Union members voice support for Occupy protesters in shutting down West Coast ports
Demonstrators protested at West Coast ports this month, culminating in a Monday shut down. Credit: Lily Rothrock
Union members voice support for Occupy protesters in shutting down West Coast ports

OAKLAND, CA- Thousands of Occupy protesters shutdown several West Coast ports in a coordinated action Monday. Supporting union struggles, the demonstrators used the action to pressure multinational corporations.

 “I’m here to defend the Longview workers against EGT and to hit them where it hurts, so they know we mean business,” said Wicapiluta, an Ohlone activist native to the Bay Area who held a sign that read “Decolonize the Bay.”

International Longshore Workers Union members have been in long conflict with the Export Grain Terminal in Longview, Wash., frustrated the company operates the port with non-union workers.  

Union members have waged strikes and protests and blocked rail lines in order to pressure EGT to hire union workers.  At Monday’s action, many protestors held signs that read “Defend Longview Workers Against EGT.”

Work was halted at the ports of Longview, Portland and Oakland for most of the day.  In Oakland, pickets and demonstrations lasted nearly 24 hours.  Smaller demonstrations were staged the same day in other cities, including Houston and Seattle where protesters faced teargas and concussion grenades.

In Oakland, hundreds of demonstrators gathered before dawn to march to the ports where they formed picket lines at multiple entrances.  By 10 a.m., an arbitrator with the ILWU determined it was a health and safety risk for workers to enter. The union called off work Monday.

“When police are present, there is a potential for violence.  If police have to escort workers across the picket line, that is a safety concern,” said Walter Riley, a lawyer with the National Lawyers’ Guild who was acting as a legal observer for the protests.  ILWU members won’t cross a community picket line and are known around the world as “a group you can count on for solidarity,” he said.

Responses to the “West Coast Port Shutdown” were varied.   Prior to the protests, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan released a statement questioning the purpose of the shutdown and citing the 99 percent as the real victim of the actions.

“The Occupy Movement has raised important issues to which the country - especially Oakland - can relate.  How does shutting down the port and causing thousands of workers to lose pay create positive change?”  Quan wrote in an open letter asking Occupy to leave the ports open.  

Union leadership echoed Quan’s sentiment, but rank–and-file union members had a different perspective.

“We totally support it.  I was excited when I saw the rally itself, the people itself. It’s way overdue, and I hope they keep it up,” said DeAndre Whitten, a union member and longshoreman of 12 years, who said he felt fine missing $500 in pay Monday.

“Frankly, I’m all for it, because this is a beginning of an uproar in the U.S.,” said Will Taylor, another ILWU member who has been working the ports since 1967. He missed two shifts because of the protest. He also hoped that the actions would grow support for ILWU in general.

“Right now when we go on strike, nobody backs us,” he said

While the longshoremen put out of work were able to go home, lines of truckers waiting to pick up shipping containers didn’t have anything to do but wait.

“I can agree with the idea of ‘down with the corporations’ but I don’t call this a win.  From my side, I lose,” said Ron Coleman, an independent truck driver who lives in Reno, Nev. 

Port truckers are paid by the load and do not receive paid compensation when they can’t pick up their cargo.

Despite many truckers being upset about losing a day of pay, an open letter published by truckers from five different ports acknowledged that the shutdown would hurt them, but expressed a collective frustration with corporations and a drive to unionize.

“We believe in the power and potential behind a truly united 99 percent. We admire the strength and perseverance of the longshoremen. We are fighting like mad to overcome our exploitation.” In the statement the truckers vowed to organize a union.

As picketers in Oakland celebrated, reports started to roll in about police repression in other cities.  Chants such as “They shoot us down, we shut it down,” rang out alongside other slogans declaring support for workers and unity against banks.

 “I would like to see a total end to the system of buying and selling things. I think this is an important step in that direction,” said Unruh Lee, an Oakland resident for 13 years.

Thousands of Occupy Oakland members returned to the port to shut down the 6 p.m. shift.   Arriving just before dark, demonstrators learned that the bosses had decided to keep the longshoremen home, anticipating another picket.

A mobile sound system kept spirits up in between speeches and hip-hop and spoken word performances encouraged the crowd to take direct action against capitalism.

“Don’t just rage against the machine- scream, fight, and stop the machine,” a poet recited to loud cheers.   Another duo sang a song entitled, “I am Oscar Grant,” referencing a young black man who was killed by a transit cop and became a widely known symbol for communities- especially communities of color- who experience police violence.

At 7 p.m., a General Assembly was called to address the next step and how to respond to police violence in other cities.   An Occupy Oakland GA had reached consensus days earlier to shut down one more shift of the ports if other cities experienced violence.

“If you’ve ever been arrested or tear gassed, then you know the importance of solidarity,” said one speaker, using the call-and-response “people’s mic” to communicate with about 1000 people.

Although police in riot gear formed a line to block picketers from entering the terminals at the earlier protest, by the two later demonstrations they had receded from protesters’ view. 

Picket lines resumed just after 1 a.m. Tuesday, blocking four terminal entrances with about 75 to 100 people each.   The mood was more somber than the previous day, with little to no chanting but some people playing musical instruments to maintain energy.   Although exhausted, people’s spirits were high.

Shortly after 3 a.m., union bosses announced that the workers were being sent home once more.

“I’m really happy.  The crowd was really celebratory and focused, and to see this many people out at this time of night was a really great show of solidarity,” said street medic Loki Lyre. 

Reports estimate the blockades cost millions of dollars in losses.

The original title of this article has been changed from "Unions join occupy protestors shutting down West Coast ports" to "Union members voice support for Occupy protesters in shutting down West Coast ports."

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leila peachtree is a reporter for The Precarious.

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