EGT and the union: Organizers from the Occupy Movement claimed the agreement “as a victory for the workers, for social movements and for the 99%.”
A victory it surely was, but a victory for whom? Certainly not for the truckers, mostly immigrants from East Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe, who walked off the job in the face of unsafe working conditions and the lack of any pay for hours of waiting time in their vehicles. Certainly not even for the dockers for whom “flexibility” will mean speed-up and increasing reductions in their numbers. A victory – a very stunning victory – for the union whose role in the management and control of the labor force has once again been recognized by capital, whose role as a loyal partner in the exploitation of the collective worker has once again been acknowledged by the bosses.
What many, too many, in the Occupy Movement failed to grasp is that there were two very different battles at Longview. And that the intervention of the Occupy Movement failed to recognize that one of those battles was an intra-capitalist battle, while the other was a battle against capital; that the first battle was a skirmish within the 1% (if we are to use that language made popular by Occupy Wall Street), while only that second battle was a class struggle that contained the seeds of a class-wide response to the global crisis of capitalism and to capital’s war against the working class.
That first battle, the one waged so energetically by the union, by the ILWU, and now won, was a jurisdictional battle, a battle to preserve the right of the ILWU to manage and control the labor force, a role that it has played for decades, guaranteeing its power, political, legal, and financial, even as the number of workers it manages has shrunk and the ports have been rationalized in the interests of capital. EGT challenged that power, and as numerous union bureaucrats have now stated: “The mobilizations of the Occupy Movement across the country, particularly in Oakland, Portland, Seattle, and Longview were a critical element in bringing EGT to the bargaining table and forcing a settlement with ILWU local 21.” (Jack Mulcahy an officer with Local 8) The union’s recognition of the role that the Occupy Movement played in its retention of its powerful position on the West Coast docks, in bringing labor peace to Longview, is a frank acknowledgement of the nature of the battle that the Occupy Movement chose to join, and of the inability of the Occupy Movement to grasp that a second battle was taking place, and that it was that second battle that pro-revolutionaries in the Occupy Movement had to engage in.
That second battle was a fight against austerity and rationalization, a fight that could only be waged by the self-organization of workers, outside of and against the unions. Not a fight to reform the union or change its leadership (the very legal and institutional structure of capitalism today guarantees that the union is an integral part of capital and its state), but a fight that can only be waged with elected and revocable strike committees that sign no contracts, through wildcat strikes that challenge the control of the unions, that seek to extend and generalize the breadth of the struggle beyond jurisdictional and corporatist boundaries – that in the case of the ports would extend to all workers, dockers, casualized workers, truckers, and those in ancillary trades. That kind of struggle is what pro-revolutionaries in the Occupy Movement need to be involved in and support. That kind of struggle has the promise of uniting the collective worker and mounting a real challenge to capitalist austerity. And, of course, that kind battle will face the determined opposition not just of the bosses and the state but also of the unions as organizations, with their legally binding contracts, and the vast network of links that bond unions today to corporations and to the state. That battle will face the opposition of the unions with all the resources at their disposal.
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