Click here to go to the Home Page Sending the Military to Put Down Workers: Is This America, or What? - Solidarity America - By John Funiciello - Columnist

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The U.S. government is prepared to send a fully armed Coast Guard ship to escort an empty grain ship owned by a transnational corporation up the Columbia River to the port in Longview, Wash., where it will be loaded with grain by non-union labor in the next several days or weeks.

The ship, owned by EGT, a company owned by several other companies, including Bunge, is aiming to show members of the International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) Local 21 that their agreement with the port means nothing to the corporation. The ILWU agreement, like that of other West Coast ports, requires that the work done in those ports be by union labor.

It’s not the first time in American history that the military has been called out to protect the interests of capital. It has rarely, if ever, been called out to protect the interests of trade unionists, other workers, or the poor. In today’s climate, however, ordering a Coast Guard escort for a scab multinational ship is another matter.

There are many examples of presidents calling out the military to protect Corporate America, but in 2012, rank-and-file citizens should be alarmed and wary. Since September 11, 2001, it has become easier for the powers that be to demonize workers and other citizens who are expressing their rights under the First Amendment.

During the Bush-Cheney Administration, the use of “free speech pens” was honed to perfection. These were chain-link-fenced enclosures near likely protest areas, which effectively prevented the objects of the protest from having to encounter the protesters. In fact, often, they were so far away that they neither could be seen nor heard. If that was ever found to be legal, it surely violated the spirit and heart of the First Amendment.

A little background is in order. EGT is a joint venture, but a principal “owner” is Bunge, a giant transnational corporation that was founded in 1818 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. It is now headquartered in White Plains, N.Y. Bunge competes with Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, and so it is among the big names in the shipping of food and feed. The cargo that would be loaded by scabs in Longview would be destined for Asian markets.

Police in Longview have engaged in what appears to be a massive assault on the picket lines and demonstrations of the 225 members of ILWU Local 21, who have tried to maintain the integrity of their agreement with the port by demanding that grain be loaded by union labor. In that process in recent months, there have been 220 arrests of Local 21 members. The objective of EGT has been, simply, to break the union.

The San Francisco Labor Council has condemned the use of the military to escort the grain ship and, in a resolution adopted on Jan. 9, said, “…this is the first known use of the U.S. military to intervene in a labor dispute on the side of management in 40 years, not since the great 1970 postal strike when President Nixon called out the Army and National Guard in an (unsuccessful) attempt to break the strike. The use of the Armed Forces against labor unions is something you expect to see in a police state. This is part of a disturbing trend where the U.S. military, acting as enforcers for the 1 percent, is poised to be used against our own people, as exemplified by the new law allowing the military to imprison U.S. citizens indefinitely without trial…”

San Francisco’s council refers to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, which many see as the opening to the military to replace the police in certain situations and to hold indefinitely, without charge, those who would be charged with threats to the national security. President Obama has added a statement to his signing of the NDAA of 2012, saying that he would not use such power against American citizens, but his “signing statement” (shades of George W. Bush) will mean nothing to other presidents who choose to hold people without charge and even send them to Guantanamo Bay. The law will be there, to be used by anyone who has little respect for the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights.

The problem for American citizens, of course, is that, in the national security state that the U.S. has become, anyone can be judged to be a “terrorist,” and can be dealt with in the manner in which one deals with terrorists. One could be a terrorist on a union (or non-union) picket line, or in an “Occupy” encampment, or in a civil rights demonstration. It depends on who is looking and determining who the terrorist is. That’s arbitrary and that’s not what a country based on law should ever be.

Precedent for use of the military against American citizens was set long ago, but here are a few examples: the Bonus Army Marchers of 1932, when about 15,000 veterans marched (hitchhiked, hopped freight trains, or walked) to Washington, D.C., to protest the government in its failure to pay their $1,000 bonuses, a promise which they had waited since 1924 for the U.S. to fulfill, and the Battle of Blair Mountain that took place in 1921 in Logan County, West Virginia, between thousands of coal miners and an array of representatives of the coal operators (deputy sheriffs; coal company “detectives,” whom the miners called “gun thugs,” and the Army, including airplanes).

Congress had rewarded the World War I service of the veterans with certificates that would give them the $1,000 in 1945, but the Great Depression, which had impoverished most of the veterans by 1932, asked the government to pay the money earlier and that’s what they were doing in Washington. They built an encampment (think the “Occupy” movement) and, in keeping order, the police killed two of the marchers. There were other deaths, as well. President Hoover, fearing the influence of communists and anarchists, sent in a regiment under General Douglas MacArthur, who entered the scene with troops and tanks, and the marchers fled.

At Blair Mountain, the coal miners and their families and communities were under the control of the coal companies, which owned company stores, as well as much of the housing, and they used that power to control the workers and to keep out union organizers. Labor strife brought on by maltreatment of the miners and all of the grievances that such power brings to the situation, ended with armed confrontation. In the wake of widespread union organizing efforts through West Virginia coal country for several years, the fight between the coal operators and the miners and their supporters broke out in open battle for a few weeks in August and September of 1921.

Tens of thousands of armed miners came to defend the miners of Matewan and Logan County and the battle of Blair Mountain was said to have been the biggest shooting confrontation in America since the Civil War. The Army was dispatched by presidential order and there were even military reconnaissance aircraft sent in to give the miners’ positions to the strikebreakers, police, and the “detective” agencies. The confrontation ended before any massive casualties could result.

Members of other ILWU locals and many other supporters, including “Occupy” groups from other West Coast cities, are prepared to travel to Longview to protest the military escort of EGT grain ship. It won’t be anything like Blair Mountain and it won’t be like the Bonus Army, but it will be a fight for the living standards of those who work in the Port of Longview and all other West Coast ports.

Over a long history, the ILWU has been one of the strongest unions for its solidarity with other unions, but also solidarity with others around the world struggling for social and economic justice. Now, they are fighting for their own way of life and that of their families and communities.

The EGT effort is clear and it is simple: It will try to break the union contract by force at Longview and, in doing so, it would pave the way for similar union busting in other ports. The company is doing what Occupiers all across the country have said of the actions of Corporate America. EGT, like other corporations, is paving the way for the 1 percent to further exploit the 99 percent and drive them into a low-wage existence, if not into penury.

America has wandered far from the path set forth by the founders, who designed the structure of the country to be a “nation of laws, not men.” EGT is going to try to show that men, not laws, rule America. They are trying to show that wealth and power rule America, not the people, under law. EGT must be proven wrong. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a labor organizer and former union organizer. His union work started when he became a local president of The Newspaper Guild in the early 1970s. He was a reporter for 14 years for newspapers in New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Click here to contact Mr. Funiciello.

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Jan 26, 2012 - Issue 456
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