Open letter: union needs to back climate change protesters, not persecute them

Photo: Murray Bush, from the Vancouver Observer
Photo: Murray Bush, from the Vancouver Observer

The Vancouver Ecosocialist Group, including the trade unionists listed below, have issued this open letter to the International Longshore Warehouse Union. It responds to the union’s offer of a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of climate change protesters at the Port Metro Vancouver’s office. The open letter was originally published by the Vancouver Observer. republishes this letter in the interests of open, democratic debate within the labour movement, particularly on issues as important as the environment and government attacks on the right to protest and free speech. – the editors

ILWU Canada President Mark Gordienko announced December 20 on the waterfront union’s website and in the mainstream media the offer of a “$2,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of masked intruders who violently occupied Port Metro Vancouver’s office on Monday December 16 and intimidated office staff.”

This action by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union has tarnished its own proud history of peaceful civil disobedience by refusing to load ships in support of progressive struggles. Only four years ago a sizable march of ILWU members, supporters, and international guests erected a plaque in Vancouver to the outcome of one such refusal. That one led to a massive lockout and to the 1935 Battle of Ballantyne Pier, where hundreds of dock workers fought police for hours in an attempt to stop scabbing.

Last month’s reward offer also gives credence, intended or not, to a growing international, right-wing campaign to make peaceful protest illegal.

We urge the ILWU to abandon this course, and we call on the rest of the labour movement to remind the ILWU of labour’s long history of peaceful protest and civil disobedience actions.

Gordienko said the move reflects the union’s desire to deter repetition of the action by a half-dozen “anti-capitalist” Santa Claus impersonators. They were opposing the Fraser Surrey Docks coal export project. That and planned expansion of the North Vancouver’s Neptune Terminal would make the port of Vancouver into North America’s largest coal exporter. The costumed activists—members of Rising Tide Vancouver Coast Salish Territories—entered the office in an attempt to hand out lumps of coal, the traditional symbol of Santa’s displeasure with bad behaviour, to Port Metro officials.

A Vancouver Sun story quotes Brother Gordienko saying the protesters used violent “scare tactics,” against the mostly female staff, including throwing the pieces of coal. More than a dozen pictures of the action are on the Vancouver Media Co-op website. Some show jostling among the protesters and male officials trying to evict them from the office. An eyewitness told the Vancouver Ecosocialist Group that the only female staffer on the scene as protesters arrived, quickly and calmly retired, untroubled by the Santas, to another part of the office complex. The same source says the pieces of coal, unable to be delivered as intended, were not thrown, but dumped carefully from Santa bags onto the floor in a couple of spots. A statement was read, a song was sung, the protesters departed.

While no one should argue with union officers’ defense of members, in this case there was in fact no danger to those members. Brother Gordienko’s alarmist rationale for the ILWU reward is instead an effort to further intervene in the currently intense public debate over whether we should massively expand coal exports. He was one of four British Columbia union leaders co-signing a November 27 op-ed piece in the Vancouver Sun that defended job-creating coal exports against environmentalists’ opposition, as if job-holders don’t also need a livable environment.

But regardless of the ongoing jobs/climate/environment debates, it is glaringly self-defeating for a union to support and legitimize the use of ever-harsher legal penalties for protests and civil disobedience tactics. Canadians have witnessed the growing suppression of dissent. In 2010 police rioted and arrested more than one thousand protesters during the G20 summit in Toronto. Two years later, Quebec’s student-led mass protests were criminalized and attacked by police. Last year, large-scale police deployment and arrests unsuccessfully tried to force First Nations protesters in New Brunswick to give up the struggle to stop fracking on their lands. Most recently, people in Oklahoma saw criminalization carried to a chilling extent, when peaceful climate protesters were charged with perpetrating a “terrorism hoax” because a drop-banner shed some glitter onto a corporate lobby floor.

Union marches and picket lines will be obvious targets for such escalating right-wing government suppression in coming years. In the federal public sector, the right to strike was effectively eliminated in 2011 by back-to-work laws against postal workers and the threat of the same for Air Canada flight attendants. We have seen draconian injunctions in BC to stop strikes by teachers and other public sector workers. A new Alberta law, as of December 5, virtually abolishes legal public sector strikes and imposes million-dollar fines for even talking about holding an illegal strike.

A reward supposedly aimed at defending union members from peaceful action by climate change protesters could very well help normalize much more serious dangers to those same members. And this mistake is compounded by the fact that the ILWU and the whole labour movement should be on the same side as the protesters—defending members, their families and their communities from the horrific impacts of climate change that are hurtling toward us all.

The Vancouver Ecosocialist Group, including the following members (organizations cited for identification purposes only):

Bill Burgess, member, Local 5, Federation of Post-Secondary Educators (FPSE)
Kathryn Cholette, member, B.C. Government and Service Employees Union (BCGEU)
Anne Grant, retired member, B.C. Government and Service Employees Union (BCGEU)
Brad Hornick, past member, Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU) at Simon Fraser University
Jill Ineson, member, B.C. Government and Service Employees Union (BCGEU)
Carol Jerde, retired member, Alberta Union of Provincial Employees
Doug McCorquodale, member, United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners (UBCJA)
Anne McDonald, retired member, Surrey Teachers Association (STA)
Gene McGuckin, retired member, Local 1129, Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP)
Will Offley, member, B.C. Nurses Union (BCNU)
Larry Tallman, member, Local 15, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE)

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One thought on “Open letter: union needs to back climate change protesters, not persecute them

  1. Many years ago we protested Atlantic Richfield recruiters on campus at the University of Michigan, after their oil spill, when 100’s of thousands of birds were killed. We came with some used oil from someone’s truck & feathers from am old pillow to symbolize the spill & the birds killed. The recruiters disappeared, we dumped the oil and feathers on the floor where the recruiters had been. The press published a report saying we had attempted to tar & feather the recruiters!

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