The Oakland Port Shutdown

— Bill Balderston

THIS ARTICLE IS a personal account of the growing dialogue between the labor movement and the Occupy organizing, as seen by someone heavily involved in attempting to build these linkages. It is not intended to be a comprehensive description of all the events which occurred December 12th along the whole Pacific coast (a good such report is the Labor Notes online article of December 12th by Evan Rohar. See http://labornotes.org/2011/12/west-coast-port-shutdown-sparks-heated-debate-between-unions-occupy).

Rather, I will describe the trajectory of events and discussions that led to the December 12th Port shutdown, involving much of the labor and Occupy communities in the Bay Area, which has served as a bellwether for such interaction. The dance of these partners is not without tension and contradiction, but while considering the criticisms of those both supportive and hostile to both labor and Occupy, I must state up front my belief that it has great potential.

The beginning of the intersection of labor and Occupy in the East Bay goes at least back to the response to the heavy-handed police action by hundreds of gendarmes on the night of October 24th, removing the Occupy Oakland (OO) encampment participants, followed by a massive police assault the following evening, involving teargas and flash grenades.

The Alameda Central Labor Council (CLC) leaders mobilized quickly in protest and followed this shortly with a statement condemning the police action and the local Oakland political leadership, who were relegated to “being on the wrong side of history.”

All this began to provoke much more discussion within the ranks of unions on the clout of Occupy and was immediately followed up on the 26th with a motion brought to the OO General Assembly (GA) for a “general strike” on November 2nd.

This call, initiated by labor activists, was voted on by a gathering of over a thousand participants and ratified by a 95% approval. It reverberated immediately within labor circles and a number of key unions came out in support, including SEIU 1021, California Nurses Association (CNA) and my own union, the Oakland Education Association (OEA), which planned a satellite rally and march to protest education cuts and school closures.

But the key to this mobilization was the involvement of ILWU Local 10, representing the dockworkers at the Port (the largest employer in Oakland). The day involved mass actions varying from major bank protests to a march targeting the local Whole Foods outlet (notoriously anti-union). The culmination was a set of marches involving 30,000 activists, including countless union members (over 400 from the OEA) who helped shut down the Port.

Euphoria over this action continued to ripple within many unions, despite the problems created that night with a confrontation between police and hard-line militants (especially those of the Black Block grouping). Within two days there was a gathering of labor and Occupy representatives who planned a march/mobilization for November 19th.

Planned jointly by people from OO and key unions, November 19 involved more bank actions and a protest gathering at one of the schools scheduled for closure. As part of the initial rally, several labor leaders spoke including Betty Olson-Jones, president of the OEA, and Dan Coffman, head of ILWU Local 21 of Longview, Washington. Coffman spoke of the dire circumstances the grain dockworkers are facing in Longview and that any militant action here and along the coast would boost their struggle.

Solidarity and Controversy

Coincidentally, on the previous day the OO GA had discussed and supported a proposal from Occupy Los Angeles in solidarity with an action called to defend non-union truck drivers who had been victimized. This was both a labor and immigrant rights protest, since most drivers are immigrants — heavily Latino — and December 12th was partly selected as a date for being the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, an important religious symbol in Mexican culture.

Thus, the direction was set and a variety of ILWU and other union activists rallied around the call to shut down ports along the entire coast. This was problematic for ILWU leaders and some activists since the union was facing major constraints, including injunctions and massive fines, over earlier militancy in support of the workers at Longview facing a scab effort to load a grain ship sometime in the next month.

While initial efforts were not attuned to all the realities (often blaming obstacles simply on “the bureaucracy”), the OO labor committee undertook to work with ILWU members, spending much time at the Port leafleting and discussing. Equally important, OO people reached out to the nonunion truckers to dialogue (with the help of IBT members). These two issues became the center of unity, along with protesting the repression facing the Occupy movement, for the December 12th call.

There were a variety of forums for workers to discuss this action, including the large December 2nd mobilization in San Francisco (SF), called by the SF CLC to protest federal cuts and corporate ripoffs and to defend social security/Medicare. But more important was the discussion at the Alameda CLC the next Monday, where delegates (including those from the OEA who had endorsed the action) debated for over an hour the key political issues around the relationship of labor and Occupy, as reflected in this mass action.

Finally, Richard Mead brought a motion, tabling the proposal from the CLC exec board for “no endorsement” of the Port shutdown. In his remarks, Mead stated that any blow against EGT (owner of the new Longview terminal) and their corporate allies was an act in support of the ILWU. Further, he bluntly stated that the ILWU was in a fight for its very existence. His proposal passed by over 3 to 1, despite the opposition of the CLC leadership (including an ILWU trustee).

The following week solidified the preparations for the Shutdown action, despite massive fearmongering in the local media and doubts by many within the labor left and progressive Bay Area community. While the November “General Strike” had not pushed many activists out of their comfort zone, this action did. Union militants had to decide whether or not this would strengthen the upsurge represented by Occupy.

Those distant from the organizing not only missed the practical dynamism that was growing but also the political maturity that was taking hold. Those who simply wanted to make the labor bureaucracy the principal issue, or those who wanted slogans around a “permanent general strike,” were marginalized. At the same time the strategic discussions around the importance of a labor bastion like the ILWU and the victimization of immigrant truck drivers came front and center, as did the question of ports as critical chokeholds in the capitalist system.

The clear success of the day, with over 1500 shutting the docks in the early morning and over 5000 converging to reinforce the Port shutdown in the afternoon, was made possible not only by good organizing but by the identification thousands of young actvists with this Occupy-labor alliance. A combination of effective organizing and the fear of deepening this insurgency stayed the hand of the state’s repression.

Moreover, the coordination of the Occupy groupings along the coast, from Portland to LA, Hilo to Seattle, Bellingham to Longview attests to the efforts to spread this militancy exponentially around working class issues. There is no question that criticisms of Occupy concerning poor communication with labor and misunderstanding union democracy have validity, In the balance, nonetheless, the growing sense of worker solidarity within Occupy and beyond is the great gain for the Shutdown.

Not only are people in the OO labor committee prepared to help bring activists to Longview in January, along with Occupiers from the Northwest, to halt the scab loading of the first grain ship at the new facility, but they are very active in many day-to-day labor support actions. All this is a step forward.  §

[For additional analysis on the Solidarity website, see Barry Eidlin’s commentary at http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/3472 — ed.]

January/February 2012, ATC 156

questions

"Union militants had to decide whether or not this [the Dec. 12 action] would strengthen the upsurge represented by Occupy."

So what did the ILWU's militants decide? Do we really know what sentiment is on the docks and among union members?

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