Growing Up ILWU in Tacoma, Washington

by Evan Rohar

September 28, 2011

Recently International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) rank-and-filers in Washington state have made headlines. The marine terminal operator EGT is trying to use Operating Engineers Local 307, a black sheep operation expelled from the Oregon building trades council for previous raids, to run its state-of-the-art, $200 million grain facility in the port of Longview, WA. ILWU members responded by blocking trains, tearing down fences to occupy the terminal, and dumping thousands pounds of grain onto the tracks in front of the elevator. That makes for some fat geese and one hell of a mess. It also means that EGT hasn’t floated a single wheat seed, barley grain, or kernel of corn past the Columbia River delta.

Cranes at the Port of Tacoma. Photo credit: Cat Rohar.

The civil disobedience and sabotage surprised and elated many on the left and in the labor movement in general. I was excited and gladdened myself, but not surprised. I grew up with militancy in a longshore family, members of the ILWU (previously Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union). My great grandfather Emmet was a longshoreman in San Pedro, CA. My grandfather is a retired longshoreman and served a term as president of Local 23 in Tacoma. Dad started at the port when he was 16 and is now a longshore clerk. My sister and brother-in-law are longshore workers. I worked occasionally at the docks for five years.

For many young people, school is the dominant institution in their lives. Others are influenced most by a religious organization or the neighborhood in which they live. From the time my mother shook me awake to the time she sung me to sleep, it was the union that impacted my life.

Apart from a brief flirtation with Catholicism in grades 7-9, I was never religious growing up, but my parents met in Alcoholics Anonymous so we used to say the serenity prayer every night. After dad got his ‘A’ card in the union, giving him preference for hiring and job choice, we replaced the traditional “amen” with “A-man.” I had a crane sweater. When we had fundraisers for school, I’d go to the hiring hall to sell candy and wrapping paper to dad’s fellow workers. When my sister and I asked for a toy or to go on a trip, the answer sometimes came, “no, we have to wait to see what happens with the contract.” Vacations almost always came after contract negotiations. Every union member had a responsibility to put money aside in case of a strike, whether they had a family or not.

Due to my privileged upbringing, my first memorable encounter with real poverty was when dad took our family on an ambassadorial visit to dockworkers in Vladivostok, Russia the summer before first grade. My memories are, of course, those of a child. Rusted, jagged playground slides. Nearly impassable pot holes. Hiding out of sight of police in an overcrowded car. A rusted swing ride and bumper cars in an amusement park. The experience stuck with me, and I began to wonder about economic inequality in terms of, “why do I have all this stuff and others don’t.”

I started to form my conclusion, which I still basically hold, early in high school. I went to a private Catholic school for two years before being asked to leave. I like to say I brought the class war to the lunch room floor. My family had a comparable income to many others there, but my identity was rooted in the working class. I valued callused hands, grease-stained shirts, and work stories peppered with profanity. So why was I able to mix, albeit not very well, with the self-crowned crème de la crème? The union, of course.

Solidarity is part of the union’s culture. My grandfather once chased a scab utilities worker off his property with a baseball bat and his dog. Dad recalls the incident very clearly: “I don’t like scabs,” said grandpa, and added, as the dog barked uncontrollably, “AND MY FUCKIN’ DOG DOESN’T LIKE SCABS EITHER!” When police refused to release protesters during the Battle of Seattle, the union threatened to shut down ports up and down the coast. When the employers locked union workers out those ports in 2002, solidarity messages poured in from around the world because of the international work the union has done over the years, including a boycott of cargo from or bound for apartheid South Africa.

Grandpa Ken went on a mission to revolutionary Chile, about a year before the US government murdered Salvador Allende. The delegation met with dockworkers and factory workers. They toured the sailing ship Esmerelda and the national stadium, both used as torture camps of unionists and other revolutionaries after the coup. When Pinochet decided to float the Esmerelda up the west coast, longshore workers ran it out of ports from Mexico to Canada.

Along with solidarity, the idea that you don’t owe a god damn thing to the employers is part of longshore acculturation and is as much a part of the job as its inherent danger. You create the wealth. The Pacific Maritime Association’s managers can’t run the cranes. They can’t move 60 forty-foot cargo containers in an hour. They can’t operate top-heavy equipment in the snow, wind, and rain without killing themselves and their co-workers.

During my orientation as a casual worker, a representative of the employer (PMA) gave us a talk in the hiring hall’s conference room. He wasn’t half a step out the door before the union guy said, “You don’t listen to a fucking thing that guy says. The employers will lie to you. If you ever have a problem, you call me, or you ask an A-man.”

Apart from a disdain for employers, the union gave me just about everything else I had, every privilege I benefit from to this day. I have no student loan debt. I got a second chance in community college when I failed classes I skipped to smoke weed. I had the best dental and health coverage; we paid $1 for prescriptions.

Most importantly, the union gave us six extra years with my mom. Had we no insurance, her abnormally aggressive thyroid cancer would have consumed her body perhaps while I was still in high school. Some chemotherapy regimens exceeded $70,000 a year, and many insurance plans don’t cover the experimental treatments she received.

None of this to say the union is flawless. Registered longshore workers are generally well off, but unregistered, or casual, workers have very few rights and little access to work when the economy hits its inevitable, cyclical downturns.

I grew up wondering why I deserved all this and others didn’t. I concluded that they did. Dad worked no harder than others, but did it for twice, three times, four times as much money. We were no better than anyone else; our family had the same kinds of problems, the same flaws inherent in every human family. We simply had the advantage of being a part of an organization whose bottom-up nature, culture, and position in the economy has preserved the economic advantages fought for and won since the 1930s.

Now I wonder how we can create lasting cultures of resistance. I know what the end result looks like, but I don’t know how to get there. The nineteen thirties gave us many instances of militant, bottom up unions that over the years have turned into bureaucratic monstrosities. One way, perhaps, is to foster a resentment for employers, to cultivate the notion that we shouldn’t be thankful for our jobs; it’s the employer that should be thankful for us. If they’re not, we force the issue. This attitude may foster the kind of confidence it takes for the ranks to run a truly bottom-up mass organization.