Japanese Railway Workers Support Dockers Half a World Away

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Railway unionists in Tokyo yesterday protested a lockout nearly 5,000 miles away, of American dockworkers who load grain onto ships headed for Asia.

With signs calling the aggressive employer a “Merchant of Death,” Japanese workers rallied outside the headquarters of Marubeni, owner of Columbia Grain, which locked out members of Longshore (ILWU) Local 8 in Portland, Oregon, in May.

“If you continue Columbia Grain’s operation in such way,” wrote the railway union Doro-Chiba and a Japanese labor federation in a letter to Marubeni executives, “you will be faced with bitter condemnation and outrage from workers not only in the United States but also all around the world.”

The unions also called out two other Japanese companies. Mitsui is the owner of United Grain, which locked out ILWU Local 4 members in Vancouver, Washington, in February, and ITOCHU is part of the cartel that owns EGT, whose pitched battle with ILWU Local 21 members in Longview, Washington, two years ago captured national attention—but ended with the union accepting inferior terms. Now the other grain shippers want the same deal.

Longshore workers and allies in Kalama, Washington, staged a picket-by-boat last month, briefly preventing the docking of a ship that had been partially loaded by scabs in Vancouver. The ship eventually reached shore, but Local 21 members used plastic sheeting to segregate the union-loaded cargo from the scab-loaded, hoping Japanese dockworkers would recognize it at the other end of the trip:

“Our rank and file were compelled to remind these greedy companies that they can’t simply load a ship with scab labor and expect it not to be marked and protested wherever it goes throughout the world,” said one member.

Yesterday’s protest seems to prove those words true.

The Same Attack

Doro-Chiba (National Railway Motive Power Union of Chiba), a small leftist union, began developing solidarity with the ILWU during its 2002 contract struggle with the shipping companies, since “we were also confronted with the same attack of privatization, outsourcing and casualization,” said H. Yamamoto, secretary general of Doro-Chiba’s International Labor Solidarity Committee.

Doro-Chiba leaders believe it’s no coincidence the grain companies’ assault on West Coast dockworkers, seeking the kinds of loosened work rules and staffing standards EGT got, comes at the same time as the push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. TPP is a huge expansion of NAFTA that would include Japan, the U.S., and many other Pacific Rim countries.

Labor activists from the three NAFTA countries (Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.) rallied against TPP in December at the British Columbia/Washington border, saying NAFTA—now two decades old—has worked out terribly for workers and the environment:

For instance, the American oil and gas company Lone Pine Resources is suing the Canadian government for $250 million over Quebec’s moratorium on fracking in the St. Lawrence Valley.

Tina Turner-Morfitt, an AFSCME member in Salem, Oregon, said the flight of jobs overseas also puts downward pressure on wages and standards in the jobs that remain.

In Mexico… the influx of genetically modified seeds encouraged by NAFTA has damaged native corn and depleted the soil, making Mexican farming less sustainable.

TPP is partly a joint push by Japanese and U.S. elites against the rising power of China, Yamamoto said—and partly reflects the kind of race-to-the-bottom competition that “inevitably results in depriving workers, farmers, and all other 99% people of their rights to existence.”

Members of Japan’s National Coordination Center of Labor Unions and a student federation also participated in the Tokyo protest.