Date: Sun, 21 Jan 1996 11:12:43 -0500
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/* Written 11:44 AM Jan 19, 1996 by gn:chrisbailey in igc:labr.global */
Interview with SF Longshoreman
LabourNet interviews Jack Heyman, ILWU, 19 January 1996
Jack Heyman is a docker from San Francisco. He visited Liverpool 12-13 January on behalf of the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen's Union to express solidarity with the sacked dockers on strike since 28 September. Arriving in the wake of industrial action by rank and file members of the (East coast) International Longshoremen's Association who respected a picket line of Liverpool dockers in Newark NJ, Jack was given a standing ovation by the 500 men. He told them they were "reigniting trade unionism" all over the world.
After a march and rally on Saturday, Jack Heyman spoke to Greg Dropkin for LabourNet.
I haven't seen this kind of militancy for years, I'd have to think back to some of the militant miners strikes in West Virginia in the United States. But the support they're getting is astounding to say the least, because there hasn't been this sort of international campaign in a long time.
Most of the cargo from Liverpool to the United States goes to the East coast. And so the rank and file longshoremen on the Atlantic coast have been refusing to unload the scab cargo. It is quite unusual given the state of class struggle in the United States. There's an atmosphere that if you go on strike you may not have your job. So to say that these East coast dockers have honoured the picket line in support of a struggle not in their country or their union but of another union in another country is quite an amazing feat.
Unfortunately, Liverpool ships don't come to the West coast. If they did, I think our rank and file would respond in the same manner. However there are other ways that we can help, one of which is to spread the word around to other dockers unions particularly in the Pacific Rim and South America to support this critical strike.
I think dockers are beginning to realise that the struggle here in Liverpool is one we can all identify with. The employers have been pushing casualisation everywhere. So to the extent that the Liverpool dockers are successful in combatting the employer here, it will have a ripple effect around the world. That's why solidarity is exploding internationally.
LabourNet: The strike has had to go outside the law in Britain. What kind of legal constraints do American workers face?
For workers to win struggles, we've always had to challenge the law. In the United States for example not too long ago, blacks were not permitted to sit at a lunch counter with whites. Blacks sat down at the lunch counters. It was illegal but it spread like wildfire and became known as the Civil Rights movement. But a lot of those tactics like the sit down which challenged private property, came out of the labour movement in the 30's. Our modern labour movement in the United States was born in the sit down strikes in the auto factories. Employers said it's illegal for you to occupy the plant. And it was illegal under capitalist law. However workers challenged that and won.
LabourNet: What are the main organising issues for the ILWU now?
As I said, one of the big issues is casualisation. The longshore union has jurisdiction on the docks, but the employers are attempting not to register any new longshoremen. I think they're called "permanent" here, we call them "A" men, or registered longshoremen. So we're having to fight the employers over casualisation, which essentially means organising workers on the docks. That's why this is not just a liberal gesture of support. It's rooted in a material basis, that if the Liverpool dockers win their fight against casualisation it will have a ripple effect in the United States as well.
In the last few weeks the ILWU has had some good press, which is rare. I think the headline in the Journal of Commerce was something like "Aggressive West Coast Longshore Union Organises Unorganised Workers".
These are not longshoremen. They're in the longshore industry. They're office workers, people that plan where the containers go on the ship. And you know quite often office workers are the most exploited workers because they put on a coat and tie or they can wear a dress to work and they think they're privileged, they're the aristocracy of labour. They don't even identify themselves with labour, they think they're part of management. In reality they're making half of what longshoremen make. So when we went in to organise the planners, mainly in the Port of Los Angeles, we met with great success.
Of course there was resistance from the employers, they didn't want to recognise the planners as part of the ILWU and we had to persuade them otherwise. Somehow the ships that came from the docks where employers were refusing to recognise these workers, those ships weren't unloaded. So in very short order the company came around to a realistic position that they were going to have to recognise those workers.
LabourNet: Do you think that there is any permanent possibility of international rank and file organisation and how do you see the forthcoming Liverpool conference in terms of that?
Well I not only see it as a possibility but as a necessity. Unless the dockers can organise themselves internationally I'm afraid that unionised dock forces around the world will be decimated.
Three years ago the ILWU sponsored the conference that brought together all of the dockers unions in the Pacific Rim trade. More recently a couple of years ago we sent a delegation down to Mexico in the wake of NAFTA, which we saw as an effort by a dominant US imperialism to claim the Western Hemisphere as its sphere of influence and as an attempt through privatisation to bust the unions there, and that's exactly what's going on in Mexico which is why we went down there.
It's not easy to organise workers internationally. It hasn't been done in maybe a century really. There've been efforts at particular times.
For instance in 1948 we had a strike on the West coast in which the government threatened to use the military to load the ships. Our president at the time, Harry Bridges, responded by reaching out to the European dockers unions and they in turn said to the government in effect that if the ships are loaded by scab labour they will not be unloaded in Europe. And that's what broke the back of employer intransigence and won the strike in 1948.
LabourNet: One of the great problems has been the division of the labour movement through the Cold War. Does the end of the Cold War open up new possibilities for international organisation?
Well it opens up new possibilities but you have to look at the end of the Cold War in an objective fashion, as a defeat for the working class internationally. I believe that the social ownership of the means of production is an advancement for the working class, and I think that that was destroyed with the fall of the Soviet Union and Eastern block countries. That has provided the capitalist class with virgin territory to exploit, and they're going in like the California Gold Rush in '49.
The Eastern block and former Soviet Union working class is relatively skilled and the capitalist class has been attempting to exploit that internationally. For example on many of the foreign flagged ships, the officers will be from the Eastern block or from Russia and the crew will be Filipino. So for the capitalist class the demise of the Soviet Union has opened up opportunities.
On the other hand it's given us the capability of reaching out to link up with workers in those lands, explain to them that the streets of America or Europe are not paved with gold, that privatisation means ever greater exploitation of the working class. And to the extent that the capitalist class here in England and the United States is increasing the rate of exploitation, it's driving workers to more desperate tactics, more militant tactics. And I think that's a good thing.
We've taken for granted too long that we have unions and we will always have unions, and that's not the case. I think the working class is waking up to realise that we are an international class, and it's time to begin to organise ourselves to defend our unions, our standards of living and that's going to take an international effort.
LabourNet: Are we entering a period where the whole concept of being in a union is under challenge, like the period before unions?
We're really going back to the fundamentals of what unionism is all about, and that is directly related to the cockiness, the arrogance of the capitalist class internationally where they are pushing privatisation and the destruction of unions. In their minds there's a sense that they're completely unchallenged. I think we have something like only 15% of the workforce actually unionised in the US.
So we're going back to the drawing table, going back to the basics and seeing what we have to do, what we haven't been doing for decades and decades, and we're relearning things. And hopefully this will lead to more militant tactics and more of a political class conciousness on the part of the working class.
LabourNet: The East coast action in support of Liverpool contradicts the version of American politics reported over here of an enormous swing to the Right, the Republicans capturing Congress, Clinton in trouble etc. Does this mean that electoral politics doesn't have much to do with how workers react when they're presented with a class issue in America?
Well I think that's in large part truth. Workers in the United States are politically backwards. They've never realised the importance of having their own party. And so quite often you'll find workers can be very militant in terms of a union strike for instance, but when it comes to the political front they vote for capitalist parties, usually the Democratic Party.
Maybe there's a breakthrough happening now because more and more the Democrats do not differentiate themselves from the Republicans. A lot of the social programmes that were won through militant class struggles in the '30s are now being liquidated jointly by Republicans and Democrats. So I think it forces to the forefront the question of the political struggle being tied in with our economic situation.
For the first time in probably 50 years there's a real possibility of a Labour Party in the United States. Now what shape that Labour Party takes, what its programme will be it's difficult to say at this point. There's a real possibility that it won't be a true independent labour party, that they would come out in support of the Democratic Party.
I know there's a Labour Party in Britain, that it's been continuously more and more conservative, that they've given up their position for social ownership of the means of production, which for me is the basis for having an independent class party, a working class party. If a Labour Party or Workers' Party can't stand for social ownership of the means of production then it's a capitalist labour party or a bourgeois labour party.
Any labour movement organisation or publication is welcome to reproduce our material. All we want is an acknowledgement. We can supply GIF format photos of Jack Heyman with the Liverpool dockers and other photos of the dockers fight on request.