West Coast Ports Shut Down Again!
Longshore rank and file honors mass pickets as the bosses’ opposition flounders in disarray. Attacks and threats from shippers, city officials, and union bureaucrats fail to deter Occupy protestors.
It looked risky at first, and the signs of possible disaster only mounted. But the Oakland Occupy General Assembly had decided overwhelmingly to call for a coast-wide port shutdown on December 12th in response to police attacks on numerous Occupy encampments, and no threats or dire warnings could dissuade them from following through. This call was made also in response to an already-planned Occupy LA solidarity action with truckers at a terminal in Long Beach (Southern California); as well as the need for solidarity with longshore workers in Long View, Washington, who are threatened by an-ongoing scab operation, in which operating engineers, who are already in place working for grain-export conglomerate EGT, are poised to replace longshore labor on the docks.
On December 12th, solidarity is what came into play, as longshore workers refused to cross the community picket lines, despite only mild support for the December 12th action expressed among the rank-and-file beforehand. Two terminals in Oakland (the only two which had ships to work that day), as well as the two working terminals in Portland Oregon, and the Long View terminal, were all shut down. Other ports shut down included Vancouver, Coos Bay, and Seattle; as well as the SSA terminal in Long Beach. Vicious police attacks occurred in Portland and Seattle, as well as San Diego. (In San Diego, longshore workers went in to work following the police action against the community picket.)
The braying of the bosses
Screams and wails of outrage against this planned shutdown arose from all sectors of the local ruling classes beforehand. Port of Oakland officials denounced the action in a full-page ad in the San Francisco Chronicle. An editorial in the same outlet called the shutdown “A Counterproductive Stunt,” and accused the Occupy of “hubris” (December 10, 2011). And as the liberal Mayor Quan pleaded with demonstrators not to do it, top union officials in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) joined the braying of the bosses by denouncing the whole thing as “outside groups attempting to co-opt our struggle,” and later threatening to work with police to stop it. These scoundrels were trampling on a key principle of the ILWU against police as union members, which is based on the union’s class-struggle experience of police having shot strikers down in the streets.
Nevertheless, some of us—myself included—were pretty pessimistic about the ability of the Occupy to bring this off. Activists were substituting themselves for what should have been an action of the organized workers. We expected the port to be locked up tight by police. The drumbeat from the top—the local “one percent”—was clear, and the scene seemed set for a disaster. But that’s not what happened... this time.
“We were not arrested. We were getting off the bus!”
At 5:00 A.M. that morning, protestors boarded buses and headed to the port. As one participant reported with some surprise, “I was looking out the window, and we were headed into the port. We arrived at the terminal. We were not arrested. We were getting off the bus!”
Some 1500 protestors blockaded the two terminals that were supposed to be working that morning. Cops were not to be found at first. Later, Alameda County Sheriffs mobilized in full riot gear, and at one point marched up to block one of the terminal gates. But they soon marched away to the cheers of protestors. The longshore workers refused to cross the community picket lines, and the port closed: exactly the result protestors had looked for. Later, shipping employers themselves cancelled job calls for the second (7:00 P.M.) shift, which saved them having to pay dispatched longshore workers who they knew wouldn’t have crossed the lines to go to work. (Normally, if longshore workers are dispatched and then unable to enter the terminal, they would have been entitled to be paid.)
The evening mobilization was thus turned into a celebration. As huge unmoving cranes loomed in the dim background, the scene in the port after dark had a surreal quality. There were several bands, two or three food trucks, a Hare-Krishna free-food line, and a techno-pop truck surrounded by gyrating dancers. Off to one side was a huge general assembly, in which the “mic check echo” had four layers, each of which struggled to compete with numerous side conversations. It was after I left, but participants there stayed to shut down a 3:00 A.M. shift as well, making three shifts and 500-700 individual shifts stopped in the 24 hours.
The 3 to 7:00 A.M. “short shift” is a normal option for employers. It may have been scheduled in this case in the hope that protesters would have been gone be then. No such luck for them this time.
Will this whining never end?
Following the successful shutdown, crocodile tears for the Port continued, as two Oakland city council members (Ignacio De La Fuente, and Libby Schaff) presented a resolution calling for the prevention of future port shutdowns “by all legal means,” at the council meeting on December 21st. This dovetailed with a campaign begun by various right-wingers to recall Quan, who is deemed too soft on the Occupy supporters. The resolution failed to gain support for immediate consideration. Hours later Mayor Quan issued a statement, saying that preventing a port shutdown by occupiers was essentially impossible, since protestors could always “sneak” past police lines. But she, Quan, could try to stop it with 500-600 cops, if the Port would pay for it! (San Francisco Chronicle, December 22, 2011) The braying goes on, as right-wing columnists continue to denounce Quan. But she is just a stand in for their real target: the workers who refuse to cross picket lines!
Was this an imaginary world? Had the wheels of capitalist production really been brought to a halt by these rag-tag representatives of “the 99 percent?” Had the City of Oakland been defeated by the protestors?
But first: why was the port shutdown called?
In the weeks prior to the port shutdown, brutal police crackdowns had dismantled Occupy encampments around the country. Mid-November saw the clearing of the original OWS site at Zucotti Park in New York, followed by a police attack on the “Day of Action” two days later that involved beatings and detentions of over 200 protestors, including union leaders from Service Employees International Union (SEIU). In Oakland, the dispersal of the second encampment at Oscar Grant (Frank Ogawa City Hall) plaza was followed by a huge march through the streets of Oakland, which protested projected school closings and then culminated in the setting up of a new encampment in a vacant city-owned lot at 19th and Telegraph. That site was also dispersed, as was the Snow Park site a few days later. Occupies in Denver, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles were also dismantled.
As the Occupy movement spread to college campuses, many of these were also brutally attacked and destroyed. At UC Berkeley, protestors were hauled away by the Alameda County Sheriffs—the “blue meanies,” whose infamy goes back to the Free Speech Movement days of the 1960s. A day-long student strike culminated in a rally of over 10,000 in Sproul Plaza to protest the destruction of the Occupy. Participants held a massive General Assembly, and then impatiently sat through the annual Mario Savio Memorial event—which had been moved to the plaza for this occasion—in order to hear former labor secretary Robert Reich, who, when he finally got to speak, promised, “I’ll be short.” His speech was a generally unmemorable paean to a lost “democracy” under capitalism, which he thought could be regained, somehow.
Days later, a pepper spray attack on peaceful, non-resisting protestors at UC Davis went viral on the internet, and caused a big, if temporary, kerfluffle in the UC administration, which has since administered some band-aid “fixes” designed to assuage student rage over the intolerable increases in tuition, fees and loan costs at UC.
Port truckers: victims of liberal deregulation
While protest of the crackdowns on the Occupies was a major goal, the shutdown’s first cause had to do with the port truckers’ struggle in LA. Twenty-six union truckers had been fired by SSA—Stevedore Services of America—for wearing Teamster t-shirts. SSA is majority-owned by Wall Street magnate Goldman Sachs, making it a natural target for the Occupy movement. In solidarity on December 12th, demonstrators in New York marched on, and attempted to occupy, Goldman Sachs offices. In Portland Oregon, hundreds of Occupy protestors marched on two terminals owned by SSA/Goldman Sachs, and shut them down, as part of the December 12th action.
The back-story of port truckers—the drivers who haul containers off the docks to various destinations—is that 82 percent of them today are “independent contractors,” not employees. But this wasn’t always the case. The Motor Carrier Act of 1980, hailed by both liberals and business interests, and promoted by Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy and consumer advocate Ralph Nader, destroyed trucking regulation on the grounds that regulation hurt consumers and promoted monopoly.
But deregulation was a disaster, as union companies were driven out of business, and Teamster representation declined along with wages and conditions. While wages and benefit packages for port truckers used to be on a par with autoworkers, steelworkers and over-the-road drivers, today contract drivers’ effective real wages can be as low as $8-an-hour, with no benefits (Tara Lohan, “How Goldman Sachs and Other Companies Exploit Port Truck Drivers,” Alternet, December 10, 2011).
Teamster support was critical
The effect of trucker deregulation was to drive down wages and drive up the rate of profit on port truckers’ labor for the big corporations. This helped their bottom line, and somewhat offset the tendency of the rate of profit of these capitalist enterprises to decline over time. But it did nothing for the consumer; as can be seen today, as working people languish in the mire of a second great depression.
On December 12th, Teamsters representatives in Oakland, who have been working on organizing port truckers, pulled all 70 of their organized drivers out of action in solidarity with the port shutdown. They also aided in other ways, such as helping to make sure that truckers who had already dropped their loads didn’t get stuck uselessly in the mass picket.
Solidarity with longshore workers against the scabs of Long View
As for the longshore workers in Long View, Washington: grain exports are a major U.S. imperialist goal at this time, as GMO crops sponsored by Monsanto and pushed under NAFTA form a big part of U.S. export strategy. This “strategy” has already driven three quarters of Mexican farmers off their land; caused a quarter-million suicides of farmers in India due to uncontrollable debt; and now plans to invade Asia through newly-designed grain ports such as that in Long View.
Long View’s EGT (Export Grain Terminal)—a conglomerate of three shipping companies—is trying to take the lead in grain exports to Asia, and also take the lead in breaking the longshore union. Earlier in the year, ILWU President Bob McElrath, who himself had been arrested on the picket line, pledged to shut down the West Coast when EGT attempts to load and ship the grain. The appearance of this ship is now expected for sometime in January. But can this business unionist be trusted to follow through on this? That is a key question facing longshore rank and file.
The threat to longshore workers
The possible eviction of longshore workers from their work on the docks is what’s at stake here, and it’s a major question for the U.S. working class: can one of the last, strong, and most militant industrial unions in this country be reduced to irrelevance, as so many others have, or worse, total extinction? While Reaganite de-industrialization and NAFTA have weakened and destroyed U.S. unions, longshore unions have so far remained strong, due to their militant tradition (in the case of the ILWU) and position in the ports, which are (needless to say) hard to move to non-union areas. But British dockers’ unions were destroyed under Thatcher (despite noteworthy solidarity action by the ILWU), and the same could happen here.
The Oakland General Assembly meeting that decided on the December 12th action was attended by ILWU Local 21 (Long View, WA) President Dan Kaufman, who enthusiastically supported the shutdown. There was little question as to why, since Local 21 depends on community support, and has little hope of help from the International leadership of the ILWU, despite McElrath’s promises. After it’s initial militancy, in which Long View longshore workers blocked grain shipments and dumped grain on the tracks, the ILWU leadership has put the local under orders: we (the leadership) will pay your extensive judicial fines for that militancy IF you toe the line and don’t do anything, period!
The Oakland Occupy’s focus on port workers such as truckers in LA and longshore workers in Long View represents a major positive development. A working-class orientation has developed strongly in the Oakland Occupy movement, chiefly through the connection with rank-and-file longshore militants such as Jack Heyman, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Leviege. In this, they draw heavily on the longshore union’s militant tradition, going back to the 1934 waterside strike and San Francisco General Strike, in which the principle of solidarity across craft lines, and solidarity with the local community proved crucial.
1934: longshore workers rebel against sell-out union leadership
In 1934, the longshore union was still part of the East Coast-based International Longshore Association (ILA), which sought peace and compromise with the bosses above all. Under the leadership of Harry Bridges and Communist Party elements, local longshore workers decided on struggle against the “shape-up” system, in which workers were victimized by the bosses and had no real bargaining rights of their own. In deciding to strike, longshore workers reached out beyond their own ranks to other maritime workers to make a united front on the docks.
Meanwhile, Black workers, who couldn’t get jobs on the docks at that time, were hired as scabs by the shipping companies. Bridges went to the Black community with an offer: honor our lines, and we’ll get Black workers into the longshore union. This set an anti-racist precedent, which curtailed scabbing, helped the longshore strike succeed, and eventually resulted in an influx of Black workers into the ILWU during World War II.
Community allies count, but the power to shutdown production is key
Similarly, when six longshore workers and supporters (two in San Francisco) were killed by police during the longshore strike in 1934, San Francisco was riveted (they did it without texting back then), and the labor community responded without having to be asked. Thousands of longshore workers marched down Market Street, and then the General Strike was on. When the General Strike was over, it was the capitalist state authorities who were intimidated: they didn’t dare attack the longshore workers again. Striking workers had succeeded by spreading their power with other workers in their community. Soon, longshore workers won their key demand, a union-controlled hiring hall, which replaced the “shape up” on the West Coast.
The power of the workers to shut down production was key. But the relationship between the unions and their community was also critical. Longshore workers’ willingness to support broad working-class issues, as well as to honor community picket lines, dating from the 1930’s on, has set the stage for today’s events. This included recent examples such as the struggle against South African apartheid, the port shutdown to free Mumia Abu-Jamal in 1999 (an official union action), community pickets against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and actions in honor of Oscar Grant, and against an Israeli ship.
The Occupy pulled victory from the jaws of defeat
Despite the success of December 12th, we would be remiss if we did not discuss the danger that this action could have been subjected to, and the danger posed for both the Occupy movement and the longshore workers in the days ahead. The GA decision to shut the ports involved only minimal connection to the port workers, and left itself open to charges of being an outside force, operating separately and apart from the workers.
One couldn’t help but be reminded of the screaming headlines of 1934: “Red Army Marching On City,” said the Chronicle, “...the communist army planned the destruction of railroad and highway facilities to paralyze transportation and later, communication, while San Francisco and the Bay Area were made a focal point in a red struggle for control of government” (quoted in Boyer & Morais, Labor’s Untold Story). The circumstances and terminology may have been different, but the implication of a “red threat” that had to be crushed, was the same. Still, this was a community action, and not one that emanated from the port unions themselves.
Protestors lucked out this time
The Occupy movement displays a youthful vigor and optimism, and it wasn’t intimidated by the threats, which blared from the union officials, and city and port authorities. But also, it must be said, the movement “lucked out.” Mayor Quan’s police department decided just before the action not to call for “mutual aid,” in which Oakland police would have been supported by up to 17 surrounding jurisdictions. Such a mobilization (as happened after the original dispersal of the encampment, when downtown Oakland was engulfed in tear gas, and Iraq War veteran Scot Olsen was almost killed) could have conceivably enabled them to shut off the three entrances to the port, preventing demonstrators from getting anywhere near the terminal gates. Under orders from International union leaders, longshore workers might have been ushered in by displaying their TWIX cards (Homeland-Security issued “anti-terrorist” ID) to police.
That didn’t happen this time, and even if it had, longshore workers may have refused to go to work under police escort, which still would have resulted in a port shutdown. But it is naive to think that these sorts of scenarios can last without a workers’ class struggle in their own name.
U.S. imperialism’s terror at home has just begun
This is a country and a ruling class which is willing to break strikes, crack the heads of demonstrators, spread war and mayhem around the world at will, and shoot rebellious working people down in the streets anywhere and everywhere. It is a country in which Congress, with the support of both capitalist parties, has just adopted an indefinite detention law, which undoes hundreds-of-years of legal protections of individual rights. They did this without so much as a “by the way, we’re really gutting the Constitution this time!” And the liberal first Black president, in whom so many young people placed their faith a few years ago, has said he will not veto this law.
The Occupy movement, although it wisely resists co-optation (so far), shows considerable savvy most of the time, and displays a positive sense of purpose that defies definition; nevertheless it lacks the power to defeat the capitalist behemoth it faces. This understanding starts with a misunderstanding: it’s not really the 99 percent vs. the one percent. Would that it could be that easy to isolate the very top of the imperialist bourgeoisie, and set all the masses of people against them all at once. Many divisions within the 99 percent stand in the way, starting with the police. Dismayingly large numbers of occupiers have illusions that the police, the armed thugs of the ruling elite, are “part of the 99 percent.” What they don’t understand is that the basic division in society is not based on income.
Capitalist class vs. working class
The true confrontation is between the capitalist class, who own and control the means of production and distribution, and the working class, whose labor is exploited for profit by the capitalists. Ownership of wealth, of capital, is what defines the rulers, not income. And the gravediggers of the capitalist class? They are the ones who can stop the wheels of production by withdrawing their labor, organizing to overthrow the system, and replacing it with workers rule. And no, we are not getting ahead of ourselves here.
In between the bourgeoisie and the workers are layers of the petty-bourgeoisie, otherwise known as the “middle class.” The “middle class” is the “working class” only in the fantasy world of bourgeois media. Actually, the middle class—small employers, franchise owners, small farmers, shop-owners, academics and professionals—is a potent component of the 99 percent (based on income). But the middle class’ class interests can differ considerably from those of the working people, as shown by the Tea Party movement, in which numerous middle-class elements are organized and funded by key ruling-class individuals such as the Koch Brothers, in order to promote the interests of private property, and ultimately, of big capital.
Middle class elements can also support workers’ interests, but this depends on workers providing leadership; something which is sadly lacking in the U.S. labor movement. Defeated by a petty-bourgeois, bureaucratic “leadership” which accepts anti-labor laws, and supports the Democratic Party, most workers today are rendered voiceless and leaderless.
The future of the Occupy, and the future of the working class, depends on the workers
The survival of the Occupy movement depends on coming to grips with the real driving forces of capitalist society. The orientation of the Oakland Occupy to the working class is a very positive development. But the ability of the Occupy movement to shut ports on the West Coast two times in as many months is entirely based on the strength of the working class, and its ability to withdraw its labor. This can happen here in Oakland and on the West Coast, because of the progressive tradition of the ILWU, which supports community picket lines. Ultimately however, the workers themselves have to take the lead.
This could not be clearer than in the looming struggle against the Long View EGT’s attempt to break the longshore union. The EGT’s grain silos are full, and a ship is due in January, to load the grain for Asian markets. Will the ILWU leadership under McEllrath follow through on its promise to shut down the Coast when this ship arrives? A U.S.-wide coastal shutdown could result from this. Or, a colossal sell-out could be the outcome. Which will it be? Just as in 1934, when longshore workers defied a corrupt international leadership, and went on to lead working people to one of their greatest victories in U.S. history, rank and file longshore workers today face a choice: rely on guidance from their tops, or lead themselves to a new historic victory? The choice is theirs.
And as for the Occupy movement? It is wisely moving on—for the most part—from futile attempts to defend encampments in public places, to campaigns to take over abandoned spaces and put people back in their foreclosed (read stolen) homes. The occupies are also moving on issues, such as the closing of public schools, and incarceration of political prisoners such as Bradley Manning, Leonard Peltier, and Mumia Abu-Jamal. The direct actions of the Occupy movement are more radical in their general thrust than the demands that are formulated for them, such as “tax the rich,” which leads nowhere. We hope that the Occupy’s support for working-class struggles such as that of the longshore workers on the West Coast, will lead to a growing consciousness of the need for workers power.
—Oakland, December 23, 2011