As protests continue in the USA and worldwide against racism and police brutality, we are beginning to see organised labour take action as part of the movement.
During protests in Minneapolis and New York, members of transport workers’ unions refused to drive buses for arrestee transport. On 9 June, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), a dockworkers’ union with a long history of striking over political issues, conducted a work stoppage to protest the murder of George Floyd. The stoppage, which involved locals in numerous west coast ports, lasted nine minutes, the length of time police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck.
Clarence Thomas, former Secretary-Treasurer of ILWU Local 10, said: “Fighting police murders and white supremacy is a class question. Let’s not forget that the vast majority of black people, and the vast majority of victims of police repression, are working class.
“For many years now, ILWU, and Local 10 in particular, has been protesting the racist policing of African Americans. And we understand that the way these murders can be stopped is when there are economic consequences. The working class has leverage — and we need to use it.”
Now ILWU members plan to respond to a call from activists for strikes to mark “Juneteenth”, the 19 June commemoration of the abolition of slavery in Texas, where slavery continued for two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The ILWU’s Juneteenth strike is slated to last eight hours, and ILWU locals are also seeking coordination with the International Longshoremen’s Associaiton (ILA), the main east coast dockers’ union.
Anti-union laws features significantly in this picture. The ILWU is already facing the prospect of court fines that could bankrupt the union, thanks to a federal court ruling holding it responsible for losses incurred during a previous action the court deemed a “secondary boycott” – i.e., a solidarity strike, prohibited in the USA since 1947’s Taft-Hartley Act.
The Act also prohibits political strikes, a ban bolstered by a 2006 directive from the National Labor Relations Board general counsel, an office significantly empowered by Taft-Hartley, which said bosses could legitimately fire workers who took part in a 2006 migrant workers’ strike demanding a more liberal immigration policy. To get round these laws, the Juneteenth strike will be called in parallel with – i.e., on the same day and at the same time – as action in a separate, official, dispute. That is no firm guarantee, however, that employers and the state will not pursue further action against the ILWU.
All the more reason, then, for the international labour movement to organise solidarity. Free Our Unions is encouraging activists to post pictures in support of the strike; feel free to use this sign, or make your own.
Please also circulate this article in your own workplace/union to raise awareness of the issue, and propose practical solidarity initiatives. That might be something as simple as a photo call at work, or a meeting to discuss the issues, including how we might confront our own legal prohibition on political strikes and organise workers’ action against racism.
If organised labour enters the fight against racism as a strategic actor, enormous new possibilities are opened up. As Clarence Thomas put it: “The most effective way to stop police terror is by the working class taking action at the point of production: if the working class is to be heard, [organised] labour must shut it down.”
“West Coast Dockers Stop Work to Honor George Floyd”, Labor Notes, 11 June
“Dockworkers to Shut Down West Coast Ports in Memory of George Floyd”, The Nation, 11 June
“The Most Effective Way to Stop Police Terror Is Action at the Point of Production”, interview with Clarence Thomas in Jacobin, 6 June
“Protesters call for a black workers’ strike on Juneteenth”, Newsweek, 13 June
“Twin Cities Labor Mobilizes Against George Floyd Murder”, Labor Notes, 29 May
TWU Local 100 statement on the murder of George Floyd
“The Survival of the ILWU at Stake!”, CounterPunch, 12 February
“Labor Board Limits Political Strikes”, Labor Notes, 26 September 2008