In Defense of the Shutdown of West Coast Ports

Posted: December 11, 2011 by globaloccupation in 2011, articles, December, interviews, usa
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

In this post:

(1) A Reply to Cal Winslow on the West Coast Port Shut Down

(2) Interview With ILWU Members About D12


(1) A Reply to Cal Winslow on the West Coast Port Shut Down

The following is a statement from an activist in Occupy Oakland. It is NOT an official statement of the General Assembly.

On December 5, Cal Winslow wrote a lengthy article in criticizing Occupy Oakland and the December 12 West Coast Port Shut Down. While he is clearly interested in building mass labor action and is a supporter of the Occupy movement, his critique is wrong-headed and littered with factual errors. He appears to be quite well-informed about the European labor movement and yet is at a loss for accurate details regarding actions organized just miles away from his workplace at UC Berkeley.

To begin with, the December 12 action was not called as a “General Strike” by Occupy Oakland, as Winslow insists. Had he taken the time to realize this he may have saved a substantial amount of time in criticizing it as such. Additionally, the march that left Scott Olsen seriously injured occurred on October 25, not September 27.

After misunderstanding these details, he continues by criticizing the November 2 action, which was called as a General Strike. “[I]t is well-known,” writes Winslow, “at least within the labor movement, that, routinely, from the fringe, the demand for a general strike is raised – whatever the circumstances. It’s almost always a one-size-fits-all rallying cry. ”

I initially approached the call for a General Strike on November 2 with the same skepticism, but the success of the event itself won me over. Academics will debate for years whether the Oakland General Strike was “real” or not but it is clear that the action was the most successful event in the Occupy movement thus far. Only a pedantic nit-picker could be so concerned about whether slapping the “General Strike” terminology onto the action was appropriate at this point.

Winslow continues to criticize the action, insisting that, “truth be told I’ve heard of not a single case of a worker striking that day, walking off the job in defiance of their employers, though to be sure many workers found their ways to the docks.”

In fact, twenty percent of Oakland teachers took a personal day on November 2, a fact that Winslow conveniently ignores, along with the fact that hundreds of students walked out of class and the day of action was endorsed in various ways by the Alameda County Labor Council, the Oakland Educators Association, the Berkeley Federation of Teacher, SEIU Local 1021 and Carpenters Local 713. Certainly, not everybody who participated did so by marching out of their workplace and chanting “strike!” but I would hope that Winslow could live with that. Everybody else did. Finally, the demonstration on November 2 did not begin at 5pm as Winslow states but at 9am—for those who took the day off from work, anyway.

Winslow also comments that Occupy Oakland  “authorized the strike call [again, it was not a strike call] ‘unanimously’ at its November 18  General Assembly”, and continues, “I have to add here that I have been advised by reliable sources that the Oakland General Assembly and the anarchists at its core offer something much less than what is considered to be democratic.” On the one hand, this comment about anarchists is slanderous red-baiting and Winslow should know better. Anarchists, socialists and other radicals have always played a significant role in the American labor movement, which Winslow all but admits in his article. On the other hand, I don’t know how much more democratic you can get than 100% support. For my part, no sneaky anarchist coerced me into raising my hand in support at the General Assembly and I doubt that is the case for anybody else. Winslow might have made the trek down to 14th and Broadway to verify these things himself rather than discussing it with “reliable sources,” but his article is less reliable for not having done so.

What we do plan for December 12 is to organize community pickets at the ports along the West Coast in solidarity with ILWU workers in Longview fighting against EGT and in solidarity with port truck drivers. The ILWU has not endorsed this action and they did not endorse the previous one, but there is a long tradition of Bay Area activists setting up community pickets at the Port of Oakland, including actions in recent years against the war in Iraq and against an Israeli ship. However, we are not working against the ILWU but in support of it, and while it is true, as Winslow states, that “The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the workers themselves,” and an action taken by the ILWU at the ports would be tremendous, community action is also part of a democratic impulse against inequality. The Port of Oakland ought to belong to the people of Oakland but instead the mass of wealth that is accumulated and distributed through it is left largely in the hands of the 1%. Our action may not be a “strike” but it will be a “blow” against the union-busting tactics of the 1% along the West Coast. The African-American families who stood in front of their homes in West Oakland and cheered us on as we marched to the Port of Oakland on November 2 sure thought so last time and I suspect the same will be true next Monday.

The labor movement is historically weak with unionization at an all-time low. Mass workers’ strikes in various industries would be a welcome development, but in the meantime rank-and-file members of the Teamsters, SEIU, Berkeley and Oakland teachers’ unions and many non-union workers are organizing for the West Coast Port Shut Down, as are at least twenty “Occupies” at ten different ports. With the current state of the labor movement, many militant actions may occur outside of union officialdom, but that does not make it the work of outside agitators who have no interest in workers’ democracy. In fact, many of us hope our actions, which have the active support of many rank-and-file union members, are a precursor toward a stronger union movement.

To paraphrase Winslow’s favorite philosopher, historians have merely interpreted the labor movement in various ways; the point, however, is to change it. The path to achieve this is not always obvious but labor activists all over the West Coast believe our action is  a significant next step for both Occupy and labor. Winslow’s comment that we should “do this in coordination with the ILWU, or do it with the longshoremen themselves,” and that our action “suggests the opposite of democracy” are irresponsible, showing a lack of understanding of the nature of the action itself. This is not an action against the ILWU–anymore than the protests to shut down the WTO in Seattle in 1999 were against janitors and caterers working at the conference–but an action against the ports. I assure you we are not destroying workers’ democracy–in fact, Occupiers have already reached out to port workers about the upcoming action and found a very positive response. You can even watch a video of ILWU Local 21 President Dan Coffman telling Occupy Oakland that, “You cannot believe what you people did [on November 2] for the inspiration of my union members who have been on the picket line for six months.”

It is too bad that Cal Winslow did not come down to Oscar Grant Plaza to talk to us about the December 12 action. Unfortunately, he dismisses our action at precisely the time when the Port of Oakland has launched a campaign against it. Had he sought us out  before writing his article, I suspect he would have had a different appreciation for the relevance and nature of the West Coast Port Shut Down.

Scott Johnson has been an activist in Oakland for over a decade. He currently writes for the Occupied Oakland Tribune and is an active supporter of Occupy Oakland and the December 12 West Coast Port Shut Down.


(2) Interview With ILWU Members About D12

As pressure builds for the Dec. 12 West Coast port shutdown, the capitalist owners and their media began a battle of ideas to blunt this powerful threat to their profits and control — even for a day.

Two International Longshore and Warehouse Union members — Clarence Thomas, who is a third-generation longshoreman in Oakland, and Leo Robinson, who is now retired — spoke with Workers World reporter Cheryl LaBash. Both men have held elected office in ILWU Local 10 and have been key labor activists during their years of work in the ports.

WW: The Nov. 21 ILWU Longshore Coast Committee memorandum states, “Any public demonstration is not a ‘picketline’ under the PCL&CA [Pacific Coast Longshore & Clerk’s Agreement]. … Remember, public demonstrations are public demonstrations, not ‘picketlines.’ Only labor unions picket as referenced in the contract.” What is your reaction?

Clarence Thomas: A picket line is a public demonstration — whether called by organized labor or not. It is legitimate. There are established protocols in these situations. To suggest to longshoremen that they shouldn’t follow them demands clarification. It is one thing to state for the record that the union is not involved, but another thing to erase the historical memory of ILWU’s traditions and practices included in the Ten Guiding Principles of the ILWU adopted at the 1953 biennieal convention in San Francisco.

Leo Robinson: The international has taken the position somehow that the contract is more important than not only defending our interest in terms of this EGT [grain terminal jurisdictional dispute] but having a connection to the Occupy [Wall Street] movement in that when you go through the Ten Guiding Principles of the ILWU, we’re talk about labor unity. Does that include the teachers? Does that include state, county and municipal workers? Those questions need to be analyzed as to who supports whom. The Occupy movement is not separate and apart from the labor movement.

CT: Labor is now officially part of the Occupy movement. That has happened. The recent [New York Times] article done by Steven Greenhouse on Nov. 9 is called ‘Standing arm in arm.”

The Teamsters have been supported by the OWS against Sotheby’s auction house. OWS has been supportive of Communication Workers in its struggle with Verizon. Mary Kay Henry, International President of the Service Employees, has called for expanding the Occupy movement by taking workers to Washington, D.C., to occupy Washington particularly Congress and congressional hearings demanding 15 million jobs by Jan. 1.

LR: There was the occupation in Madison, Wis. That was labor-led. People are trying to confuse the issue by saying we are somehow separated from the Occupy movement. More than anything else the Occupy movement is a direct challenge or raises the question of the the rights of capital as opposed to the rights of the worker. I don’t understand that the contract supersedes the just demands of the labor movement. It says so right here in the 10 guiding principles of the ILWU.

Article 4 is very clear. Very clear. “‘To help any worker in distress’ must be a daily guide in the life of every trade union and its individual members.” Labor solidarity means just that. Unions have to accept the fact that solidarity of labor stands above all else, including even the so-called sanctity of the contract. We cannot adopt for ourselves the policies of union leaders who insist that because they have a contract, their members are compelled to perform work, even behind a picket line. It says picket line. It doesn’t say union picket line. It says picket line.

CT: Only 7.2 percent of private sector workers have union representation today, the lowest since 1900. Facing a critical moment, the labor movement has been reenergized by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

LR: Any number of times this union [Local 10] has observed picket lines, including Easter Sunday 1977 when the community put up a picket line at Pier 27 to picket South African cargo. Longshoremen observed that picket line for two days. So I don’t understand how all of a sudden the sanctity of the contract outweighs the need to demonstrate solidarity. It just does not compute. It doesn’t make sense.

WW: What were the similarities between that event and what is going on now with the Occupy movement?

CT: The first action against South African apartheid was a community picket line. It was not authorized by the union. It was a community picket line from start to finish.

LR: It was about 5,000 people out there on the Embarcadero [eastern waterfront and roadway of the Port of San Francisco] for two days running a community picket line opposing South African apartheid. Local 10 officers took the position that it was an unsafe situation and our members were not going to cross that picket line, period. It was ruled as such by the arbitrator.

WW: Who determines whether a situation is safe or unsafe?

LR: We have never waited for the employer to declare what is safe or unsafe. It is always the union that moves first. We don’t ask the employers what is safe or unsafe. They wouldn’t give a damn one way or the other as long as they got their ship worked. If the police have to escort you in or out, that is patently saying it is unsafe. What if someone decides to throw a rock while you’re being escorted in by the police? Does it make it hurt any less? A longshoreman determines what is safe for him or her — on the job and off.

CT: Our members have been hurt by the police and so has the OWS movement. In 2003 when we were standing by at a picket, police shot our members with wooden bullets. In Longview, Wash., at the EGT Grain Terminal, ILWU members and their families have been hurt by the police. We don’t want the police to do anything for us.

WW: What is happening at the grain terminal in Longview?

CT: Our union is at an historical juncture. Our jurisdiction is being challenged up and down the coast — the issue of logs and Local 10 and use of “robotics.” There has been nothing like this since 1934. If ILWU members don’t honor the community picket lines, it will cause an irreparable breach with the community. If the ILWU can’t support the community, why should the community support the ILWU in 2014 contract negotiations or when the new grain agreement is up next year? Who knows what the employer has up their sleeve when they demanded only a one-year contract.

LR: Grain work provides 30 percent of our welfare contributions. Who knows … let’s say that EGT is successful. It will open the door for other grain operators to try to work anybody.

WW: Aren’t the ports private?

CT: These ports are the people’s ports. Ports belong to the people of the Pacific Coast. The money came from the taxpayers in California, Oregon and Washington. EGT was subsidized by the Port of Longview. So the people have the right to go down there and protest how their tax dollars have been ripped off.

WW: Wall Street is in New York City. What do the West Coast ports have to do with that?

LR: To show you the link, last year in the ILWU Dispatcher – a sister from Local 10 was foreclosed on. I am certain she’s not the only one.

CT: Fifty-one percent of Stevedoring Services of America is owned by Goldman Sachs. EGT is a multinational conglomerate trying to control the distribution of food products around the world. The face of Wall Street is in the ports.

WW: Any closing comments?

CT: The ILWU is not some special interest group. We are a rank-and-file militant, democratic union that has a long history of being in the vanguard of the social justice and labor movement.

We don’t cross community picket lines. When people begin to do so they have completely turned their backs on the ILWU’s 10 guiding principles. Is it coincidental that Harry Bridges’ name has not been asserted in relation to the OWS movement and the history of militancy? Is it an accident? How can we not talk about Harry Bridges? That is how we got what we have today.

Clarence Thomas is past secretary-treasurer of ILWU Local 10 and co-chair of Million Workers March movement, which was initiated by Local 10 and supported by the ILWU Longshore Caucus. Leo Robinson is retired and co-founder of African American Longshore Coalition. He is a former member of the ILWU Local 10 executive board, a national convener of the MWM movement and its major benefactor.


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