United States: Occupy protesters shut down major West Coast ports; Shutdown tactic debated
Above: December 13, 2011 Democracy Now! report on the port shutdown. Click here for transcript.
December 13, 2011 -- Socialist Worker -- Ports up and down the US West Coast were shut down or disrupted December 12 in a day of demonstrations organised by the Occupy movement to protest police repression and union-busting.
The call for the December 12 West Coast port shutdown originated in Oakland, where the high point of a general strike call on November 2 -- one week after a savage police attack on the Occupy Oakland encampment -- was a 15,000-strong march to the Port of Oakland and a community picket that stopped work on the evening shift.
The December 12 protests were seen by many activists as a next step for the movement in the wake of the coordinated attack on Occupy camps in one city after another -- as well as an important gesture of solidarity with workers on the docks who are fighting for basic union rights and to defend wages and benefits against some of the world's most powerful and profitable corporations.
Unions at the ports, including the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Teamsters, did not sanction the call for a shutdown, and some union officials were critical of the Occupy movement's initiative.
But rank-and-file members of both the ILWU and Teamsters were part of the organising for December 12 and well represented on the picket lines. The ILWU also has a tradition of recognising community picket lines and stopping work if a port arbitrator declares a hazard to workers' safety -- which is what led to full or partial shutdowns at several ports.
The biggest protests of the day were in Oakland, where the country's fifth-busiest port came to a halt for both the daytime and evening shifts.
The day began before dawn with more than 500 demonstrators marching from a nearby public transit station to the docks, where they split up to cover the most important entrances. Despite the rain and cold, spirits were upbeat and optimistic, with participants from other Occupy movements swelling the ranks of Oakland residents.
In contrast to the November 2 general strike day, the police had a big presence. But if they hoped to intimidate the picketers at port entrances, their efforts failed.
As usual, the media searched out truck drivers who would complain about the Occupy protesters for blockading them. Most port drivers are considered independent operators, and some claim the movement is targeting the wrong people. But at the Oakland docks, activists reported far more support from drivers than opposition.
By 10 am, the ILWU had asked a port arbitrator to decide if the community picket represented a safety hazard. When word arrived among demonstrators that workers had headed home and the port was shut down for the morning, there was an enthusiastic celebration. The union later said in a statement that 150 of its 200 members had been sent home.
A larger number of protesters reconvened in the afternoon at Frank Ogawa Plaza -- renamed Oscar Grant Plaza by the Occupy movement -- in preparations for picketing the evening shift at the docks.
The rally heard from Black Power movement veteran Angela Davis -- as well as Scott Olsen, the Iraq war veteran who was nearly killed when he was struck in the head by a tear gas canister fired by police at a demonstration protesting repression of the Occupy camp. Olsen spent weeks in the hospital after emergency surgery. "It's a great day to be out here for my first event", he said. "I look forward to marching with you and joining you once again."
Around 4 pm, hundreds of protesters left the plaza for the march back to the docks, chanting, "Whose streets? Our streets." By the time the demonstrators reached the port, their numbers had swelled to as many as 2000.
This time, the word came quickly that the facility had been shut down for a second shift in a row, and the protest turned into a victory march. Later, word reached activists that the port bosses were planning to start up a 3 am shift -- as this article was being written, a smaller group of protesters had decided to extend the pickets to 3 am.
In the weeks leading up to the march, the companies managing the Port of Oakland filled the media with attacks on the plans for a port shutdown, including full-page newspaper ads. Mayor Jean Quan -- once respected as a liberal and now reviled by Oakland residents for her part in the assault on the Occupy movement -- claimed that the action would only hurt workers on the docks.
This campaign by the city's business and political establishment was echoed by some union leaders. For example, ILWU spokesperson Craig Merrilees gave an interview criticizing the Occupy movement for thinking "they can call general strikes and workplace shutdowns without talking to workers and without involving the unions". His words were quoted in the media against the demonstrations throughout the day of action.
But support for the port shutdown call was strong, not only among Occupy activists but workers on the docks. "We have massive support for the march", said Dana Blanchard, a member of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers and supporter of the December 12 effort. "For weeks, we have been giving leaflets to port workers and the drivers, and have been getting a very positive response."
Rank-and-file ILWU members played an important part in building December 12. Anthony Leviege, a member of ILWU Local 10 who spent weeks organising for the port action with Occupy Oakland, made the announcement to picketers that the morning shift had been sent home. "I'm going to continue to organise", he said. "Just tell me what the next move is, and I'll be there."
The December 12 actions spread well beyond Oakland. At the giant Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles in Southern California, as many as 500 Occupy protesters gathered in a steady rain and marched on the main gates of the SSA Marine terminal.
Activists estimate that they disrupted operations at the terminal for several hours, and truck traffic was backed up at Pier J for a mile, according to press reports. But the terminal kept operating because the company was able to bring in workers by a back gate. At least two picketers were arrested in the confrontation with police at the main gates.
Occupy focused on SSA Marine because it's half owned by mega-bank Goldman Sachs and has a long history of union busting and attacking wages and working conditions for workers on the docks.
Another major issue for protesters at Long Beach was solidarity with port drivers. The drivers have long struggled against company policies that treat them as independent contractors instead of employees. In October, 26 drivers who work for the Toll Group at Long Beach were fired for sympathizing with the struggle to unionise -- they wore TeamstersT -shirts to work.
As one group of drivers wrote in an open letter:
The companies we work for call us independent contractors, as if we were our own bosses, but they boss us around. We receive Third World wages and drive sweatshops on wheels. We cannot negotiate our rates. (Usually we are not allowed to even see them.) We are paid by the load, not by the hour. So when we sit in those long lines at the terminals, or if we are stuck in traffic, we become volunteers who basically donate our time to the trucking and shipping companies. That's the nice way to put it. We have all heard the words "modern-day slaves" at the lunch stops.
The LA drivers were supporters of the Occupy call for a December 12 port shutdown -- in fact, the mostly immigrant drivers set the date of December 12 because it is the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, traditionally a day of protest in Mexico. The National Port Drivers Association in LA said truckers wouldn't be driving on December 12. According to reports, it was hard to verify just how much traffic was running -- but where there are usually hundreds of trucks, there was only a handful today, said one activist.
In Portland, Oregan, 500 Occupy supporters participated throughout the day in the protest against "Wall Street on the Waterfront", which was organised around an early morning mobilisation and a rally later in the day. The demonstrators shut down operations at the largest terminals at the port.
The day's protests started early on with a 6 am gathering at Kelley Point Park, where activists organised into two teams. About 300 workers and activists headed to Terminal 6, Portland's largest container terminal and the busiest shipping facility at the port. The remaining 200 headed to Terminal 5, which handles potash and other bulk commodities.
The energy at the picket was high, with participants chanting, "Banks got bailed out, workers got sold out." A giant capitalist pig puppet greedily shoving money into its mouth was on hand to represent the 1 per cent.
While trucks attempting to offload cargo were prevented from entering the ports by the community picket, organisers of the Portland shutdown decided that workers would be asked not to cross the picket, but would be allowed through if they chose to. With very few exceptions, longshore workers chose to respect the community picket. By 10 am it had been announced that the morning shifts had been, called off and both terminals closed with pay for the workers.
As people rested before the 4 pm rally and a second round of pickets during the evening shift, longshore workers and their family members arrived with pizza to help the protesters hold out until evening.
A 4 pm rally brought out another 500 protesters. When organisers received confirmation that terminals 5 and 6 would not be reopened for the evening, all energy was shifted to closing Terminal 4. By 5:30 pm, the port arbitrator had ruled the community picket represented a "safety" hazard and awarded workers four hours pay. With Terminal 4 shut down, protesters mobilised to close the Schnitzer Steel terminal, a privately owned facility just down the street from Terminal 4, which also is an ILWU shop.
In the week leading up to the port shutdown, the Willamette Weekly, a local newspaper, had published an article titled "Dreadlocks vs. Hardhats" that claimed union members were opposed to the shutdown and made out the Occupy movement as disconnected from rank-and-file workers and even dismissive of their concerns.
But December 12 itself showed this was a lie. In addition to the ILWU Local 8 members who wouldn't cross the community picket line, port drivers showed their support throughout the day with a steady stream of honks and fists of solidarity as they drove by the terminals.
Several family members of Local 8 members were also out supporting the picket. The wife of one dockworker did a "mic check" to thank the crowd for being out there and said that although the union's hands were tied because of the legal consequences of supporting a shutdown, rank-and-file ILWU members backed the action, and her husband was willing to go home without pay to support the shutdown.
As Jordan McIntyre, a union painter who helped with labour outreach for December 12, said, "The support from workers at the port has been incredible. We were out at the ports talking to workers multiple times a day during the organising of this action, and today, we see them honouring the community picket. Occupy is a place for union members, non-union and the unemployed to gather together to fight for change."
As in Long Beach, Portland activists cast a spotlight on SSA Marine. Another target of demonstrators was EGT, the multinational conglomerate that wants to defy the port contract with the ILWU in opening a new high-tech grain terminal in Longview, Wash., about 40 miles down the Columbia River from Portland.
In Longview itself, ILWU members honoured a protest by 60 Occupy activists -- union members refused to work the one ship in the port because of "concerns about health and safety", according to a spokesperson for ILWU Local 21.
'Where's our change?'
Further up the coast, in Seattle, Occupy supporters gathered in the afternoon in Westlake Park and then marched to the port. The crowd doubled to around 1000 people by the time it reached the docks, said local activists.
Protesters broke up into several groups, with one blocking Terminal 18 and another building a barricade that blocked access to Terminal 5. Police attacked the protesters near the barricade, using tear gas and stun grenades in an attempt to disperse the demonstration. But according to an ILWU member not involved in the protest, the union didn't send members to work the two terminals on the evening shift, effectively shutting them down.
There were smaller protesters at other ports. Up the coast from Long Beach, at the Port of Hueneme, 150 Occupy protesters formed a picket line at the entrance. They were targeting Del Monte Foods, a shipper owned by the leveraged buyout firm KKR that also has a history of union busting.
Demonstrators didn't have the numbers to try to stop traffic, but they reported that drivers showed their support by honking. One of the protesters, Michael Bridges, said he arrived at 1:30 am after a long drive from Fresno. "I feel our votes are counted, but they don't matter anymore", Bridges, who is unemployed, told the Los Angeles Times. "I voted Obama, I voted change. Where's our change?"
Activists in several cities around the country held protests in solidarity with the West Coast actions.
In New York City, several hundred activists with Occupy Wall Street targeted Goldman Sachs, as the partial owner of SSA Marine. Two spirited marches that met at City Hall and Zuccotti Park converged on Goldman Sachs's global headquarters during morning rush hour, where protesters formed picket lines.
Occupiers then staged a mock press conference featuring a giant squid representing Goldman Sachs, in reference to Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi's description of the company as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money".
Later that morning, activists attempted to regroup for a flash mob inside the Winter Garden atrium at the World Financial Center, which is owned by Brookfield Properties, the real estate company that also owns Zuccotti Park. Like Zuccotti, the Winter Garden is supposedly open to the public, but when activists tried to assemble and briefly dropped a banner from a balcony, an army of police stormed into the atrium and arrested at least 17 people.
The actions on December 12 show the spreading reach of the Occupy movement -- and with the shutdown of some of the most important distribution points of the US economy, the potential to hit the 1 per cent where it hurts.
[Chris Beck, Laura Durkay, Wael Elasady, Darrin Hoop, Ragina Johnson, Sarah Knopp and Alessandro Tinonga contributed to this article.]
An open letter from America’s port truck drivers on occupy the ports
December 12, 2011 -- http://cleanandsafeports.org -- We are the front-line workers who haul container rigs full of imported and exported goods to and from the docks and warehouses every day.
We have been elected by committees of our co-workers at the Ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle, Tacoma, New York and New Jersey to tell our collective story. We have accepted the honor to speak up for our brothers and sisters about our working conditions despite the risk of retaliation we face. One of us is a mother, the rest of us fathers. Between the five of us we have 11children and one more baby on the way. We have a combined 46 years of experience driving cargo from our shores for America’s stores.
We are inspired that a non-violent democratic movement that insists on basic economic fairness is capturing the hearts and minds of so many working people. Thank you “99 Percenters” for hearing our call for justice. We are humbled and overwhelmed by recent attention. Normally we are invisible.
Today’s demonstrations will impact us. While we cannot officially speak for every worker who shares our occupation, we can use this opportunity to reveal what it’s like to walk a day in our shoes for the 110,000 of us in America whose job it is to be a port truck driver. It may be tempting for media to ask questions about whether we support a shutdown, but there are no easy answers. Instead, we ask you, are you willing to listen and learn why a one-word response is impossible?
We love being behind the wheel. We are proud of the work we do to keep America’s economy moving. But we feel humiliated when we receive paychecks that suggest we work part time at a fast-food counter. Especially when we work an average of 60 or more hours a week, away from our families.
There is so much at stake in our industry. It is one of the nation’s most dangerous occupations. We don’t think truck driving should be a dead-end road in America. It should be a good job with a middle-class paycheck like it used to be decades ago.
We desperately want to drive clean and safe vehicles. Rigs that do not fill our lungs with deadly toxins, or dirty the air in the communities we haul in.
Poverty and pollution are like a plague at the ports. Our economic conditions are what led to the environmental crisis.
You, the public, have paid a severe price along with us.
Why? Just like Wall Street doesn’t have to abide by rules, our industry isn’t bound to regulation. So the market is run by con artists. The companies we work for call us independent contractors, as if we were our own bosses, but they boss us around. We receive Third World wages and drive sweatshops on wheels. We cannot negotiate our rates. (Usually we are not allowed to even see them.) We are paid by the load, not by the hour. So when we sit in those long lines at the terminals, or if we are stuck in traffic, we become volunteers who basically donate our time to the trucking and shipping companies. That’s the nice way to put it. We have all heard the words “modern-day slaves” at the lunch stops.
There are no restrooms for drivers. We keep empty bottles in our cabs. Plastic bags too. We feel like dogs. An Oakland driver was recently banned from the terminal because he was spied relieving himself behind a container. Neither the port, nor the terminal operators or anyone in the industry thinks it is their responsibility to provide humane and hygienic facilities for us. It is absolutely horrible for drivers who are women, who risk infection when they try to hold it until they can find a place to go.
The companies demand we cut corners to compete. It makes our roads less safe. When we try to blow the whistle about skipped inspections, faulty equipment, or falsified logs, then we are “starved out.” That means we are either fired outright, or more likely, we never get dispatched to haul a load again.
It may be difficult to comprehend the complex issues and nature of our employment. For us too. When businesses disguise workers like us as contractors, the Department of Labor calls it misclassification. We call it illegal. Those who profit from global trade and goods movement are getting away with it because everyone is doing it. One journalist took the time to talk to us this week and she explains it very well to outsiders. We hope you will read the enclosed article “How Goldman Sachs and Other Companies Exploit Port Truck Drivers.”
But the short answer to the question: Why are companies like SSA Marine, the Seattle-based global terminal operator that runs one of the West Coast’s major trucking carriers, Shippers’ Transport Express, doing this? Why would mega-rich Maersk, a huge Danish shipping and trucking conglomerate that wants to drill for more oil with Exxon Mobil in the Gulf Coast conduct business this way too?
To cheat on taxes, drive down business costs, and deny us the right to belong to a union, that’s why.
The typical arrangement works like this: Everything comes out of our pockets or is deducted from our paychecks. The truck or lease, fuel, insurance, registration, you name it. Our employers do not have to pay the costs of meeting emissions-compliant regulations; that is our financial burden to bear. Clean trucks cost about four to five times more than what we take home in a year. A few of us haul our company’s trucks for a tiny fraction of what the shippers pay per load instead of an hourly wage. They still call us independent owner-operators and give us a 1099 rather than a W-2.
We have never recovered from losing our basic rights as employees in America. Every year it literally goes from bad to worse to the unimaginable. We were ground zero for the government’s first major experiment into letting big business call the shots. Since it worked so well for the CEOs in transportation, why not the mortgage and banking industry too?
Even the few of us who are hired as legitimate employees are routinely denied our legal rights under this system. Just ask our co-workers who haul clothing brands like Guess?, Under Armour, and Ralph Lauren’s Polo. The carrier they work for in Los Angeles is called Toll Group and is headquartered in Australia. At the busiest time of the holiday shopping season, 26 drivers were axed after wearing Teamster T-shirts to work. They were protesting the lack of access to clean, indoor restrooms with running water. The company hired an anti-union consultant to intimidate the drivers. Down Under, the same company bargains with 12,000 of our counterparts in good faith.
Despite our great hardships, many of us cannot — or refuse to, as some of the most well-intentioned suggest — “just quit.” First, we want to work and do not have a safety net. Many of us are tied to one-sided leases. But more importantly, why should we have to leave? Truck driving is what we do, and we do it well.
We are the skilled, specially-licensed professionals who guarantee that Target, Best Buy, and Wal-Mart are all stocked with just-in-time delivery for consumers. Take a look at all the stuff in your house. The things you see advertised on TV. Chances are a port truck driver brought that special holiday gift to the store you bought it.
We would rather stick together and transform our industry from within. We deserve to be fairly rewarded and valued. That is why we have united to stage convoys, park our trucks, marched on the boss, and even shut down these ports.
It’s like our hero Dutch Prior, a Shipper’s/SSA Marine driver, told CBS Early Morning this month: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”
The more underwater we are, the more our restlessness grows. We are being thoughtful about how best to organize ourselves and do what is needed to win dignity, respect, and justice.
Nowadays greedy corporations are treated as “people” while the politicians they bankroll cast union members who try to improve their workplaces as “thugs.”
But we believe in the power and potential behind a truly united 99%. We admire the strength and perseverance of the longshoremen. We are fighting like mad to overcome our exploitation, so please, stick by us long after December 12. Our friends in the Coalition for Clean & Safe Ports created a pledge you can sign to support us here.
We drivers have a saying, “We may not have a union yet, but no one can stop us from acting like one.”
The brothers and sisters of the Teamsters have our backs. They help us make our voices heard. But we need your help too so we can achieve the day where we raise our fists and together declare: “No one could stop us from forming a union.”
SSA Marine/Shippers Transport Express
Port of Long Beach
Ports of Seattle & Tacoma
6-year port driver
Port of Los Angeles
Port of Oakland
7-year port driver
Ports of New York & New Jersey
15-year port driver
West Coast port shutdown sparks heated debate between unions, occupy
By Evan Rohar
December 12, 2011 -- Labor Notes -- For the second time in a month, the Occupy movement called for mass action to shut down port operations. This time, the occupiers targeted the entire West Coast.
The Occupy Oakland general assembly unanimously adopted a proposal November 18 calling for the “blockade and disruption of the economic apparatus of the 1% with a coordinated shutdown of ports on the entire West Coast on December 12.” (General assemblies are meetings, open to all, that make decisions for Occupy groups, using consensus.)
The motion declares solidarity with Longshore Union (ILWU) members in Longview, Washington, in their struggle against grain terminal operator EGT. The company has refused to hire ILWU members and is now in a drawn-out battle that could shape the future of the 4000 union members who work the Pacific Northwest’s grain elevators.
Occupiers planned the shutdown without consulting with the union, and the ILWU put out a statement December 6 to its members and supporters disclaiming support for the action and claiming its prerogative in the fight against EGT. “The ILWU has a long history of democracy”, wrote ILWU President Bob McElrath. “Part of that historic democracy is the hard-won right to chart our own course to victory.”
Members of the Occupy movement interpreted the union’s distancing itself as, at best, a legal safeguard against the fines that could result from a work stoppage that violates the contract’s strike bar. At worst, they saw it as a product of the union movement’s timidity, born of decades of retreat and identification with employer interests.
ILWU members and officials expressed alarm at how the port shutdown was called and questioned why the Occupy movements called for action without consulting the people that action would affect most.
Occupy spokespeople responded that they reached out to union members after the shutdown call was made. Kari Koch of Occupy Portland said they have been flyering at shift changes at the port for a week. “We would not be doing this action if we didn’t have any support from the rank and file”, Koch said.
But occupiers didn’t call ILWU Local 8 there, she said. (They sent an email.) Occupiers were worried the local could be legally liable if it coordinated with protesters.
Huge numbers showed up at the gates this morning in Oakland and shut three port gates. Occupiers, who plan to disrupt the afternoon shift as well, reported no animosity from ILWU members and port truckers.
While it’s certainly the case that the union movement needs a kick in the pants, and the occupiers have done a lot to aim the shoe, ILWU members and officers say democracy in movements—union and Occupy alike—means giving say to the people affected, not assuming their participation or support because an action is just.
But Mike Parker, a retired UAW activist in the Bay Area and co-author of Democracy Is Power, said most strikes are inconvenient for someone, including other workers. Their success relies on all workers affected by an action honouring the line, whether or not they felt appropriately warned.
Other unionists involved in the Occupy movement say the ILWU should recognise the need for tactical flexibility.
“The Occupy movement is simply taking from labour history”, said
Robbie Donohoe, an Electrical Workers Union member who has been active in
organizing for the shutdown. “We’re making it safer for workers to
challenge the boundaries of laws that were created to secure the reins
of power firmly in the hands of the 1%.”
Here we go
Regardless of whether ILWU leaders support the shutdown, union and community members have done person-to-person outreach to make it succeed.
The Oakland Education Association’s executive board backed the call; president Betty Olsen Jones has been leaftleting port truckers at 6 am along with occupiers and union activists.
A largely immigrant workforce of “independent contractors” that move cargo in and out of the ports, the truckers are legally prevented from unionising. Some criticised the November 2 port shutdown in Oakland because the truckers were unprepared for the huge march that succeeded in shutting down the port, which trapped many of them for hours. Lacking a union, they have few structures to appeal to for support.
Anthony Levierge of the Bay Area’s ILWU Local 10 and a half-dozen active rank and filers have been passing out flyers and explaining the rationale for the shutdown to fellow members. “It’s been a mixed bag of attitudes”, he said, adding that he believed members would "honour the history and legacy of social justice unionism that ILWU members have fought hard for”.
The West Coast longshore union has a history of honouring community picket lines for good causes, but the question of how those actions are decided—and actually brought to bear against multinational employers who move billions of dollars of goods through the ports—is a complicated matter.
Samantha Levens, a Bay Area member of the Inland Boatmen’s Union, an ILWU affiliate, said education and preparation among the members should have been a first priority. She noted that some previous shutdowns took months to prepare—like a May Day work stoppage in 2008.
When confronted with a picket line at port gates, ILWU members have the right under their coastwide contract to stop work and call an arbitrator to rule on possible safety threats or the validity of the picket line.
Success in shutting down ports along the coast depends upon presenting a credible safety threat to longshore workers. If emergency vehicles cannot make it into the port, or if the workers feel threatened by mass pickets and police presence, they will call an arbitrator to decide whether the action presents a bona fide risk. The decision to call an arbitrator can delay the beginning of work, and if the workers are sent home they may not be paid, depending on the circumstances.
Port bosses warned the ILWU that the 2008 May Day stoppage against the military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan was “unauthorised” but members went through with it regardless.
“Because the members had discussed and debated it before they
voted on it and had been building support amongst the ranks heading
towards the vote, the buy-in and ownership of the action was firmly in
the hands of the members”, Levens said.
Thumbs up and down
Complicating the union landscape have been efforts from Bay Area building trades unions to force labour to oppose the December 12 port shutdown.
The Alameda Central Labor Council, with the approval of ILWU Local 10’s president, tabled a motion that condemned the Occupy action, after several delegates argued that the occupiers deserved at least neutrality.
But the Building Trades Council denounced the shutdown, and the Alameda CLC hurriedly adopted a negative position December 5.
After the first resolution was tabled, the CLC’s executive secretary treasurer Josie Camacho (whose husband Victor Uno is an Oakland port commissioner and Electrical Workers business manager) pushed a second motion decrying the shutdown.
Eric Larsen, member relations secretary for AFSCME Local 444 and labour liaison with Occupy Oakland, was barred from addressing the CLC about the port action.
“I pleaded with them to let me speak”, he said. “They would not.” He said council leaders claimed the reason for rejecting him, and
their denunciation of the shutdown, came from Occupy’s inability to
Origin: Los Angeles
Originally, the idea of a December 12 protest was initiated by Occupy Los Angeles, to coincide with immigrants’ rights activities around Our Lady of Guadalupe Day.
Sarah Knopp, a 12-year member of the teachers' union (UTLA) in Los Angeles, said occupiers decided to target SSA Marine, a terminal operator owned by Goldman Sachs with container terminals in North and South America and in Vietnam.
SSA Marine is notorious for its environmental, labour and human rights abuses and its exploitation of port truck drivers paid piece rates to move cargo containers on and off the docks. Occupiers were also motivated by the firing of 27 port truckers who work for a separate firm, Toll Group. Those fired had worn Teamster shirts, part of a long-running campaign to beat the legal prohibitions on organising.
After Oakland Occupy expanded the call to all ports on the West Coast, Occupy LA decided to stay with its original plan—a march from Harry Bridges Park to an SSA terminal, and a community picket to block a gate. The ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles take up 25 miles of coastland and handle 85 per cent of all traffic on the West Coast, an operation too vast to blockade with the numbers the protesters expected.
Knopp and fellow occupiers stood outside a recent ILWU Local 13 meeting and flyered the workers to build support for the SSA action. They received a “totally friendly reception”, Knopp said. “Everyone thinks it’s a great idea.”
“We’re initiating a process where the Occupy movement can build a base in the labor movement”, said Michael Novick, a UTLA retiree.
Saying that LA occupiers recognise the ILWU is not a position to act today (and its leadership was not solicited to participate), Novick added that the port truckers may be better placed to carry out the action in this crucial port. With no union contract, they face no sanction except loss of a day’s pay.
A loose association of port truck organisers who helped to shut the port on May 1, 2006, when immigrants' rights protests shook the country, met December 9 to decide whether to attempt a similar action December 12.
Ernesto Nevarez, a port truck organiser, said truckers at the Los
Angeles-Long Beach port stayed away for hours as nearly
1000 marchers rallied at port gates.
Every ILWU officer and international staffer reiterates the union’s solidarity with the Occupy movement and its goals. But the December 12 action has annoyed many.
Cameron Williams, president of Local 19 in Seattle, said, “It’s kind of like if I planned a party at your house and didn’t ask about it.” Local officers say occupiers circumvented the union’s democratic process.
“The occupiers have been understandably confused by mixed signals from individuals in the ILWU”, said Craig Merrilees, communications director for the international. He believes some members are speaking to occupiers without the backing of the organisation’s internal democratic process.
President Scott Mason of Local 23 in Tacoma, Washington, said he hasn’t “felt much movement either way” from the members.
“Local 8 officers aren’t in support of it”, said Jeff Smith, president of the Portland longshore local. “If it went to a rank-and-file vote I don’t know what would happen.”
Rank and filers won’t get a chance to have their say. Local 8’s next membership meeting is December 14.
Occupiers leafleted the dispatch hall but members say they might have succeeded in convincing more of the Portland rank and file if outreach had started before the action was set.
Levens expressed support for the Occupy movement’s goal—to confront corporate power—but not its approach in this action. “The lack of communication with the members and union officials leaves the Occupy activists and union members without the benefit of sharing our [earlier] Oakland experience with shutting down the port and community pickets”, said Levens, who has been active in Oakland general assemblies.
Parker said the constraints on unions are too great to expect a better process. “Even if Occupy Oakland were the best, most democratic it could be, there is no way that they could consult with elected leaders of the ILWU”, he said. “Unions are faced with a choice of gambling everything [by openly supporting a strike] or of protecting themselves by disclaiming responsibility and honoring lines by using loopholes.”
It doesn’t help that the institutions assessing liability—right-wing courts—are not on labour’s side.
Parker says the occupiers may have to look for new ways to hit the 1%. “The continued focus on the docks, because it is easy and takes
advantage of the solidarity traditions of the dock workers, makes the
dock workers themselves the targets and the targets start resenting it”,
Solidarity with Longview
Occupy Oakland said a big part of the reason for today’s action was solidarity with ILWU Local 21 in its struggle against grain shipper EGT. Some in the movement say the ILWU officialdom, which badly needs to beat EGT, is merely covering its legal bases by distancing itself from the action.
But leaders of locals up and down the coast say a coastwide work stoppage for Local 21 could actually harm its struggle, by uniting employers to support EGT.
A more immediate fear could be legal reprisals resulting from an injunction and contempt charges levelled by a federal judge against Local 21 and the international. Fines for the local’s disruptions, blockades and grain-dumping this summer have already totaled $315,000.
If a federal judge determines that occupiers are acting on the union’s behalf, Mason said, “we can be charged $5000 for every incident”.
Still, Local 21 president Dan Coffman, who gave a speech about EGT to Occupy Oakland the day after its general assembly adopted the shutdown call, does not conceal his enthusiasm for the movement. Coffman cited the November 2 port shutdown as an inspiration to his members, who have been on the picket line for six months.
Supporters of Occupy and ILWU Local 21 are preparing for January, when a ship headed for Asia is scheduled to retrieve grain from the disputed elevator in Longview. An independently organised action could allow the ILWU to circumvent the legal minefield set in front of its own membership.
“We’re going to do whatever we can to stop that ship from being loaded”, Coffman vowed.
[Eduardo Soriano-Castillo contributed to this story from Oakland.]