Workers’ Consciousness & Bosses’ Laws
The following remarks were made by Howard Keylor, a long-time ILWU militant and International Bolshevik Tendency supporter, during the discussion period following Jack Heyman’s presentation.
The Trotskyist League [Canadian affiliate of the Spartacist League/U.S.] has tended to denigrate the motivation of the longshoremen who carried out that one-day strike against the war because it wasn’t perfectly anti-imperialist. Let me tell you something: no it wasn’t perfectly anti-imperialist. We’ll only get to that point probably shortly before the revolution. But it was profoundly against what the government has been doing…They’re angry about what the government has been doing to the country, to the society, to their future, to the ecology, to everything. There was a profound anger that rose up from the rank and file and expressed itself with the approval of this resolution and its implementation.
The second point I want to make is that we have to re-emphasize that the strike was illegal. It was “illegal” under Taft-Hartley. The Taft-Hartley law is this draconic law [passed in 1947] that makes almost anything workers do to defend themselves, or other workers, “illegal.” And it has prevailed now for lo these many, many decades. This was a case in which the workers actually defied the law and got away with it. Now that’s a profound victory.
That in itself perhaps was even more important than the strike. You can carry out actions that are “illegal” [against things] that strangle the union and workers, and get away with it if you’re strong enough, and tough enough, and have enough support. This whole question of carrying out actions that are “illegal” under Taft-Hartley has a history in longshore. For a long period of time it didn’t happen.
I spent some 15 years in longshore pedagogically telling workers you can do this, you must do it and actually it can happen. Jack actually wasn’t on the waterfront when the first case happened, I think in about 1983 when the employers tried to use non-longshoremen to load a ship in Richmond [in the San Francisco Bay Area]. In violation of the contract and the law, the longshoremen, clerks, etc. shut down the entire Bay Area [waterfront]. It took 1,200 workers there to lock the gate and stop the operation. Strictly “illegal.” The arbitrators ruled against us, the union leadership—top leadership—immediately joined the employers…but we got away with it. [See “Bay Area ILWU Strike: Defensive Victory or Sellout?,” Bulletin of the External Tendency of the iSt, No. 1, August 1983.]
The 1984 longshore boycott—11 days for South African cargo. It was “illegal” and we got away with it. And incidentally, that boycott was actually ended with the issuance of a temporary restraining order by a federal court in which Exhibit No. 1, with which the employers justified their [legal] action, was a leaflet issued by your [Spartacist League] supporter in the union telling exactly what went on at a private, closed union meeting. You blew the whistle, you gave information to the government—don’t ever deny that.
Anyway, the whole question is that workers build self-confidence by winning. There is a different climate. Even though the longshoremen have now accepted what I consider a bad six–year contract, there is a different consciousness now: “We did something that no one else did and we got away with it! How about next year!”