Occupy Movement Aligns with Unions and the Rank-and-File
From Bail Out the People Movement
Battle lines have formed as the West Coast Occupy movements, from San Diego to Alaska, flex their collective muscle against the federally coordinated, brutal attacks targeting the Occupy movements across the country. They are organizing for blockades of West Coast ports on Dec. 12 in San Diego; Los Angeles/Long Beach; Port Hueneme, CA (central coast); Oakland; Portland, OR; Seattle; Tacoma, WA; and possibly more. Solidarity actions have been called by OWS in New York and by Occupy movements at inland locations, as well.
The Occupy movement is aligning itself with labor and the working class, as the West Coast Occupy movements organize to support the struggle of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, ILWU, in Longview, Wash. Longshore workers there are waging a ferocious battle against transnational EGT, controlled by Bunge Ltd., of the grain cartel that controls most of the world’s trade in food products. EGT is trying to break the ILWU in an attempt to drive down wages and destroy the union.
The West Coast Occupy movements are also aligning with the struggle of port truckers, who are fighting for the right to organize for union representation. Twenty-six of them were fired in Los Angeles for wearing Teamster jackets to work. Occupy LA and Long Beach are targeting SSA, an anti-union port terminal operator, majority owned by Goldman Sachs, the notorious Wall Street investment bank. Teamster president, Jimmy Hoffa Jr., has publicly expressed support for the Occupy movement.
The West Coast Occupy movements are targeting the ports as major commercial centers, showing that they can strike at the institutions which help to aggregate the wealth of the 1 percent by disrupting Wall Street on the waterfront. It’s the history of the militant ILWU which enables this attack to have teeth. The ILWU rank and file have historically supported political struggles such as the anti-apartheid movement, the anti-war movement, in defense of Palestine in the face of attacks on Gaza, in support of the Wisconsin struggle against union busting, etc.
At a December 9th Press Conference regarding the West Coast Port Blockade, rank-and-file workers from the ILWU and Teamsters, local union leaders, veterans, and occupy organizers explained plans for the upcoming West Coast Port Shut Down on December 12 called for by the Occupy Oakland General Assembly:
“Occupy Oakland called for this massive coordinated blockade as a way to strike back at the 1% after their attacks on the Occupy movement and their continued assault on working and poor people” said Boots Riley an organizer with Occupy Oakland. “Our action is aimed directly at Wall Street on the Waterfront and is in solidarity with the struggles of port workers in LA and Longview, WA.”
ILWU veterans say: “We don’t cross community picket lines!”
As pressure builds for the Dec. 12 West Coast port shutdown, the port owners and their media began a battle of ideas to blunt this powerful threat to their profits and control – even for a day. The Port of Oakland launched the first volley of their assault on Dec. 4, with full-page ads in the San Francisco Chronicle and Oakland Tribune against the planned Occupy port blockade. They know all too well how powerful this movement has become, evidenced by the historic general strike call and blockade of the Port of Oakland on Nov. 2, when the Occupy movement, with the support of the ILWU rank and file and port truckers, shut down the entire port.
On Nov. 21, the leadership of the ILWU International issued a memorandum in an attempt to dissuade ILWU members from showing solidarity with the December 12th action. The memo stated that “Any public demonstration is not a ‘picketline’ under the PCL&CA [Pacific Coast Longshore & Clerk’s Agreement]. … Remember, public demonstrations are public demonstrations, not ‘picketlines.’ Only labor unions picket as referenced in the contract.”
Two ILWU members — Clarence Thomas, who is a third-generation longshoreman in Oakland, and Leo Robinson, who is now retired — responded to this memorandum. Both men have held elected office in ILWU Local 10 and have been key labor activists during their years of work in the ports. Their remarks, which clarify the relationship between longshoreman and public demonstrations, are excerpted here.
Clarence Thomas: A picket line is a public demonstration — whether called by organized labor or not. It is legitimate. There are established protocols in these situations. To suggest to longshoremen that they shouldn’t follow them demands clarification. It is one thing to state for the record that the union is not involved, but another thing to erase the historical memory of ILWU’s traditions and practices included in the Ten Guiding Principles of the ILWU adopted at the 1953 biennial convention in San Francisco.
Leo Robinson: The international has taken the position somehow that the contract is more important than not only defending our interest in terms of this EGT but having a connection to the Occupy movement in that when you go through the Ten Guiding Principles of the ILWU, we’re talking about labor unity. Does that include the teachers? Does that include state, county and municipal workers? Those questions need to be analyzed as to who supports whom. The Occupy movement is not separate and apart from the labor movement.
Clarence Thomas: Labor is now officially part of the Occupy movement. That has happened. The recent article done by Steven Greenhouse on Nov. 9 is called “Standing arm in arm.”
The Teamsters have been supported by the OWS against Sotheby’s auction house. OWS has been supportive of Communication Workers in its struggle with Verizon. Mary Kay Henry, International President of the Service Employees, has called for expanding the Occupy movement by taking workers to Washington, D.C., to occupy Washington particularly Congress and congressional hearings demanding 15 million jobs by Jan. 1.
Leo Robinson: There was the occupation in Madison, Wis. That was labor-led. People are trying to confuse the issue by saying we are somehow separated from the Occupy movement. More than anything else the Occupy movement is a direct challenge or raises the question of the rights of capital as opposed to the rights of the worker. I don’t understand that the contract supersedes the just demands of the labor movement. It says so right here in the 10 guiding principles of the ILWU.
Article 4 is very clear, very clear. “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 the 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.” It says picket line. It doesn’t say union picket line. It says picket line.
Clarence Thomas: Only 7.2 percent of private sector workers have union representation today, the lowest since 1900. Facing a critical moment, the labor movement has been re-energized by the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Leo Robinson: Any number of times this union [Local 10] has observed picket lines, including Easter Sunday 1977 when the community put up a picket line at Pier 27 to picket South African cargo. Longshoremen observed that picket line for two days. So I don’t understand how all of a sudden the sanctity of the contract outweighs the need to demonstrate solidarity. It just does not compute. It doesn’t make sense.
Clarence Thomas: The first action against South African apartheid was a community picket line. It was not authorized by the union. It was a community picket line from start to finish.
Leo Robinson: It was about 5,000 people out there on the Embarcadero for two days running a community picket line opposing South African apartheid. Local 10 officers took the position that it was an unsafe situation and our members were not going to cross that picket line, period. It was ruled as such by the arbitrator.
We have never waited for the employer to declare what is safe or unsafe. It is always the union that moves first. We don’t ask the employers what is safe or unsafe. They wouldn’t give a damn one way or the other as long as they got their ship worked. If the police have to escort you in or out, that is patently saying it is unsafe. What if someone decides to throw a rock while you’re being escorted in by the police? Does it make it hurt any less? A longshoreman determines what is safe for him or her — on the job and off.
Clarence Thomas: Our members have been hurt by the police and so has the OWS movement. In 2003 when we were standing by at a picket, police shot our members with wooden bullets. In Longview, WA, at the EGT Grain Terminal, ILWU members and their families have been hurt by the police. We don’t want the police to do anything for us.
Solidarity of Labor Above All Else
Clarence Thomas: Our union is at an historical juncture. Our jurisdiction is being challenged up and down the coast — the issue of logs and Local 10 and use of “robotics.” There has been nothing like this since 1934. If ILWU members don’t honor the community picket lines, it will cause an irreparable breach with the community. If the ILWU can’t support the community, why should the community support the ILWU in 2014 contract negotiations or when the new grain agreement is up next year? Who knows what the employer has up their sleeve when they demanded only a one-year contract.
Clarence Thomas: These ports are the people’s ports. Ports belong to the people of the Pacific Coast. The money came from the taxpayers in California, Oregon and Washington. EGT was subsidized by the Port of Longview. So the people have the right to go down there and protest how their tax dollars have been ripped off.
Fifty-one percent of Stevedoring Services of America is owned by Goldman Sachs. EGT is a multinational conglomerate trying to control the distribution of food products around the world. The face of Wall Street is in the ports.
The ILWU is not some special interest group. We are a rank-and-file militant, democratic union that has a long history of being in the vanguard of the social justice and labor movement.
We don’t cross community picket lines. When people begin to do so they have completely turned their backs on the ILWU’s 10 guiding principles. Is it coincidental that Harry Bridges &rsqou; name has not been asserted in relation to the OWS movement and the history of militancy? Is it an accident? How can we not talk about Harry Bridges? That is how we got what we want.
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