Union shuts down West Coast ports to protest Iraq War, but the media misses the historic story
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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."
In fact, the banner leading the ILWU procession down the Embarcadero and into Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco read, "An injury to one is an injury to all." That theme of solidarity — among all workers, American and Iraqi, legal and illegal — was laced through all the speeches of the day.
Joining labor leaders on the podium were antiwar movement stalwarts such as Cindy Sheehan, who is running an independent campaign to unseat Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, now a target of the movement for continuing to fund the war.
"Nancy Pelosi wants to give George [W.] Bush more money [for the Iraq War] than he even asked for," Sheehan said, drawing a loud, sustained "boo!" from the crowd. At the afternoon rallies at Dolores Park and Civic Center Plaza, which focused on immigration issues, the war was also a big target, with signs such as "Stop the ICE raids, Stop the War," and "Si se puede, the workers struggle has no borders."
Even for protest-happy San Francisco, it was an unusually spirited May Day, with more than 1,000 people appearing at each of the four main rallies and two big marches. There were lots of smaller actions as well, including demonstrations at the ICE offices and Marine recruiting center, and activists from the Freedom From Oil Campaign disrupting a Commonwealth Club speech by General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner.
But it was the port shutdown that was unique. Annually the 29 West Coast ports process 368 million tons of goods, averaging more than 1 million tons a day moved by 15,000 registered ILWU workers and a number of other "casuals." Eight percent of that comes in and out of Oakland, but West Coast trade affects business throughout the country — as many as 8 million other workers come in contact with some aspect of that trade.
Mike Zampa, spokesperson for APL — the eighth-largest container shipping company in the world, with ports in Oakland, Los Angeles, and Seattle — told us, "Over a long period of time a shutdown like this does have an impact on the US economy."
More port shutdowns are possible, Heyman said. But he hopes the action inspires other workers and activists to increase the pressure for an end to the war.
"We are taking action to swing the pendulum back the other way," Heyman told us during the march. "We are stopping work to stop the war."