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Workers shut down Port of Oakland

By Terri Kay

December 2, 2012

‘We are determined to get a fair contract’

Oakland, Calif. — “Picket line means don’t cross,” chanted striking Service Employees Local 1021 workers and their community supporters as they picketed all seven terminals at the Port of Oakland on Nov. 20. The workers had walked out in an unfair-labor-practices dispute with the port.

After 16 months of negotiations, over 220 SEIU electricians, clerical workers, security personnel and janitors decided they’d had enough and demanded that the port commissioners bargain with them in good faith. The port was pushing a concessionary contract.

Millie Cleveland, SEIU 1021 port field staff, says, “SEIU workers refuse to go backwards, no takeaways. The workers want to remain above water and keep up with inflation. Once again workers had to withhold their labor to get the employers to understand how determined we are to get a fair contract.”

She talked about how “the strike was significant in that, with the support of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, they were able to shut down all seven terminals.”

The workers’ picket lines were fortified by community supporters, including sizable numbers from Occupy Oakland. Other community supporters included the Justice for Alan Blueford Coalition, Occupy San Francisco and the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee. These extra numbers were significant. The picket lines had to be substantial in order to have the arbitrators declare a health and safety risk, which then allowed the ILWU workers to get paid, despite not crossing picket lines and not working.

It’s important to note that SEIU 1021 had just endorsed a resolution by the Justice for Alan Blueford Coalition demanding that Oakland police officer Miguel Masso be fired and tried for the murder of Blueford, a Black youth killed last May. The Blueford Coalition, including Adam Blueford, father of the slain 18-year-old, was on the picket lines in solidarity and reciprocation. That is what solidarity looks like.

The strike also covered the Oakland airport, but picketers did not attempt to shut down passenger travel.

The walkout was planned to last 24 hours, shutting down the afternoon shift as well. However, when the port commissioners saw the solidarity between the SEIU, ILWU and the community, they got Oakland Mayor Jean Quan to step in and restart negotiations. After returning to negotiations on Nov. 23, SEIU staff member Cleveland said they are “attempting to bargain and addressing some concepts, but are still far apart, returning to negotiations Monday.” She pointed out that the strike committee “continues to meet.”

Why picket lines must be respected

This writer asked Clarence Thomas, ILWU Local 10, about why the longshore workers risked a day’s pay by not crossing the SEIU picket lines. He told this reporter that Local 10, Local 34 and Local 91, representing longshore workers, clerks and walking bosses, respectively, all refused to cross the lines. Thomas explained the ILWU’s strong history of not crossing picket lines. In recent years that included a community picket to protest the killing of people bringing humanitarian supplies to Gaza and Occupy Oakland’s two port shutdowns in 2011.

Thomas explained that the ILWU is “one of the most democratic and militant organizations, which understands the importance of class unity. … We were keenly aware of the situation with SEIU and their being without a contract. The strike was their decision. We don’t allow the sanctity of the contract to be used as a subterfuge to undermine worker unity.”

Thomas quoted from the ILWU’s Ten Guiding Principles. He said that item four, “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 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. Every picket line must be respected as if it were our own.”

Thomas went on to say: “What’s missing today is that kind of labor solidarity. The interests that the port represents are those of the shipping companies, its customers, stevedoring companies and capital, not the workers, in my opinion. What’s not talked about is the impact of the SEIU Local 1021 strike on the shipping companies, Walmart, and other global retailers, as opposed to the focus on independent truckers losing a day’s pay.”

He then quoted from Frederick Douglass: “There is no progress without struggle.”

Thomas summed up: “The ILWU has a living history. We are teaching our younger members how to contribute to that rich historical legacy by learning the lessons for working-class unity.”

Pending grain lockout or strike

A major grain contract with ILWU workers in the Pacific Northwest is set to expire on Nov. 28 after months of negotiations. The employers are demanding a highly concessionary agreement, like the one forced on ILWU workers in Longview, Wash., last January. “The companies that operate the NW Pacific grain terminals,” said Thomas, “have presented their ‘last, best, and final offer.’” It is one that ILWU workers will be very reluctant to accept.

ILWU Local 8 members in Portland are already organizing for picket duty. Portland and Seattle Occupy activists are preparing to support the workers if the ILWU strikes or is locked out. How this struggle will play out will be significant for longshore and other workers, given the militant history of the ILWU and the extreme concessions being demanded by the grain companies.

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UPDATED Dec 4, 2012 8:56 AM
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