ILWU members joined workers across the country at rallies this spring to challenge politicians in Wisconsin and other states where working families and union members are under attack. Plans for the “We Are One” nationwide solidarity actions were hatched at a February 28th meeting of AFL-CIO leaders including ILWU International President Bob McEllrath. The idea called for coordinated events on April 4th – the 43rd anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
King was killed 43 years ago while supporting public sanitation workers in Memphis who were striking for union recognition. The plan to honor Dr. King’s memory helped spark a total of 1000 events across the country. Within days, rank and file members from Local 30 in Boron, CA were organizing solidarity actions on Saturday, March 5th in Palmdale and a week later in Barstow.
LA leads the way with “Solidarity Saturday”
Union members in LA held the nation’s first massive solidarity action with an event on March 26th that drew an estimated 20,000 people, including over 500 ILWU members representing most locals in Southern California. The group marched from the Los Angeles Convention Center to Pershing Square in downtown LA where a massive rally was held to support public-sector workers.
“It’s really important that ILWU members remain active in this fight,” said ILWU Local 13 President Joe Cortez. “Over 500,000 people turned out for a demonstration in London this weekend. They’re facing the same problems over there. These attacks on workers are spreading; and we have to be the ones to stop it.”
“Tea Partiers and anti-union politicians are trying to take advantage of an economic crisis caused by Wall Street and use it as an opportunity to attack unions,” added Local 13 Secretary-Treasurer, Mondo Porras.
we’ve fought for can be taken away. The companies aren’t going to give workers anything. It is only because workers come together and collectively fight for improvements in our working conditions that anything has ever been won.”
Mahlon Mitchell, President of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, was a special guest at the rally. He explained the connection between attacks on workers in Wisconsin and Los Angeles. “This is an attack on me. This is an attack on you. This is an emergency we have in Wisconsin and across the U.S. This is an attack on the middle class,” Mitchell said. “We are in the battle of a lifetime.”
By the time April 4th arrived, ILWU members were joining demonstrations up and down the coast and in Hawaii. In Southern California, some ILWU members were back on the streets again following their March 26th event, joining 2,300 Angelenos who filled the historic First A.M.E. Church in South Los Angeles to rally for workers’ rights.
Two of the civil rights and labor leaders at the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike were featured speakers, including the Reverend James Lawson who helped organize the “Freedom Rides” in 1961 that challenged Southern segregation. He also helped create the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960, chaired the sanitation workers strike committee in Memphis, and invited Dr. King to visit Memphis and support the Sanitation workers strike.
The other featured speaker was William Lucy, retired Secretary-Treasurer of AFSCME – the union that was helping the striking Memphis sanitation workers in 1968.
“Dr. King’s identification with and in support of the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Tennessee is so identical to the struggles of workers in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Maine, and any number of states,” said William Lucy. “The American public clearly is identifying with this struggle.”
Bay Area actions
To show their solidarity, Local 10 members didn’t work at the Ports of Oakland and San Francisco on April 4th. Wisconsin’s state flag was flown upside down from a crane at the port of Oakland on the morning of April 4th, and later in the Local 10 dispatch hall where it remains today. ILWU members from every Bay Area local attended a demonstration at noon in front of Oakland’s City Hall, and more attended a larger “Rally to End Corporate Greed” in San Francisco during the afternoon that attracted thousands. Twenty miles north, in the town of Crockett, CA, union supporters rallied in the middle of the Zampa suspension bridge, named for a local union leader.
At this rally, one sign with the slogan, “Fight Like an Egyptian!,” summed up the spirit of these actions and their connection to other workers around the world. In California’s Central Valley town of Stockton, ILWU members attended an evening rally at the Stockton City Hall that was attended by several hundred supporters.
The big “We Are One” rally in Honolulu on April 4th included a large contingent of members from Local 142. The turnout was estimated at 1000 with 30 different unions and many community organizations participating. Joining the delegation were ILWU members vacationing from Vancouver, Canada: Martin Neufeld, his son Nick, and Steve “Sarge” Zarchynski, who came by the Local 142 hall to share in the solidarity and then joined the rally. On Kauai, Local 142 members joined workers from six other unions including the Hotel & Restaurant Union (HERE) workers. They held a smaller but spirited rally involving dozens who gathered at the entrance to Lihue Airport.
Pacific Northwest mobilizes
ILWU members in the Northwest helped organize an event on Saturday, April 2nd that united workers from Canada, Oregon and Washington State at a rally on the border crossing at Blaine that drew thousands.
On April 4th, ILWU members joined separate rallies in Tacoma and Seattle. In Portland, a rally of 500 at Directors Square Park highlighted the ongoing struggle by members of the Inlandboatmen’s Union (IBU) who work at three Georgia-Pacific warehouses in town. ILWU International Secretary Treasurer Willie Adams spoke at the event, noting that Georgia-Pacific is owned by the infamous billionaire Koch brothers who are bankrolling anti-worker politicians in Wisconsin, including Governor Scott Walker.
On April 8th, ILWU members and pensioners joined one of the largest labor rallies that Washington State has seen in a decade. Over 12,000 people came to the State Capitol in Olympia to urge that legislators
“Put People First.” Speakers at the event denounced the increasing attack on public workers, including employees at the Washington State Ferry system who belong to the IBU and are in the crosshairs of anti-union politicians (see story on page 5) Calls to “tax the rich” instead of attacking workers were heard frequently among speakers.
A special guest at the Olympia rally was Wisconsin State Senator Spencer Hawes, one of the “Wisconsin 14,” who left Madison to deny Republicans the quorum necessary to take away bargaining rights for state employees. Hawes spoke of the pride he felt watching the Wisconsin struggle grow to attract national and international support.
Hawes said he saw an Egyptian man in a news report who was protesting Hosni Mubarak in Cairo and holding a sign that said: “We’re supporting Wisconsin, too.”
Divide and conquer begins in the Midwest
The attacks by anti-union legislators began in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana for good reason. These “swing” states are battlegrounds where working-class votes are up for grabs. Anti-union forces have two goals in mind. First, they want to eliminate unions. With more than 93% of private- sector workers now without a union, their work has been successful, and the remaining public-sector unions are more vulnerable. Second, they hope to use public-sector unions as a “wedge issue” that can generate enough conflict to divide working class voters. By portraying union members as lazy and overpaid, anti- union forces hope their “divide-and conquer” strategy will be as effective as gun control, abortion, the teaching of evolution, and other issues that drive working-class voters toward anti-union politicians. The 30-year decline of working class incomes, accompanied by weaker and more isolated unions, has left the working class vulnerable.
The latest recession and high unemployment have increased resentment toward public workers and is a spark that anti-union forces hope will ignite working class voters to side with corporate-friendly candidates and right-wing populist efforts such as the Tea Party.
Fight spreads to both coasts
With budget deficits in almost every state caused by the recession and years of tax-cutting promoted by right-wing politicians, the stage was set for attacks on public-sector unions to spread nationwide. In Washington State, a Democratic Governor and Democratic majority in the upper and lower state house have provided limited help for public workers – including hundreds of Washington State Ferry workers who belong to the Inlandboatmen’s Union (IBU). The attack on these ILWU members is being led by a Democratic State Senator.
In the state of Maine, anti-union Republican Governor Paul LePage went off the deep-end by ordering the removal of a 36-foot mural depicting the state’s labor history from the Department of Labor. He’s also removing the names of labor leaders who were listed in the department’s conference rooms. The governor says the mural and labor names “go against the department’s pro-business goals.”
Republicans legislators in Maine are trying to match the Governor’s zeal with new laws that would ease child labor laws, requiring young employees to work longer for less money. Workers under the age of 20 would earn as little as $5.25 an hour for their first 180 days on the job, undercutting the state’s minimum wage of $7.50 an hour. The law would also eliminate limits on the number of hours children could work on school days.
Elections and more action will be key
Besides holding rallies and marches, workers in Wisconsin and other states are getting more involved in elections in an effort to unite working- class voters:
- On April 5th, union volunteers in Wisconsin almost defeated State Supreme Court Justice David Prosser who barely survived a longshot challenge by JoAnne Kloppenburg. Prosser is sympathetic to Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union agenda.Recall campaigns are being organized against eight Wisconsin State Senators who backed Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union bill. Recall petitions on two of the legislators have already been filed.
- A statewide referendum is being planned in Ohio to repeal the anti-worker legislation backed by Governor John Kasich.
- In other states, including California, unions are considering statewide ballot propositions to “tax the rich” in hopes of easing budget deficits that fuel attacks on public workers. In 2010, voters in Oregon passed two measures that raised taxes on corporations and high-income households with support from labor unions.
“From now on, no one who works for a living can afford to support any politician who won’t pledge to support union members,” said ILWU International President Bob McEllrath. “I don’t give a damn about what party they’re from, I just want to know if they’ve got the guts to stand-up for unions and working class instead of selling out.
“The April 4th actions were awake-up call that we’re in the crosshairs. If all of us don’t get up and get moving, we’ll be an easy target,” said McEllrath.