Hundreds celebrate life of ILWU fighter Byron Jacobs

By Edwin Fruit
July 23, 2018

LONGVIEW, Wash. — Some 500 people gathered at the Cowlitz County Event Center here July 6 to celebrate the life of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 21 member Byron Jacobs. Jacobs was killed June 28 when a line on a ship where he was working snapped and hit him. Several others were injured on the dock, and the ship’s first officer also died.

Many in the audience wore black shirts printed for the occasion saying, “Byron Jacobs (1983-2018).” An ILWU image on it said, “100% union strong” and “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

The meeting was chaired by Kelly Muller, a retired member of the Longview ILWU who along with Jacobs and many others in the audience was part of the 2011-12 struggle against EGT Development. EGT bosses had tried to break the ILWU’s control on West Coast docks by running its grain terminal with non-ILWU union labor.

Speakers included family members and union co-workers who explained Jacobs was a dedicated family man, a fighter who stood up for his union and someone proud of his North Carolina Lumbee Indian heritage.

Muller recalled how he and Jacobs had tried to protect members of the union’s women’s auxiliary who had held a protest to try and block a train from entering EGT property. Railroad cops attacked the women and, as Muller and Jacobs tried to intervene, both were maced, beaten and arrested. Later, both spent time in the county jail. This was not the only time Jacobs was assaulted by the cops during the battle.

“I can tell you that there was no better fighter for the union than Byron,” said Dan Coffman, who was president of the union during the EGT fight and had known Byron since childhood. Coffman also was Jacobs’ Little League coach, and he explained how even as a young baseball player Jacobs would lean in and crowd the plate to get hit by a pitch to get on base and help his team score.

A few other participants spoke when the mic was opened up. Mary Martin of the Socialist Workers Party offered solidarity to the family and union. She explained how party members had met Jacobs during the EGT fight and how she and other party members had interviewed Coffman and Jacobs weekly for the Militant to counter EGT bosses’ lies and win solidarity for the union fight. Party members took the paper door to door in surrounding working-class communities as part of the effort and, by the end of the lockout, over 100 workers there had subscribed.

Martin said Byron’s conviction and dignity never wavered in face of the cops who beat him or the courts that jailed him. “We in the Socialist Workers Party are convinced that future generations who strive to strengthen their union and build the labor movement will look to and learn from Byron’s example as an outstanding fighter and working-class leader,” she concluded. “We were proud to know him.”

Jacobs continued to read the Militant for several years and helped get his union to support other hard-fought workers’ struggles, like the sugar beet workers locked out by American Crystal Sugar bosses in Minnesota and the Dakotas in 2011-12 and the silver miners in Idaho, organized by the United Steelworkers, who have been on strike since March 2017. Local 21 has made financial contributions to both these fights.

On one of Jacobs’ trips back to the Carolinas to visit his relatives in the Lumbee Indian community, he went to meet with International Longshore Association union members in Charleston. They had also waged a sharp battle against shipping bosses there and later were part of the struggle to bring down the Confederate flag from the statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina. Several ILA members had visited Longview as a show of solidarity during the EGT fight.

Jacobs’ family members thanked the union for all its help and for living up to its credo that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” His wife, Megan Jacobs, has filed a $16 million wrongful death lawsuit against the company that owns the ship on which he was killed.