Plugging the flow - Page 2

Occupy blocks ports spanning the West Coast
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About 1000 Occupy protestors marched to the Port of Oakland at 5:30 a.m., Dec. 12
PHOTO BY LUKE THOMAS/FOG CITY JOURNAL

Port terminal operator Stevedoring Services of America (SSA Marine) and its parent company's primary shareholder, Goldman Sachs, were also singled out in support of low-wage port truckers whose employment classification as independent contractors bars them from unionizing.

The third objective of the blockade, according to organizers, was to strike back against a series of police raids that dismantled Occupy encampments nationwide.

It wasn't the first time cargo ships traversing the Pacific would be stalled by a politically motivated coast-wide port blockade. In 2008, ILWU members coordinated a West Coast port shutdown in dissent of the Iraq War.

In 1984, longshoremen and anti-apartheid activists blocked South African cargo to boycott the apartheid regime, noted ILWU member Stan Woods. Similar shutdowns, carried out in response to politically explosive issues going back to 1934, have been led by community activists forming picket lines at port entrances to prevent dockworkers from beginning their shifts.

Occupy's call for a coordinated blockade brought an unprecedented twist to this historic trend, representing the first time a group unaffiliated with dockworkers had called for a shutdown spanning the entire West Coast. It left some seasoned organizers wondering anxiously how things would unfold, while others saw it as a gust of wind in the sails of the labor movement.

"One of the good things about the Occupy movement is that it's challenging leaders of progressive institutions," Woods said. "The old way ... isn't working. There's been a one-sided class war, and there has to be a two-sided class war."

Organizer Barucha Peller noted that the Occupy movement could be galvanizing for non-unionized workers, too. "Our movement is giving a framework for the 89 percent of workers who are not in unions," she said.

For occupiers up and down the West Coast, the port shutdown also seemed to present a kind of test as to whether their young movement could successfully "exert its collective muscle," as an OccupyOakland press statement put it, and effectuate a mass mobilization even after police raids flattened their encampments.

 

A ROUGH VOYAGE

In the weeks leading up to Dec. 12, even as Bay Area Occupy organizers plastered fliers about the blockade everywhere, met with union members, and organized outreach events to garner community support, they stumbled into challenges. Robert McEllrath, the president of the ILWU, publicly criticized the blockade plan, saying organizers had failed to reach out to union officials before unanimously approving the call to action.

"Any decisions made by groups outside of the union's democratic process do not hold water, regardless of the intent," McEllrath wrote. He seemed troubled that Occupy had attached itself to a union struggle without adequate communication, but an official endorsement of a third-party blockade by the ILWU would have landed the union in legal trouble.

"Whenever a group of people decide to march into a workplace in an effort to shut it without respecting the democratic decision-making process, it's not an ideal situation," ILWU spokesperson Craig Merrilees told the Guardian.

Some rank-and-file ILWU members saw things differently. "The rank and file do support the principles of the community, and Occupy," said Anthony Lavierge, an ILWU steward. "Longshoremen had a good response to [the Nov. 2 port blockade]. It was empowering to a lot of people that so many came out."

Another rank-and-file union member said, "the majority of ILWU workers are supportive of what's going on, definitely."

One rank-and-file ILWU member and self-described anarchist published a critique online raising concerns that OccupyOakland had failed to bring local union officials on board before approving the call to action.