Sending a Message at the Ports

Socialist Worker Dec 13, 2011

Protesters gathered in front of the gates to the Port of Oakland. (Photo: Socialist Worker)Ports up and down the West Coast were shut down or disrupted December 12 in a day of demonstrations organized 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 labor officials were critical of the Occupy movement’s initiative.

But rank-and-file members of both the ILWU and Teamsters were part of the organizing for December 12 and well represented on the picket lines. The ILWU also has a tradition of recognizing 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 a.m., 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 p.m., 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 2,000.

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 a.m. shift–as this article was being written, a smaller group of protesters had decided to extend the pickets to 3 a.m.

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 organizing 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 organize,” 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 unionize–they wore Teamsters t-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, Ore., 500 Occupy supporters participated throughout the day in the protest against “Wall Street on the Waterfront,” which was organized around an early morning mobilization 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 a.m. gathering at Kelley Point Park, where activists organized 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 percent.

While trucks attempting to offload cargo were prevented from entering the ports by the community picket, organizers 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 a.m. 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 p.m. 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 p.m. rally brought out another 500 protesters. When organizers 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 p.m., the port arbitrator had ruled the community picket represented a “safety” hazard and awarded workers four hours pay. With Terminal 4 shut down, protesters mobilized 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 labor 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 organizing of this action, and today, we see them honoring 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 honored 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.

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 1,000 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 a.m. after a long drive from Fresno. “I feel our voters 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 U.S. economy, the potential to hit the 1 percent where it hurts.

Chris Beck, Laura Durkay, Wael Elasady, Darrin Hoop, Ragina Johnson, Sarah Knopp and Alessandro Tinonga contributed to this article. This article was originally published by the Socialist Worker.

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