Organizing for the West Coast Port Shutdown

Lee Sustar Dec 8, 2011

The Port of Oakland (Photo: Daniel Parks)The Occupy movement is trying to strong-arm longshore workers and truck drivers into shutting down West Coast ports December 12–or so say critics of the action.

They’re wrong.

Those organizing for action on the docks are neither the outside agitators described by employers nor the ultra-left adventurists snubbed by union leaders and their apologists. Rather, they are a grassroots network that includes rank-and-file longshore union members; nonunion port drivers; longstanding labor militants from a variety of unions; and new activists, union and nonunion, who have joined the Occupy movement to try to challenge the country’s economic priorities.

Among those new activists is Scott Olsen, who was critically injured in a police attack on Occupy Oakland. In a statement to ILWU members, Olsen wrote: “You do the work–THEY, the global maritime bosses, profit at your expense. Your safety and your jobs are always at stake.”

And there’s no sharp divide between Occupy activists and ILWU members and other workers who are also organizing to build awareness of the community picket.

“I think people [on the docks] do have sympathy and feel connected with Occupy as a whole,” said Anthony Leviege, an ILWU member for 11 years who is active with Occupy Oakland. Working alongside other Occupy activists to leaflet the docks in recent weeks, he estimated that about 50 percent of the workers he’s talked to expressed some sympathy for the December 12 action.

Leviege is active in the Occupy movement for the same reason he is active in the ILWU–to improve the lives of working people, he said. “It’s because of my background–coming from the ghettos, coming from poverty, seeing young men die early or go to jail,” he said.

David Villegas, a member of ILWU Local 13 in Los Angeles and a former truck driver in the port, also reported a sympathetic reception to the flyers for December 12. “Everyone is wondering if they will stand for something, or fall for nothing,” he said.

The December 12 call to action is a grassroots effort to deepen the links between Occupy and longshore labor. Activists are focusing on multiple targets: EGT, the transnational corporation that’s trying to eliminate ILWU jobs at a new grain export facility in Longview, Wash.; SSA Marine, the port terminal operator owned by Wall Street powerhouse Goldman Sachs; Toll Group, a trucking employer that fired 26 Los Angeles-Long Beach drivers in October for wearing Teamster t-shirts to work; and port employers generally for their hard-line opposition to truck drivers’ union organizing.

Essentially, the call for the December 12 action reflects an effort by the Occupy movement to tap labor’s social power at a key node in the capitalist system.

“For the first time in decades in this country, the labor movement is being confronted with a genuine movement from below, a populist movement that is challenging the very fundamentals of our capitalist system,” said Jack Heyman, a retired member of ILWU Local 10 who is building support for the December 12 action. “Occupy is resonating very deeply within the ranks of labor.”

The potential of this new coalition–which was key to shutting down the Port of Oakland with a community picket of thousands on November 2–has clearly alarmed employers, who have launched an aggressive advertising campaign to denounce the December 12 effort. The Washington Post carried the same line, declaring that workers don’t support the plan.

Those views weren’t surprising coming from port bosses and the corporate media. But even Cal Winslow, a labor historian and researcher at the University of California-Berkeley, wrote an article claiming that the action is being organized over the heads of ILWU members and other port workers:

I confess to knowing little about the officers of the ILWU, the same for the rank and file. But now, for better or worse, the case is that neither the officers of the ILWU nor any significant section of its members support the December actions planned by Occupy Oakland.

In fact, veteran activists in Local 10, such as Clarence Thomas, have been publicly building support for the community picket line along with Occupy activists.

And if Winslow is correct that labor was united in rejecting the December 12 action, then it should have been easy for the executive committee of the Alameda Labor Council, which includes the Oakland area, to pass a proposed resolution explicitly opposing the protest. At the council delegate’s meeting December 5, a motion to disavow the action was presented by Victor Uno, business manager and financial secretary of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 595, who is also a commissioner of the Port of Oakland.

Uno’s resolution to oppose the December 12 action reflects the view of trade union leaders who may be sympathetic to Occupy’s criticisms, but who are opposed to militant actions that might destabilize labor’s relationship with employers and Democratic Party politicians. Given the support of the executive council, Uno may have expected his resolution to pass fairly easily.

Instead, an hour-long debate ensued, in which most delegates thought that a statement of opposition to the December 12 action would send the wrong message, said Jenna Woloshyn, a member of Teamsters Local 70 in Oakland and a driver at UPS, who attended the meeting.

“The executive committee’s argument was that all the unions with workers at the port were not endorsing the action,” Woloshyn said. “They failed to mention that just because they were not endorsing didn’t mean they were coming out with positions against the action, as this resolution would put the council on record for being. The Teamsters are not actively against the shutdown. Local 70 officials spoke against the proposal.”

The debate ended when ILWU Local 10 President Richard Mead, rather than support the motion to repudiate the December 12 action, moved to postpone action on the resolution, effectively defeating it.

If labor council delegates were able to defeat Uno’s motion, it was because they were responding to activism on the ground in the ports. Those working to build the December 12 action are relating to longstanding organizing efforts by port drivers. They are also building upon a tradition of ILWU Local 10 of respecting community picket lines that have shut down the docks to protest apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s and Israel today, as well as shipments of cargo to support the U.S. war in Iraq.

Local 10 has a history of taking action over political issues, such as initiating a coastwide port shutdown on May Day 2008 in protest of the Iraq war. Earlier this year, Local 10 shut down the docks in the Bay Area April 4 in response to the AFL-CIO’s call for a day of action in support of Wisconsin public-sector workers, who lost bargaining rights through anti-union legislation. The employers promptly sued Local 10 for that action.

What, then, is to be made of ILWU President Robert McEllrath’s statement disassociating the union from the December 12 call to action? “Only ILWU members or their elected representatives can authorize job actions on behalf of the union, and any decisions made by groups outside of the union’s democratic process do not hold water, regardless of the intent,” McEllrath wrote.

McEllrath is certainly correct to point out that ILWU members must democratically decide on the actions of their union. And an official ILWU call for a job action on December 12 would invite legal retribution from employers.

But McEllrath, in fact, mischaracterizes the December 12 action. The Occupy movement isn’t attempting to “authorize a job action” by the ILWU, but to establish a community picket line and ask ILWU members and other port workers to honor it on the basis of solidarity.

This isn’t a far-out idea, given the ILWU tradition of respect for community picket lines and the union’s early support for the Occupy movement. In fact, across the bay, the San Francisco Labor Council passed a resolution in October that declared Occupy San Francisco to be a “sanctioned union strike line.” In other words, the labor council recognized that Occupy was a workers’ movement deserving of union solidarity.

What’s more, even ILWU members who sympathize with Occupy’s call for a December 12 action must operate under the constraint of a union contract that bans strikes.

As McEllrath’s statement explains, if ILWU members stay away from their jobs December 12, it will be the result of a port labor arbitrator’s ruling that the picket lines have made it impossible to ensure a safe work environment.

As Villegas of Local 13 explained, “Our contract says we have to work 365 days a year, no matter what”–and an official call to action would violate that. That’s why rank-and-file ILWU members who support the community picket are leafleting the ports alongside Occupy activists.

This dynamic–union members expressing sympathy for militant action that labor officials reject–shouldn’t be a surprise to Cal Winslow, an editor of the recent book Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt from Below During the Long 1970s. In his introduction to the book, Winslow describes the spread of wildcat strikes, actions called without the authorization of union leaders, which accounted for one-third of strikes in the late 1960s and early 1970s:

Wildcat strikers were the shock troops of the “rebellions from below,” and their strikes became all but routine elements in contractual disputes and grievance negotiations. The strikers were often repudiations of the union leadership and, implicitly, of the entire postwar system of industrial relations.

Somehow, Winslow, who can write at length about rank-and-file activism 40 years ago, doesn’t recognize the initial stirrings of similar militancy today.

In fact, the idea for a protest on December 12 originated not with Occupy Oakland, but with immigrant rights and labor activists in Los Angeles who support the organizing efforts of port truck drivers in the LA-Long Beach ports.When Occupy Los Angeles labor activists held a meeting November 6 to discuss how to broaden the movement, the idea of an action in the ports was natural. Some 26 drivers at the Toll Group had been fired a few days earlier for their efforts to organize with the Teamsters, and December 12 was a traditional day of protests in Southern California among Mexican immigrants, who commemorate Our Lady of Guadalupe on that date.

After discussions with labor activists in the harbor area, the Occupy LA group decided to focus their protest on SSA Marine, a terminal operator owned by Goldman Sachs and known for anti-labor practices towards port truckers and labor worldwide, said Michael Novick, a retired LA teacher who has been active in the harbor community for years.

The protest isn’t intended to have the movement substitute itself for the ILWU, Novick said. “We understand they have limits on what actions they can take, and we can take action as community people.” He continued: “We can’t put ourselves forward as representing them. But we can represent the issues and the interests of the 99 percent.”

As in Oakland, Occupy activists in LA and Long Beach have leafleted the docks and ILWU union meetings and gotten a friendly reception, said Sarah Knopp, a member of United Teachers Los Angeles.

A key moment of building solidarity came December 2 during a four-hour strike by clerical workers, Knopp said. “Leah Marinkovich, a striking clerk, told me, ‘What you guys are doing in the Occupy Movement is helping us to put pressure on our bosses to settle.'”

Meanwhile, port trucker activists are debating whether to carry out a port shutdown in LA and Long Beach on December 12, said Ernesto Nevarrez, a harbor community activist who helped the drivers organize the total shutdown of the ports in 2004 and 2006.

While the 2006 action was in conjunction with the nationwide protests against anti-immigrant legislation, the drivers have been fighting since the 1980s for the right to organize a union. Employers regard the drivers as independent contractors who can’t form a union without violating antitrust laws–laws that originally targeted corporations.

Over the last week, Nevarrez and other activists distributed flyers to 60 to 70 percent of port drivers, he said. As in previous years, the drivers will meet to decide what action to take. “The decision on whether to shut the port down will come this Friday [December 9] when all the drivers will show up at payday at the companies,” he said. “Someone at each company will say, ‘Let’s talk about it,’ and some of the discussions will be formal. They will form a collective, and the collective at each company will reach a consensus.”

Of course, there’s no guarantee that the port actions will be successful up and down the coasts. That depends on the actions of port drivers and whether the community pickets are large enough to convince an port labor arbitrator that it’s “unsafe” for ILWU members to cross the picket lines. That’s what happened in Oakland November 2, when some 15,000 activists marched to the port during the evening shift change as part of a general strike call in response to police repression that nearly killed Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen several days earlier.

Now, Olsen himself is appealing to ILWU members to respect the community picket line on December 12. His statement reflects the spirit of the alliance between the labor and Occupy movements:

The bosses have been getting away with it for far too long. We can beat them, but we have to work together–unions, rank-and-file workers and Occupy.

I was on my second pump to Iraq when ILWU–when you–led by your Vietnam vets, shut down the West Coast ports on May Day 2008 to stop the war. The best support I could have asked for in Iraq was from you brothers and sisters who wanted us home, alive and well–sooner, not later. I spent two pumps in Iraq looking for our enemies. Only after coming back home did I discover our greatest enemy–that is the enemy we are fighting now.

Where the Oakland action can draw upon ILWU Local 10’s traditions of solidarity and respect for community picket lines, and the LA-Long Beach protesters are linking up with the ongoing port drivers’ struggle, Occupy activists in other port cities are still making connections with ILWU members and other port workers.

But by focusing on labor’s potential power at the point of production, the December 12 actions point the way forward for the Occupy movement. Everyone who wants to see the revival of a fighting labor movement should support these actions.

This article was originally published by Socialist Worker

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