No peace, no work

Union shuts down West Coast ports to protest Iraq War, but the media misses the historic story

Workers, students, immigrants, and antiwar activists came together in historic fashion on May Day in San Francisco, but it was hard to tell from the next day's mainstream media coverage, which adopted its usual cynical view of the growing movement to end the war in Iraq.

Sure, there were articles in newspapers from the San Francisco Chronicle to the New York Times about how the International Longshore and Warehouse Union shut down all 29 West Coast ports for the day, with far more than 10,000 workers defying both their employers and the national union leadership to skip work.

But each article missed the main point: this was the first time in American history that such a massive job action was called to protest a war.

"In this country, dock workers have never stopped work to stop a war," Jack Heyman, the ILWU executive board member and Oakland Port worker who spearheaded the effort, told the Guardian.

The ILWU's "No Peace, No Work" campaign and simultaneous worker-led shutdowns of the Iraqi ports of Umm Qasr and Khor Al Zubair are part of a broader effort, called US Labor Against the War, that labor scholars agree is something new to the political landscape of this country.

Steven Pitts, labor policy specialist at UC Berkeley's Labor Center, told the Guardian the effort was significant: "It wasn't simply a little crew of San Francisco radicals. It has a breadth that has spread out across the country."

In fact, USLAW has about 200 union locals and affiliates with a detailed policy platform that calls for ending war funding, redirecting resources from the military to domestic needs, and boosting workers' rights — including those of immigrants, who staged an afternoon march in San Francisco following the ILWU's morning event.

Traditionally labor unions have been big supporters of US wars. But Pitts said the feelings of rank-and-file workers have always been more complex than the old "hard hats vs. hippies" stories from the Vietnam era might indicate.

Blue-collar workers have always been skeptical of war, Howard Zinn, a history professor and author of the seminal book A People's History of the United States (HarperCollins, 1980), told the Guardian.

"Working people were against the [Vietnam] War in greater percentages than professionals," Zinn told us, referring to polling data from the time. "There is always a tendency of organizations to be more conservative than their rank and file."

This time, union members and the public as a whole have more aggressively pushed their opposition to the Iraq War, winning antiwar resolutions among the biggest unions in the country and in hundreds of US cities and counties.

"I think it's a reflection of how far the nation as a whole has come in our anger at the continuation of this war," Zinn told us.

The media coverage of the May Day event belittled its significance, noting that missing one day of work had little practical impact to the economy or war machine, while playing up comments by spokespeople for the Pacific Maritime Association and National Retail Federation that the strike was insignificant and perhaps more aimed at upcoming contract talks than the war.

Heyman wasn't happy about that bias.

The strike "was totally for moral, political, and social reasons. It had nothing to do with the contract," Heyman told us.

A big factor for the ILWU was the newfound solidarity between dock workers in the United States and those in Iraq, who were prohibited from organizing in 1987 by the Baathist regime, an edict that the US has continued to enforce.

The Iraqi dock workers issued a May Day statement that detailed the horrors of their situation: "Five years of invasion, war, and occupation have brought nothing but death, destruction, misery, and suffering to our people."

Also from this author

  • Local Heroes

    Best of the Bay 2008

  • Whose Ethics?

    Reformers say the Ethics Commission needs to alter its focus and honor the city's important grassroots political culture

  • Death of fun, the sequel

    NIMBY assault! Crackdown on nightlife and outdoor events continues, even as the backlash gains strength