Workers Vanguard No. 1137
27 July 2018
Killed on the Docks
Salute to Fallen ILWU Militant
On June 28, 34-year-old longshore worker Byron Jacobs was killed on the docks in Longview, Washington, when a mooring line being used to move a ship down the pier snapped, recoiled and hit Byron at a speed of over 450 miles per hour. The chief mate of the ship, 41-year-old Pingshan Li, who was struck by the other end of the line, died a few hours later. A fifth-generation longshoreman, Byron was secretary-treasurer of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 21 when he stood on the union’s front lines during its 2011-12 battle against the all-out union-busting offensive by the Export Grain Terminal (EGT) bosses in Longview. WV labor correspondent Gene Herson noted in a July 3 letter of condolence to Local 21 (printed below) that the courage and determination of Byron and other unionists, fighting with a militancy not seen in this country in decades, was an inspiration for all of labor.
At a July 6 memorial meeting, a WV representative joined hundreds of ILWU members and other unionists alongside the Jacobs family and friends to commemorate Byron’s life. His stepfather proudly recalled Byron leading the charge to defend ILWU International president Robert McEllrath, who was being dragged away by the cops who had brutally attacked a 300-strong picket line that blocked a train loaded with grain headed for the EGT terminal on 7 September 2011. Many others recalled Byron’s courageous defense of members of Local 21’s women’s auxiliary against the cops a few weeks later.
Despite facing multiple felony charges for his heroic actions, Byron never retreated from the fight. But the ILWU International leadership did. In the end, as military forces were mobilized by the Obama administration to escort the first shipment of scab grain out of the EGT terminal, an agreement between the union and company was signed. The contract set a trend for other Pacific Northwest grain bosses in their war against the ILWU. Sacrificing workers’ safety, these agreements allowed for dangerous 12-hour work shifts and undermined previous provisions allowing the union to “stand by” (stop work) when safety was threatened.
In a letter to the Longview Daily News (7 July) following the deaths of Byron Jacobs and Pingshan Li, one retired ship pilot wrote: “I don’t know the specifics what went wrong here, but in my years as a ship pilot, I learned how quickly Longview’s swirling, weaving river current can introduce sudden and extreme line stress.... I advocated hiring a pilot and tug for less than ideal conditions. However, I think cost-conscious ship’s captains still make the call.” In a recent phone call, Dan Coffman, former president of Local 21, noted that: “In the early days, we used to use a lot of tug assists and they’ve gotten away from that.” He went on, “It was all about dollars and cents and so they quit using the tugs.”
Byron’s wife Megan has filed a $16 million lawsuit against the ship’s owner and the company operating it. Although no amount of money could ever compensate for Byron’s life and his family’s devastation, the ILWU should make sure that she gets every penny.
For the shipping companies and terminal operators, workplace injuries and death are simply collateral damage in their pursuit of higher profits. A genuine tribute to the life of Byron Jacobs would be for the union to fight to build union safety committees with the authority to shut down unsafe work on the spot, and to set the terms for practices that would preserve the life and limbs of longshore and all maritime workers. Byron proudly traced his fighting spirit back to his Lumbee Indian kin who drove the Klan out of their North Carolina county in 1958. He embodied many of the qualities necessary to forge a union leadership that will mobilize labor’s power in defense of the interests of the working class, as well as all of the oppressed.
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Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I am writing to express my deepest condolences and those of my comrades to the members of ILWU Local 21 as well as the family and other friends of Byron Jacobs. His tragic and horrific death is a body blow to all fighters for labor’s cause against the cutthroat employers.
I met Byron during Local 21’s battle against EGT’s union-busting assault during which I traveled to Longview several times as a labor reporter for Workers Vanguard. He was not only a true union stalwart but someone who had a thoughtful and keen appreciation of the plight of others. In many ways, this was exemplified when Byron courageously came to the defense of Ladies Auxiliary members who were under police attack during the ILWU’s September 21, 2011 protest against a train bound for the EGT terminal. It was such militancy and determination which inspired many other trade unionists in the region and around the country.
My comrade Tony who got to know Byron recalls his amusement that rather than being made to serve jail time, the court sentenced him to an “anger management” class. Anyone who knew Byron knew him as a kind, gentle and big-hearted man. It was exactly those qualities that made him such a determined fighter against the real injustices perpetrated by the bosses with the backing of the police, courts and government of this country.
As a former member of the National Maritime Union for 20 years whose arm was pulverized in the process of shifting a ship, I know the deadly dangers longshoremen and other maritime workers face. More often than not this is at the hands of companies trying to save money by cutting corners on safety. Thus the deep sadness that I felt on learning of Byron’s death was also tempered by anger at those who would sacrifice the lives of working people in the service of their bottom line.
Myself and other comrades who met Byron send our deepest sympathies to all of you. It is a devastating loss. The best salute to his life will be to continue the fight for labor’s cause and that of all the downtrodden victimized by this brutal society.
In sympathy and solidarity,
Labor correspondent for Workers Vanguard
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Donations for the Jacobs family can be sent to: Lower Columbia Longshoremen Federal Credit Union, Attn: Byron Jacobs Family Fund, 629 14th Avenue, Longview, Washington 98632.