Pacific North West Paralysed by Mass Strike *

* in 1919

The class struggle in Washington, Oregon and Northern California provides a microcosm of our view that the US working class is going through a period of defeat, to put it mildly. Given the economic growth in the North West, we might at least expect a wave of money militancy. The 1930's was a period of economic recession which saw a catastrophic defeat for the working class of the whole world and culminated in the Second World War and a period of complete triumph for capitalism which lasted until the mid-sixties. But even this was a militant period compared to the present.

The thirties showed that you can have a wave of militancy on a world scale, and still be defeated. Even internationalism was turned against the workers; people who thought they were off to fight for the interests of the working class in Spain were used by Stalin and his socialist and anarchist fellow-travellers to fight for the interests of Russia in the Spanish Civil War. The working class did not have the political consciousness or organisation to prevent that defeat. But if militancy is an insufficient precondition for political clarity, it is a necessary one. Most of today's workers haven't a clue, as the recent Fred Meyer strike illustrates.

The strike at Fred Meyer supermarkets started in Aug. 94 when workers rejected management contract offers, demanding larger pay increases, and guaranteed hours for workers. This last item is very important, since if you work below twenty hours a week, you lose most of your rights and benefits. Without guaranteed hours, managers can easily punish the less subservient with less work, hence less money and benefits. Grocery workers barely earn enough to get by on a full week's pay, so the threat of uncertain hours was a major motive in the strike.

There was solidarity from customers, whose boycott of the stores cost the owners a lot of money. The real Fred Meyer is long dead. The store is now owned by an investment corporation called KKR, a pioneer in modern management techniques, downsizing, part-time work, and so on. Needless to say, many workers complained about the change of ownership, seeing it as a cause of their problems, rather than a symptom.

The unions limited the strike to the 26 Portland-area stores, allowing Fred Meyer to keep earning money at their other stores throughout the North West. The supermarket bosses were better organized than the workers. Most of the other major supermarkets locked out their unionized staff in solidarity with Freddie's. The union did not even ask customers to boycott these stores, as they did the ones on strike.

Opposition to scabs consisted of shouting at them as they walked across the picket lines. Only one man is charged with assaulting a scab. For a strike that lasted three months and involved 7,000 workers, in a country with a fine tradition of class violence, this is depressing. This is easily said, though. The scab truck drivers were not easy to deal with, many of them brazenly packing pistols.

Perhaps it would have been difficult to win, even with the right attitude. But the attitude was frankly pathetic. At one meeting, a steward said "We just want to work, and we just want the government to recognize that we're human". This was a trade union rep, but this is not unrepresentative of the sort of things said by the workforce on the picket lines.

However, behind the scenes, and against the unions, there was an underground struggle. The workers at unionized stores, locked out by their bosses, were in the vanguard, defying the union's attempts to keep them safely at home. Among other unreported incidents, there was a spate of monkey-wrenching of freezer trucks, resulting in tons of food getting spoiled.

Back in the glorious thirties, the workers knew a thing or two about how to deal with strike-breakers. The famous longshoremen's strike in the Portland docks in 1934, involving about 3,000 workers, also lasted about three months, was about hours and wages, and also included Teamster truck drivers. By consistent and imaginative violence, both in mass confrontations and clandestine hit squads, the longshoremen won. The workers attacked the buses taking scabs to the waterfront, beat up the scabs, and destroyed company cars. One night, the strikers paid a visit to the Admiral Evans, a passenger ship housing scabs. They stormed on board, beat the scabs with broomsticks, then let the ship loose. Unfortunately, it wedged against a bridge long before drifting out to sea.

In response, the picket lines were attacked by police and security guards with shotguns and tear gas. On this occasion, the pickets were beaten. But trains were unable to deliver goods to the docks because strikers had smeared grease on uphill portions of tracks leading into town. After two months, the government considered using the army, but demurred, fearing fraternization. The National Guard, a more patrician body of armed men, was brought in. But the shipping industry was afraid more violence would provoke solidarity action from around the country and internationally (dockers had a fine tradition of international action), so they caved in to the workers' demands in mid-summer 1934.

The Fred Meyer strike lasted until the end of October. There were five separate union negotiating teams. When one of these persuaded its section of workers to go back, the others had little choice but to follow suit. The workers went back more or less on management terms. Workers who stayed on strike till the end now work alongside scabs, with a contract which explicitly makes them cross any future picket lines, in an atmosphere in which any backtalk or feet-dragging can be punished by shorter hours. To be fair, the workers did stage a go-slow for a few days after the return to work, in some cases even refusing to ask customers how they are today. But this is pretty tame compared with the battles waged by their grandparents.

An almost identical strike occurred at Safeways stores in Northern California in April, over the issues of medical benefits, overtime and holiday pay. The supermarket bosses again locked out all unionized workers, but the unions encouraged people to shop at some of the scab stores, picketing only Safeways. The unions signed a deal with the bosses on April 14, in which medical benefits are paid out of the union's fund, in other words the workers' own money, and rushed round the stores ordering the workers back to work. No matter how many times this kind of thing occurs, workers see each case as an individual sell-out, because they have no way of knowing the historical role of unions. Despite their proximity to Oregon, the workers were unable to learn anything from the Fred Meyer strike. How could they, when their only means of communication, the mass media and the unions, are controlled by their enemies? Informal channels of communication, like knowing someone whose aunt used to work at Freddie's, are completely inadequate for generating class consciousness. The need for independent organization was shown again. This organization has to be political, since it cannot be open on such issues as trade unions, or it would be quickly sabotaged by leftists. Yet the only people who are savvy enough to realize this - people with roughly the same ideas as us - are incapable of organizing their way out of a paper bag. This dire state of affairs is a symptom of the profound period of defeat we are now in.

It's not all doom and gloom. The biggest strike in Oregon for over 50 years ended on May 15 when the Oregon Public Employees Union ordered its members back to work. In November, Measure 8, which makes low paid public employees pay for their pensions out of their wages, lowering their salaries by 6% at a stroke, was passed by the voting public. The newly-elected governor also announced a 2-year pay freeze. There was plenty of threatened violence during the strike. The Democratic governor and Republican senators who want to cut the state employment sector were harassed at work and at home. The state and the union quickly got together to nip it in the bud. Negotiations took place in an atmosphere threatened by large mobs of noisy pickets. This was effective at making the state withdraw most of the threatened pay cut, and the union quickly called the strike off. The union's excuses are well summarized by Pat Hamilton, president of Local 089. This is from a flyer distributed by the local icepick-heads, who make no attempt to criticize the union:

And to demonstrate how essential the unions are to the running of the state, he might have added. The courts responded to the strike by declaring Measure 8 unconstitutional, restoring the workers' 6%, and the state cancelled the strike agreement. Workers were still confident enough to demonstrate against this, demanding both the 6% and the strike deal. There have also been mini-strikes amongst Oregon's isolated Mexican fruit-pickers and hospital workers at OHSU in Portland, which has been privatized, with speed-ups, job cuts and so on.

The basic role of unions is the same now as in 1934: negotiating the price of labor power. They can hardly avoid "selling out" their members if their purpose is to sell their bodies for so many hours a day, to the highest bidder, when you're lucky. But if workers really fought for their interests as ruthlessly as their enemies fight for theirs, the unions would be swept aside.

On 19 November 1995, the union tried to call off a strike at Boeing in Seattle, Gresham, and other locations. The aviation company's 32,000 production workers had struck on October 6 for more pay, job protection against sub-contracting, and against paying their own health insurance premiums. The union recommended accepting a deal which would have involved the company telling the union in advance of plans to "outsource", or sub-contract, work, and if the union put forward a plan to fulfil orders by exploiting its own members instead of outsiders, the company would be required to "seriously consider" the proposal. On the wages front, the union recommended accepting a wage deal below inflation levels in the booming North West. But though the workers rejected the "sell-out", and got a better deal by staying out for another month, they hardly kept the bosses awake at night. During 1995, Boeing regained 70% of the world commercial aircraft market. The relative growth in workers' militancy last year has to be seen in the context of the overall period of defeat. For every act of defiance, there are dozens of submissions. Rather than simply cheering every sectional strike, we need to have an honest analysis of the overall situation. We have to look at the continuing successes of the capitalist offensive as well as resistance to it.