Inspired by the strike of BART workers, the truckers at the Port of Oakland organized and went on strike on Monday, Oct. 21. Because they are technically not employees, but rather technically work independently, labor law forbids them from organizing a union. (Of course, like all other laws, labor law is secondary to the one primary law of capitalism: Might makes right.)
In any case several hundred truckers struck for some basic demands such as that the port pay for the pollution upgrades that are newly required for their trucks.
Initially, the longshore workers refused to cross their picket line, despite (or maybe partly because of) the aggressive tactics of the Oakland cops, who pushed the pickets to the side. Then, in the evening shift, ILWU President Mike Villeggiante ordered his members to cross. While some still refused, the majority did so under police escort.
This is a shocking reversal of all the best traditions of the ILWU, especially in the San Francisco Bay area where the police killing of striking longshore workers sparked the 1934 general strike. How did this happen?
What McElrath Told Villeggiante
(Added note: Please note that this article is filed under “fiction more real than fact”. Readers should draw a conclusion from that as far as what follows.) Correspondents of this web site have a direct line into the NSA, which spies on all labor organizations. Through this, we were able to pick up the conversation between Villeggiante and ILWU International President Robert McElrath. Immediately after the morning shift refused to cross the picket line, McElrath received a series of irate phone calls from shippers, Port officials and even from some top Democrats. They complained about the port being shut down “one more time”, and reminded McElrath that a contract was coming up next June. Within a half hour, McElrath had Villeggiante on the phone.
“Are you insane?” McElrath shouted at Villeggiante. “What do you want, for the Port of Oakland to lose all its business? Don’t you realize that the Oakland port already has a bad reputation along the entire coast? The Neptune Jade affair was bad enough. Then there was the boycott of the Israeli ship. Then you had all that nonsense with that bunch of goddam hippy anarchists from Occupy Oakland. Why our union would want to have anything to do with them is a mystery to me, by the way, and I told you that at the time.
“What are your men going to say when ships start diverting from Oakland to other, more reliable ports? What are they going to say when they’re sitting on the bench because of all this bull shit? Do you think you’ll have a chance of getting elected to dog catcher from them?
“And something else, and you better listen and listen good: I don’t give a damn whether our guys in Portland or LA get work that would normally be going to Oakland. We get the same per capita either way. But we’re going to have a hell of a rough time in the next negotiations. You know what’s happening with the grain contract already. And you know that with automation the god damn electricians, machinists, operating engineers and every damn body else will be fighting us for what work remains. If we get the god damn reputation of being a bunch of hot heads who walk off at the drop of a god damn hat, who do you think the shippers and the ports will want to take whatever jobs remain? We won’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell.
“So I’m telling you once, and once only: You get those god damn guys in to work if you know what’s good for you.”
To this lengthy tirade, Villeggiante had only one word: “Okay.” And he carried out his orders that same afternoon.
Not everybody was happy about this. In fact, quite a few longshore workers refused to cross in the evening shift. We don’t know exactly what happened next, but some time later the same computer at the NSA started to pick up another conversation, this time through what appeared to be a couple of longshore workers cell phones. (The new, voice-controlled phones pick up voices even when not on a call, and the NSA super-duper computers are programmed with certain algorithms that tune in to any conversation they overhear which contains certain words or phrases. Evidently some of those trigger words include “strike”, “solidarity” and “stick together”. In any case, this NSA division was suddenly activated and started picking up on these words and then the entire conversation.) The gps coordinates where this conversation took place led to a bar not far from the Oakland docks.
Here’s what was said. The names have been changed.
“Listen, Bob, I’ve been doing this a long time. In all that time, we’ve never, ever worked behind a picket line. It’s just not what we do. You’re still young, kid, but you’re going to see.”
“Yeah, but that was then. This is now. How the hell can we keep our work here if we keep going out? The only reason I didn’t go in was out of respect for you, Tom.”
“All I know is this: We’re going to have a hell of a time when our contract comes up next June. You think we can face down the ports on our own? Look at what the hell is happening at BART. Everybody hates them cause of what the papers say. So what’s going to happen — they’re going to end up taking it in the nuts cause they’re alone. ‘Course, if they get cut, then everybody else is gonna get cut, but how the hell can anybody know that? Who the hell is telling people that? So for us – how the hell can we ask for any kind of support if we screw the truckers?”
“Why do we need support? We can shut down the ports by ourselves.”
“You’re still young, maybe you don’t remember the air traffic controllers. They struck under Reagan. They thought they didn’t need anybody else, and they were destroyed. Look what happened up in Longview with EGT. They almost broke us because the Operating Engineers were scabbing on us. That could happen again, you know.”
“Okay, then all the more reason to make sure the port goes with us instead of the Operating Engineers.”
“What are we, a bund of goddamn cannibals or thieves, trying to eat each other’s lunch? I got a brother-in-law in the Operating Engineers, and I can tell you, he was pissed off when I told him about what his union was doing with EGT. But there was nothing he could do. And you want to know why?”
By this time the NSA computer was positively humming.
“Cause he was all alone. Our union didn’t do a damn thing to get to his members. And most of those guys are pretty strong union guys. And you know why our union didn’t do anything?”
“Cause of the union’s first commandment.”
“The first commandment.”
“Tom, what the hell are you talking about?”
“The first commandment of all those guys like McElrath. ‘Thou shalt not raise hell in another union lest hell is raised in thine union.’ That’s why. And all that bull shit McElrath said when he took us out of the AFL-CIO… He’s not really any different. That’s why he didn’t really do anything when the OE was scabbing on us. And what’s he going to do when automation really kicks in? You know what? He’s going to go after the jobs that are left, no matter who has them now. I’m telling you, Bob, there’s going to be some blood letting around here. And you want to know why? (“Why?”) Two words: ‘per capita’. That’s all they really give a damn about. Their precious per capita.
“And I’ll tell you something else, Bob. You have any idea how much more work there used to be before the containers came in? Man, I couldn’t even begin to count how much work we lost, but you just wait till those automated cranes come in. There’s going to be almost nothing left. Then what the hell are you going to do? Matter of fact, what the hell am I going to do when the money isn’t coming into the pension fund anymore? You’d think they would just cut the hours for everybody since we’ll be producing so much more, but nooooo, that’s too easy. They can’t get their pint of blood that way.
“And I’ll tell you something else, I know this guy he’s a retired carpenter. He was telling me what happened in that union, if you want to call it that. His president….”
A lady’s voice, “You guys doing okay here?”
Bob again, “yeah, bring us another round.”
Then… “Where was I? (pause) “Oh, yeah, this carpenter I know… His union walked down that road back in the ’80s. What the hell did it get them? There’s still more scab construction than ever and their wages keep going down. I mean, they don’t even have stewards on the jobs cause the contractors don’t like it. Them guys, they just get walked all over.”
“Well, I voted for Villeggiante. I thought he was pretty straight up.”
“Yeah, well, maybe he was. But I guarantee you one thing: McElrath got to him, and what’s he going to say? ‘I got my boys here and they’re standing strong. We ain’t crossing no picket line?’ He going to tell McElrath that? And then what? If McElrath don’t send in his boys to beat the shit out of Villeggiante, at least he’s going to get somebody to run against him, or maybe take over the local.”
“He can do that?”
“You god damn right he can do that.”
“So maybe he didn’t have any choice then?”
“Yeah, he had no choice cause he came into this thing blind. Blind and lame, truth be told. He came into this thing without anybody around him who knew what time it was, who he could count on. He didn’t have no posse, like my son would say”
“Well, maybe you should run for president, then”
“Well, maybe you should start coming to the damn union meetings.”
“Maybe I will. Maybe I will.”
The editor of this web site can’t help commenting that there must be tens of thousands of conversations like these going on daily.
Fiction or Fact?
If sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, then sometimes fiction explains truth better then anything else.
Did we really tap into the NSA?
We have received several inquiries whether we really tapped into NSA computers and got these conversations…. read more: Fiction or fact?
Added Note: We understand that officers of the ILWU are very upset with this column. We invite any of them – or any other member – to respond, and we will guarantee to post any comments they might have.