The San Francisco Chronicle's front-page headline “Governor to Oakland: 'Keep the port open' ” could have been gleaned from the newspaper's 1934 edition when Gov. Frank Merriam vowed to bring order to the city and break the maritime strike by deploying the National Guard. It was the height of the Great Depression and workers were desperate for jobs or to share the existing jobs on the waterfront. But the union stood fast. After a general strike to protest the police killing of two strikers, the seamen and longshoremen won the union hiring hall that shared the available work equitably.
Once again, the Bay Area is at the forefront of social protest. Twice police evicted Occupy Oakland using tear gas and “less lethal” munitions, and twice supporters of the Occupy movement responded. Thousands of Occupy protesters peacefully marched to the Port of Oakland, shutting it down in protest of the depredations of what they call the 1 percent. The protesters proclaimed their solidarity with the longshore union's struggle in Longview, Wash., and with port truckers. The business community cheered the evictions, but now its members are up in arms, complaining about shutdowns at the port, the funnel for much of their profits. It's obvious which side they're on.
The Oakland Port Commission tried to stop the Dec. 12 protest with full-page ads in the Oakland Tribune, the New York Times and The Chronicle, shedding crocodile tears about the port truckers and other port workers who would be unable to work. The commissioners pose as defenders of the “99 percent,” but in fact they stand in the way of the heavily exploited port truckers and port warehouse workers getting into a union with decent wages, benefits and conditions. Port workers recognize a sham when they see one and thus honored the picket lines.
Gov. Jerry Brown and Oakland City Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente also have joined the fray by chastising Mayor Jean Quan for not stopping the protests. Yet both were involved in similar port protests 14 years ago.
Brown, just launching his mayoral campaign, participated in a solidarity picket line in 1997 that shut down the Oakland terminal for four days in support of 500 sacked Liverpool, England, dockworkers. And De La Fuente led the thousand-strong union protest through downtown Oakland in 1998 to demand the charges be dropped against the port protesters.
Now they're singing a different tune.
This isn't the first time Brown has called to use police power in the port. As Oakland mayor in April 2003, he called in the riot police to quash a peaceful antiwar demonstration at the port. Scores of demonstrators (and several longshoremen) were badly injured by some of the same munitions recently used on Occupy Oakland. The U.N. Human Rights Commission condemned the police action as the “most violent” repression of protests against the war. It cost the city more than $2 million. Brown promised to appoint a “blue ribbon” commission to investigate, but it never materialized. Now he admonishes Quan for not following his example.
Businessmen, politicians and even union officials have expressed outrage about the “damage” done by port “disruptions.” Yet when maritime employers shut down all West Coast ports for two weeks in 2002 by locking out longshore workers in the midst of contract negotiations, you could hardly see any complaint in the media or from politicians about the employers' “disruption” of the port. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was lauded when she called on President George W. Bush to invoke the slave-labor Taft-Hartley Act, forcing longshoremen back to work under conditions favorable to the maritime companies. They knew which side they were on then, too.
And not only did ILWU protesters have the right to try to stop the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003, they were right that the war was based on the lie that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
A resolution proposed by De La Fuente, who is also an international vice president of the Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics and Allied Workers International Union, AFL-CIO, would ban port shutdowns or disruptions. It was turned down as speaker after speaker warned that this would only set off more clashes.
What will happen in 2014 when the longshore union contract expires? Will they have the right to strike and to shut down ports? And what about work stoppages over health and safety issues in one of the most dangerous industries?
A more ominous question arises now. The will of the ILWU is being tested by an international grain consortium, EGT in Longview, Wash. The company that built a new $200 million terminal has refused to abide by the port contract to hire ILWU longshore workers. If EGT is successful in breaking the contract, it will immediately affect every U.S. port. What will longshore workers do when a ship arrives to load the grain?
San Francisco longshore Local 10 is organizing a caravan of Bay Area workers and Occupy activists to travel to Longview to greet the ship upon its arrival in two weeks. If an agreement is not reached with EGT and angry longshore workers view this dispute as a threat to all their jobs, then it's possible for the first time that ports on the West, East and Gulf coasts may be shut down.
Which side are you on?