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Did Rank-and-File Union Members Support the Port Shutdown?

| December 13, 2011
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During our coverage of the Oakland port shutdown yesterday, we wrote a little bit about labor’s decidedly tepid if not negative response to Occupy Oakland’s protest on behalf of Longview, Washington ILWU workers in a dispute with the grain exporter EGT.

Caitlin Esch/KQED

The leadership of the ILWU as well as various locals declared their opposition to the action. From Chronicle columnist Andrew S. Ross this weekend, Union not keen on new Occupy Oakland:

(T)he folks [protesters] purport to be in solidarity with don’t seem hot on the idea to “effectively shut down the hubs of commerce” at all.

“Any actions organized by outside groups, including the proposed Dec. 12 shutdown of various terminals on the West Coast, have not been vetted by our union’s democratically led process,” the International Longshore and Warehouse Union said. “Any decisions made by groups outside of the union’s democratic process do not hold water, regardless of the intent.”

The Occupy movements that make a fetish of applying direct democracy and near absolute consensus to its own decision making might want to take note of that.

Richard Mead, president of ILWU Local 10, which represents dockworkers at the Port of Oakland, said, “Our position is in the international’s press release. We’re not facilitating (Occupy Oakland’s strike call) in any way. We just want that clear.”

Jeff Smith, president of ILWU Local 8 in Portland, Ore., went further, telling the Portland Tribune his union won’t honor picket lines. “This is a third-party strike. We have to go to work,” he said.

But the Occupy movement says the union rank and file supported the protest. Occupy Oakland’s Barucha Peller, who participated in the organizing of the attempted port shutdowns, said this to KQED’s Mina Kim during the planning stages of the port action:

“The rank and file traditionally will honor community picket lines around social justice issues. I think the longshoremen are not unaware of the aims of the Occupy movement and a lot of those aims speak to them as well. Rank and file are also part of the Occupy movement, not separate. Across the board, rank and file union members as well as non-unionized workers, make up a large part of the Occupy movement.”

But whether the majority of affected union members actually supported yesterday’s action — or not — I’m not sure anyone really knows. Here’s a comment we received on the blog yesterday:

I’m a union worker. I lost a much needed day of pay today. I went to observe the occupiers for hours today. FACT: Most workers were upset with them. FACT: There were only a handful of people that worked there involved in the protest. Most union and non union port workers were upset and negatively affected financially.

Yesterday, at the protest, KQED News Intern Rebecca Wolfson interviewed a business rep for the machinists union, which represents some port workers. Garry Horrocks had this to say:

I think a lot of union members are split because philosophically they believe in what’s going on but there’s contractual issues the unions have to recognize, and they have liabilities and assets to lose if they don’t follow the legalities in the contract.

There’s what they call a fiduciary responsiblity of the members of the union to protect the assets, bc if ther are no assets, there’s no funding, there’s no revolution, there’s no unions.

Yesterday, on KQED Radio’s Forum show, ILWU Communications Director Craig Merrilees expressed support for the Occupy movement while somewhat gingerly reaffirming the union’s opposition to the port action:

I think almost everyone in the ILWU supports the goals of the 99% and nobody’s done more than the Occupy movement to raise that issue. They’ve done a fabulous job of changing the debate in this country in a positive way so that people begin to have a sense of power. The ILWU has a long history of social justice and that kind of activism is part of the culture of this union.

As for this particular day, the union is not taking a position supporting this action, but that was really because of the lack of a process to allow the longshore workers – the rank and file, members – to participate in that decision.

But there are individuals who are exercising their First Amendment rights to take a stand, but the union itself is not in that position today.

When asked if the union was “ticked off” that it wasn’t consulted in the decision to demonstrate, he said, “I don’t think ticked off is the right word in any way. There’s a position of respect here; I think the ILWU is grateful and respectful that people are standing up and raising concerns about the injustice that’s taking place in America….there continues to be a lot of good feeling towards the thrust of what folks in the Occupy movement are trying to achieve.”

Below is Mina’s Kim’s interview with Occupy Oakland’s Peller from a couple of weeks ago, in which Peller talks about the Occupy movement’s reasons for focusing on the port. The conversation speaks to the question of and perhaps some of the contradictions inherent in an outside group taking on an issue specific to organized labor.

Edited transcript:

What is the port action about?

It’s about shutting down Wall Street on the waterfront. Shutting down Goldman Sachs, which owns a part of the SSA terminal, and EGT, a multiational grain exporter rupturing longshoremen jurisdiction in Longview, Washington.

We’ve identified the fact that a the 1% makes a great deal of its profit on the ports and on the backs of exploited labor.

Have you been working with longshoremen?

We’ve been working with rank-and-file longshoremen. Legally, no union can sanction a strike. There are no-strike clauses. But we’re not asking for a strike, we’re asking for a blockade like on Nov 2.

Historically, since the anti-apartheid movement, people will go down and create community pickets and shut down the ports. These ports are public, anyone can go down there and protest. We know that the longshoremen rank and file largely support the aims of the Occupy movement.

As well, this west coast coordinated port blockade is in solidarity with the longshoremen’s struggle against EGT in Longview Washington, which is ruptuing their jurisdition and is a direct threat to the survival of the ILWU. While the ILWU international may not be able to officially say anything about the port blockade, this is a large number of people taking on the issues that we all have with the 1%. EGT is not only a longshoreman issue, but they have economically plundered people from Argentina to Brazil and all around the world… And of course, Goldman Sachs owns a large part of the SSA terminal, and we all know what Goldman Sachs has done to a large part of our communities.

How would you respond to people who say that shutting down the port would hurt members of the 99% like truckers and other workers who need the shift?

It’s the same thing as in the general strike, where the right wing tried to accuse occupy Oakland of hurting small businesses. But we all have to make a sacrifice here, to strike back against the 1% and take our lives back from the 1%. This is what this movement is all about.

Did anyone from the Longview union ask you guys to shut down the port in solidarity with their fight?

No. The occupation movement doesn’t need to take marching orders from anyone. It’s a mass of people self-organizing to get their material needs met and to strike back against he 1%. Of course we’ve been aware of the issue in Longview and applauding the resistance by the longshoremen up in Longview for resisting EGT, but like I said, EGT and other companies operating up there are a concern of everyone.

Nobody from the longshoremen has asked the Occupy movement to do anything.

Are you worried about support from the union’s rank and file, or do you think you definitely have their support?

The rank and file traditionally will honor community picket lines around social justice issues. I think the longshoremen are not unaware of the aims of the Occupy movement and a lot of those aims speak to them as well. Rank and file are also part of the Occupy movement, not separate. Across the board, rank and file union members as well as non-unionized workers, make up a large part of the Occupy movement.

Any plans to coordinate more with the ILWU?

It’s a very sad thing what’s happened to the unions in the U.S. because of no-strike clauses and different legal ramifications. It’s sad that unions have to distance themselves from things like this for fear of being sued.

Nobody can speak for the leadership of the ILWU. But working class people understand that EGT and Goldman Sachs are Wall Street on the waterfront, and it’s important to shut down Wall Street because of the way these big companies have plundered our lives.

Also released yesterday, An Open Letter from America’s Port Truck Drivers on Occupy the Ports, signed by three port drivers and two other truckers:

We are the front-line workers who haul container rigs full of imported and exported goods to and from the docks and warehouses every day.

We have been elected by committees of our co-workers at the Ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle, Tacoma, New York and New Jersey to tell our collective story. We have accepted the honor to speak up for our brothers and sisters about our working conditions despite the risk of retaliation we face. One of us is a mother, the rest of us fathers. Between the five of us we have 11children and one more baby on the way. We have a combined 46 years of experience driving cargo from our shores for America’s stores.

We are inspired that a non-violent democratic movement that insists on basic economic fairness is capturing the hearts and minds of so many working people. Thank you “99 Percenters” for hearing our call for justice. We are humbled and overwhelmed by recent attention. Normally we are invisible.

Today’s demonstrations will impact us. While we cannot officially speak for every worker who shares our occupation, we can use this opportunity to reveal what it’s like to walk a day in our shoes for the 110,000 of us in America whose job it is to be a port truck driver. It may be tempting for media to ask questions about whether we support a shutdown, but there are no easy answers. Instead, we ask you, are you willing to listen and learn why a one-word response is impossible?

The letter goes on to describe poor working conditions and a loss of labor rights in the trucking industry.

Expressing a different viewpoint yesterday were some of the truckers who told our reporter, Caitlin Esch, that they were really angry.

“A lot of the truckers came in from far away,” Esch said. “Nevada, Denver, Kansas, and so they’re not leaving until they complete their task. The truckers say they’re going to be living in their trucks until they can complete their assignments.”

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