Port terminals up and down the west coast were successfully shut down on December 12 – a major victory for both the Occupy Wall Street and labor movements.
The December 12 port shutdowns were organized to strike back against systematic police violence when police repressed and evicted occupations in city after city across the country, violating citizens’ constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly. The port shutdowns were also organized to demonstrate solidarity with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), who is waging an historic struggle against multinational grain exporter EGT, and also highly exploited port truck drivers in Long Beach, California and elsewhere who are fighting to win a union contract.
The west coast port blockade marked an extremely significant step forward for the Occupy movement. This coordinated disruption of international commerce significantly expanded upon the successful shutdown of the Port of Oakland six weeks before on November 2. By directly disrupting international trade and taking up common causes with the labor movement, the Occupy movement escalated its tactics from its initial approach of symbolic occupations of central squares to actively shutting corporations down and cutting into their profits.
The port actions overcame the opposition of a vast array of opponents—city politicians, the police, the corporate media, full page newspaper ads (which the Port of Oakland spent tens of thousands of dollars on) and even the ILWU’s national leaders. The ILWU officials discouraged the action supposedly because the Occupy movement called the action without consulting the ILWU beforehand.
Although Occupy organizers definitely should have made clear proposals for collaboration with ILWU leaders earlier, the Occupy movement and rank-and-file workers were correct to go forward with the action, which succeeded in substantially disrupting business at several ports, in spite of the determined opposition of the richest 1%.
This daring, successful action demonstrated a remarkable confidence and power on the part of the Occupy movement. The action was centered around Occupy Oakland, which has stepped into a national leadership role, providing a more working-class, racially diverse, and militant face for the Occupy movement. The ports shutdown also demonstrated the growth of anti-capitalist and even socialist politics in the U.S. Boots Riley, for example, the lead singer of the socialist hip-hop group The Coup, featured prominently in press conferences and interviews in the run-up to December 12.
Radical, socialist ideas and labor strikes are often dismissed as utopian and ineffective, but in this case they captured the imagination of thousands of workers and young people who succeeded in shutting down ports in Oakland, Portland, and Longview. Ports were also partially or temporarily shut down in LA, Long Beach, Hueneme, San Diego, Seattle, and Vancouver, B.C.
Solidarity blockades took place in Bellingham, Washington and at Wal-Mart distribution centers in Denver, Salt Lake City, and Albuquerque. Occupy Wall Street protesters stormed financial institutions in New York City. Solidarity protests also took place in Coos Bay, Tacoma, Anchorage, Houston, Hawaii, Canada — and even Japan!
This December 9 press conference shows one ILWU member, the third official speaker, giving a captivating speech about why many ILWU members participated in shutting down the ports. Many rank-and-file longshore workers helped organize and participate in the action which was called in solidarity with the ILWU in Longview, a small port town in southwest Washington which is waging one of the most militant labor struggles in years.
The ILWU has operated the Longview port since 1927, and now the multinational grain exporter EGT is attempting to break its legal contract with the powerful union by contracting the work out to a weaker, more conservative union, Operating Engineers Local 701, which is attempting to scab on the ILWU. ILWU members in Longview, Seattle, and Tacoma were arrested and pepper sprayed in the fall for defiant acts of civil disobedience, including unauthorized wildcat strikes, blocking trains, dumping grain on train tracks, and disabling train brakes.
Not only longshore workers participated in the December 12 ports shutdown, but also the Oakland Education Association (teachers' union) as well as many port truckers refused to load or unload trucks. In fact, port truckers and immigrant rights groups in Los Angeles were the ones who originally called for shutting down ports to protest SSA Marine, a shipping company partially owned by Goldman Sachs, for increasingly using independent contractors in their trucking operations to keep unions out. Many of these workers are extremely exploited immigrants, as they describe in their inspiring letter supporting shutting down the ports. Immigrant truckers had successfully shut the Port of Los Angeles down once before on May Day in 2006, the enormous national strike of immigrant workers, "The Day without an Immigrant.”
The largest protests on December 12 were in Oakland where 500 protesters set up a picket line at the port as early as 5:30 a.m. By 10 a.m. the ILWU asked a port arbitrator to determine whether the community picket represented a safety hazard. The union later sent home 150 of its 200 members, which generated enthusiastic celebrations among picketers. Marches later in the day attracted as many as 4,000 people that succeeded in shutting down the port’s second shift.
In Seattle, a protest of 500 people grew to over 1,000 who successfully blockaded Terminals 5 and 18, chanting “Shut down the west coast! Hit ’em where it hurts most!” Police responded by lobbing concussion grenades, firing pepper spray and tear gas, arresting peaceful protesters, and hitting at least one peaceful protester.
In Bellingham, Washington over 80 protesters blocked BNSF train tracks to show solidarity with west coast port blockade and to protest the proposed construction of North America’s largest coal export terminal just north of Bellingham. Twelve protesters were arrested, including Jordan Quinn from Socialist Alternative. Five protesters locked their necks together with bike locks in order to obstruct trains for a longer time before police finally succeeded in cutting the locks off.
Protesters were released from jail the next morning, but they will face charges of trespassing and obstructing an officer at a preliminary trial on February 13. Occupy activists are calling on the community to help organize a protest movement and pack the courthouse on February 13 to demand that both charges be dropped.
The December 12 port blockades helped translate slogans like "we are the 99%," which point generally toward the reality of class divisions in society, into a clearer sharper expression of class conflict. The ports shutdown shined a light on the source of the ruling class’s power — their ownership and control of corporations and capital. It also demonstrated the sources of the working class’s power — our ability to refuse to work, our numbers, our level of organization, our fighting spirit, and our ideas. In this sense, it’s very positive that the Occupy movement responded to the police repression by moving toward strike action and building links with the powerful unions and the working class.
The ILWU is among the most militant and democratic unions in the U.S. with a long and proud tradition of honoring community picket lines and shutting down the ports in support of left-wing political movements. The ILWU recently shut ports down in support of the Occupy movement on November 2, the anti-war and immigrant rights movements on May 1, 2008, the anti-WTO protests in 1999, the anti-Apartheid movement in 1977 and 1984, and many other times.
On December 6, 2011, however, the ILWU International Officers issued a public statement supporting the general goals of the Occupy movement but opposing the west coast port blockade. The corporate-owned media seized on this statement and repeated the ILWU leaders’ opposition to the action repeatedly the following week.
In reality, the ILWU leaders’ opposition to shutting down the ports had little to do with the Occupy movement’s lack of communication and much more to do with the traditional liberal politics of AFL-CIO labor federation leaders which do not fundamentally challenge capitalism and the richest 1%'s right to own corporations and rule over society. The ILWU International Officers may also feel threatened by the radical unauthorized wildcat strikes and civil disobedience that took place against EGT as well as by rank-and-file members who have been emboldened by the Occupy movement and are now pressing moderate union leaders to fight harder.
For example, in Longview, where ILWU local 21 has set a heroic example of how to wage a labor battle, the local President Dan Coffman publicly supported the ports shutdown, despite his ILWU superiors opposing the action. In a live telephone call to the Occupy Oakland port rally, he declared, "You are an inspiration to our members… you are the labor movement."
But the emergence of these sorts of militant actions shows why it is so crucial that the Occupy movement builds closer ties with rank-and-file workers, union opposition groups, and union leaders who are prepared to wage militant struggles.
Occupy activists were certainly hasty to call this action without first contacting more of the elected ILWU leaders. If occupiers had approached union officials early on about setting up a community picket and publicly appealed for ILWU support, this would have undermined any attempts by moderate union leaders to portray occupiers as failing to communicate.
The fact that the Occupy movement emerged independently from the labor movement in September 2011 is in reality the result of the failure of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win labor federations to make the labor movement attractive to young people who want to challenge corporate rule. If the AFL-CIO and Change to Win labor leaders had gotten out in front, harnessed the huge popular anger at the economic crisis and bank bailouts, and organized a mass movement of tens of millions of workers, then all the young people who are currently building the Occupy movement would be rallying behind the labor movement instead of building their own separate Occupy movement.
The unions have been weakened significantly since the 1980s, and if they continue to allow corporations to trample on them, more protest movements will emerge outside the structures of the official union movement. Despite their weakening, though, union are still currently the largest, most powerful working-class organizations we have to challenge the 1%. Unions have the ability to organize strikes, shut the economy down, get political candidates elected to office, and challenge the ruling class’s control over society. So it’s vital that occupiers as well as rank-and-file union activists learn how to effectively overcome the resistance of moderate AFL-CIO union leaders.
In this case, not only should occupiers have communicated with the unions’ established representatives to avoid being painted as having failed to communicate, but it would have helped if rank-and-file workers developed their own organized group inside the union that promoted involvement in actions like the ports shut down. A stronger organized mobilization by the rank-and-file workers would have placed even greater pressure on ILWU leaders from within the union itself to adopt a friendlier stance toward the action or else risk having their authority undermined by an active union opposition.
The successful shutting down of ports on December 12 has provided a boost to the confidence and influence of rank-and-file activists within the ILWU, other unions, and the left within the Occupy movement. The emerging alliance between Occupy and rank-and-file labor activists has set a positive precedent for future community-labor struggles and strikes. The controversy around December 12 exposed the conservative tendencies among the current AFL-CIO labor leaders, showing the need for union members to elect class-struggle orientated union leaders who will return to the fighting socialist traditions which made organized labor a mighty force.
Very soon, there will be another major battle for the ILWU. An EGT ship is expected to arrive in Longview, WA to ship grain to Asia any week now, and it will be escorted by the U.S. Coast Guard and police. When that ship arrives and tries to use non-ILWU labor, the ILWU will call on all unions to mobilize everyone they can to Longview to fight back. The Occupy movement, unions, and ordinary people everywhere must begin preparing now to mobilize a massive show of solidarity for this likely battle.
In preparation, it would send a powerful message to EGT and the ruling class if the Occupy movement, ILWU, Teamsters, and other allies started working together now to prepare to shut down the west coast ports once again. This would need to be organized more strategically and tactfully this time by discussing with labor leaders beforehand, organizing rank-and-file workplace and community mobilization committees, and appealing to union members to discuss and vote for the action.
December 12 was certainly a big step forward for both the Occupy and labor movements. But a better organized shut down of west coast ports — particularly when the EGT ship arrives to load grain bound for Asia — would send the capitalist elite an even stronger message about workers’ power.
“This System Has Got to Die, Hella Hella Occupy!”
Report from Oakland
By Ty Moore
On December 12, by 5:30 a.m., a 500-strong rally set out to picket the three main entrances to the Port of Oakland. Despite lines of cops in riot gear and helicopters flying overhead, all three main entrances to the port were effectively picketed in lively, confident demonstrations. One of the most popular chants was "This system has got to die! Hella, hella, occupy!"
We were mostly young people, but longshore workers and truckers joined in, honked horns, and raised fists in support. Lines of backed-up trucks sat idle, and eventually the riot police gave up and left the scene, evoking cheers. Shortly after, it was announced that the longshore workers’ shift had been officially canceled, evoking more cheers.
The afternoon rally in downtown Oakland was much larger. Around 2,000 heard 1960s civil rights leader Angela Davis speak, as well as Scott Olsen, the Iraq veteran recovering from Oakland Police shooting him in the head with a tear gas canister at an October Occupy protest.
Another march of at least 2,000 from West Oakland BART station arrived at the port shortly later. The march was transformed into a victory rally when word arrived that the evening shift on the port had also been canceled! Multiple sound trucks blasted music. Activists delivered radical speeches. Messages of labor solidarity and calls for multiracial unity were mixed with condemnations of capitalism and calls for changing the system and revolution. Protest signs mass produced by Occupy Oakland expressed clear statements of labor solidarity.
There was clearly a very radical, self-confident mood. The crowd was mostly youthful and very multiracial. People knew we were at the forefront of the national Occupy movement, creating a more militant tone with a more politically conscious leadership.
Report and Interview from Pitched Battles at the Port of Seattle
By Kerry Finnan
In Seattle, roughly 500 people—mostly Occupy supporters—departed from Westlake Center at 1 p.m. for the Port of Seattle, hoping to shut down Goldman Sachs owned Terminal 18. By the time the march arrived for the 3 p.m. rally/blockade, our numbers had grown to 1,000-strong.
The marchers were largely well received by truck drivers at the port, many of whom honked in solidarity and took Socialist Alternative’s leaflet calling for rank-and-file unionists to support the blockade and pressure their leadership to back future actions against the 1%. The mood was electric. Many had feared negative media coverage and condemnations from the ILWU’s conservative leadership would result in a march of only a few hundred. These concerns proved unfounded as boisterous chants rang out including a crowd favorite “Shut down the west coast! Hit’em where it hurts most!”
Protesters made good on this threat shortly after significant numbers reached the entrance to Terminal 18 and barricaded two lanes of the road with all manner of debris. A standoff with the police ensued. After a time, good news reached the protesters that the ILWU had called off the evening shift scheduled to work the terminal. About half the contingent marched off in triumph toward Terminal 5—the only other terminal scheduled for work that day—in hopes of shutting it down as well.
With the numbers back at Terminal 18 reduced to half their previous size, police began preparing to break the barricade. Officers moved in on horseback, driving the protestors back. They then formed a line while holding their bicycles at chest level and moved forward, viciously jabbing those who stood in the way. It wasn’t long before pepper spray, tear gas and flash-bang grenades were unleashed on the crowd, despite protesters’ overwhelmingly peaceful behavior. One officer even lunged on top of a fallen protestor and punched the person three to four times before returning to his position on the line of bicycles.
When the street was cleared at last, many peaceful protesters who had come to speak out against the devastating economic practices of the 1% retreated, bruised and breathless due to the actions of the police whose job ostensibly is to serve and protect the 99%. This blatant disregard for public safety in the act of protecting the private property of the 1% dissolved illusions regarding which class in society the police really serve.
During those minutes of chaos, Becky Zarkh, a member of Socialist Alternative’s Olympia branch, was arrested and later charged with assaulting an officer and obstruction. Below she answers several questions about her experiences:
Why did you feel it was important to participate in the west coast port blockade?
Becky: I felt it was important to encourage solidarity among all workers in contrast to the divisive message being put forward by the ILWU’s senior leadership.
Can you describe the series of events that led to your arrest?
Becky: I was directing traffic with another Socialist Alternative activist allowing port workers to leave the area after their shifts were over. Once the police began moving in to remove the barricade, I locked arms with an Occupy Seattle medic and other protestors. The mounted police were trying to move us over to the sidewalk. They accomplished this by having the horses swing their bodies into people throwing them back.
Suddenly a flash-bang grenade exploded near me which dispersed the crowd. I felt someone grab me by my hair and throw me to the ground. Next thing I knew, an officer handcuffed me while I lay on my stomach then jerked me upright while the rest of the police went about clearing the street of protestors.
When I asked the officer what I was being charged with, he responded that I had hit another officer, which I had not. The officer who claimed I had hit him then questioned me and forced me to take photos with him. I was then placed into the police vehicle, taken to a holding cell, and finally brought to the downtown Seattle Police station. At no point was I read my Miranda rights.
[End of Interview with Becky]
After the crowd was dispersed from Terminal 18, many headed to Terminal 5, joining forces with those trying to shut down the second point of commerce. This time the police stayed back as protestors linked arms in several rows, preventing anyone from using the terminal’s front gate.
Hours passed uneventfully until it was confirmed that the arbitrator whose job it was to decide whether ILWU workers could safely reach the work site canceled the last shift of the day. The protestors cheered jubilantly having won a complete victory—shutting down both port terminals used by the 1% to enrich themselves at the expense of the 99%. An impromptu General Assembly was called both to celebrate the day’s successes but also to discuss ways future actions could be improved.
A rank-and file ILWU member captured the spirit of the moment when he correctly pointed out that the labor and Occupy movements need to work together if either is to have any chance of breaking the 1%’s control over our economic and political structures.