West Coast Port Shutdown Sparks Heated Debate between Unions, Occupy

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. Photo: Brian Sims.

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 4,000 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 McEllrath. “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 honoring the line, whether or not they felt appropriately warned.

Other unionists involved in the occupy movement say the ILWU should recognize the need for tactical flexibility.

“The Occupy movement is simply taking from labor history,” said Robbie Donohoe, an Electrical Workers 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 a.m. 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 unionizing. Some criticized 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 "honor the history and legacy of social justice unionism that ILWU members have fought hard for.”

The West Coast longshore union has a history of honoring 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 circumstance.

Port bosses warned the ILWU that the 2008 May Day stoppage against the military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan was “unauthorized” 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

The Alameda Central Labor Council had a lively debate December 5 when Port Commissioner Victor Uno, who is also an Electrical Workers (IBEW) business manager, moved that the council “does not endorse a Port Shutdown.”

The council’s executive committee approved the motion, but some delegates argued that the Occupy movement deserved labor’s support, others that it deserved at least neutrality. The ILWU Local 10 president’s motion to table passed overwhelmingly.

Eric Larsen, member relations secretary for AFSCME Local 444 and labor liaison with Occupy Oakland, said council leaders wouldn't let him address the council 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 for their lack of support for the shutdown, came from Occupy’s failure to communicate.

On December 9 the building trades council took a position against the shutdown.

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, labor, 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 organizing.

After Oakland Occupy expanded the call to all ports on the West Coast, Occupy L.A. 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 percent 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 L.A. occupiers recognize 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 organizers 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 organizer, said truckers at the Los Angeles-Long Beach port stayed away for hours Monday morning as nearly 1,000 marchers rallied at port gates.

SPLIT, DEMOCRATICALLY

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 organization’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 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 labor’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,” Parker said.

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 leveled 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 $5,000 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 organized 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.

Correction: The story originally mischaracterized events at the Alameda Central Labor Council.

Eduardo Soriano-Castillo contributed to this story from Oakland.

Comments

GREGORYABUTLER | 12/15/11

The union leadership are scared to fight to win. In part, this is the ideological legacy of decades of team concept class partnership. In part, it's because comfortable well paid union officers fear the lawsuits, because they know that their high salaries, double pensions, expense accounts, union-leased cars and no show jobs for relatives and mistresses would be at risk if unions had to pay high fines.

Beyond that, unions are instruments of class peace and diplomacy between workers and bosses. In times of class war, they always get swept aside by the forces of class struggle.

OWS was right to bypass the timid business agents. They have no apologies to make to anybody.

ara-la | 12/13/11

I was somewhat misquoted or misattributed in this piece. What I said and say was that the Occupy the Ports action in Los Angeles and Long Beach, A Day Without Goldman Sachs, represented an effort build a base for the Occupy movement in existing communities in struggle, and to build alliances with other significant social movements such as the organized labor, migrant rights and the environmental justice movements, not "build a base in the labor movement."

Also, the key point we have made about the action from the start was lost -- it was an effort to focus attention on how the ports represent the way the rule of the 1% have distorted the global economy and resulted in ruin for the rest of us, deindustrialization here, capital flight, super-exploitation in other countries, resulting in "trade" that is more than 80% imports. We called for rebuilding the economy based on economic justice for all. We are building towards a general strike on May 1, 2012, pursuing a path for organized and unorganized workers to undertake direct action to defend our economic interests and democratic rights.

Anonymous | 12/13/11

I was at the Port Shutdown last night and I found this article incredibly informative. Many people wanted to know why we weren't being supported by any unions. We certainly like the unions and would like to come to their aid when they need our help, but they seemed reluctant to join us. The answer is right there. Legal actions make any connection impossible and union leaders are smart enough to be wary of us. We don't have as long a history as they do and we don't have as much at stake. The quote about throwing a party at their house and not asking is an excellent metaphor. How can we ask if they are legally obligated to not support us? Luckily we didn't need the support of the unions yesterday because we are strong and have unity. I was surprised to learn that the ports are a soft target for civil disobedience. The police were not very interested in arrests despite the violence at Terminal 18 (which I missed completely). Even in the bitter cold we stopped operations for at least 5 hours or so. We just had to walk over the bridge. There aren't sidewalks to Terminal 5 but that's no problem. The protest at Terminal 5 ended when police came in force with the likely intention of a large arrest. I was surprised that everyone was eager to leave at that point. Maybe our job was done, maybe we were cold. Perhaps I'll check the notes.

I think it's important to remember that though the title of the article is about a "Heated Debate", the lack of support from unions and their wariness is natural and smart. The occupiers need only continue their protesting and the unions will do their thing. If we actually cross paths in the future it will be under better terms.

In answer to laborlou above, we were protesting EGT and Goldman Sachs who are right there at the port. Some of our complaints were poor treatment of union and non-union workers at the port. Where better to protest?

laborlou | 12/13/11

More than 90 percent of the private sector economy is nonunion. Too bad OWS protesters chose one of the last largely unionized industries and clashed with ILWU with its militant history and democratic traditions. Why not focus, for example, on banks where no workers have a voice on the job or the benefit of a union contract?