ILWU attitudes toward port blockade aren't so simple

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The Chronicle's Andrew Ross describes Occupy organizers as "brilliant" in a sarcastic tone for vowing to move ahead with the Dec. 12 West Coast port blockade, despite public statements from the longshore union's president criticizing the plan. But Ross' article misses the mark, and seems to ignore alliances that have been forged between various sectors of labor and the Occupy movement in recent months.

"Trouble is, the folks they purport to be in solidarity with don't seem hot on the idea to 'effectively shutdown the hubs of commerce' at all," Ross writes. The Chronicle's narrative is clear: Here you have some everyday working people trying to do their jobs, make ends meet, and put food on the table. They don't want to see business as usual disrupted by a bunch of out-of-touch radicals who claim to speak for them.

But in reality, workers' attitudes toward the port shutdown are far more nuanced. After all, longshore and warehouse workers are feeling the pinch as advances in technology reduce the number of jobs to be filled along waterfront shipping facilities, and many truck drivers who haul cargo to and from West Coast ports are barely able to make ends meet since they're employed as independent contractors and paid low hourly wages without union representation.

The president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), Robert McEllrath, issued a statement Dec. 6 in which he criticized the plan for a west coast port blockade, which occupiers in Oakland, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, and Anchorage have all vowed to participate in on Dec. 12.

The official aim of the Occupy port shutdown is to demonstrate solidarity with longshore workers engaged in a labor dispute against EGT in Longview, Wash., and to stand with port truckers in Los Angeles whose attempts to unionize have been thwarted. The action is also meant as payback for raids against Occupy encampments in Portland, Oakland, Los Angeles, and other major cities, which were carried out in the wake of coordinated teleconferences between metropolitan mayors and a powerful organization of former police chiefs engaged in shaping law enforcement practices.

"Support is one thing," wrote McEllrath, the ILWU president. "Organization from outside groups attempting to co-opt our struggle in order to advance a broader agenda is quite another and one that is destructive to our democratic process and jeopardizes our over two year struggle in Longview."

ILWU spokesperson Craig Merrilees echoed McEllrath's statement, telling the Guardian, "The Occupy Oakland group failed to respect the ILWU's democratic decision-making structure. It's unfortunate -- it could've been handled differently."

Dan Coffman, president of ILWU Local 21 in Longview, Washington, had just gotten out of a court hearing with grain terminal operator EGT when the Guardian caught up with him by phone. His union has been locked in an ongoing struggle against EGT, stemming from the multinational corporation's attempts hire non-union workers and erode standard worker benefits such as overtime pay at a new grain terminal built on Port of Longview property.

"The ILWU has no involvement in [the port blockade] whatsoever," Coffman explained. "We are not organizing this, and we are not promoting it."

Yet he emphasized that, speaking as individual, "I'm a 99 percenter. Things have got to change. We've got to get some sanity back in this country. It's obscene what they're doing to working people and poor people in this country."

Some rank and file members of ILWU said they agreed with the principles of the Occupy movement.

"Longshoremen had a good response to the [Nov. 2 general strike and port blockade]," Anthony, a longshoreman who's worked at the Port of Oakland for more than a decade, told the Guardian in a phone interview. "It was empowering to a lot of people that so many people came out." He added, "The rank and file do support the principles of the community and Occupy."

The Port of Oakland ran full-page ads in major newspapers last week condemning plans for a port blockade, yet incorporating a key phrase of the Occupy movement into its message. "Port of Oakland is where the 99% work," the ad proclaimed. "Occupy groups have called for a 'total west coast ports shutdown' on December 12th. Port of Oakland maritime operations were partially shut down on November 2nd. What did that accomplish? Lost work hours, lost shifts, and lost wages for workers and their families."

Asked about the ad, Anthony called it "a lot of propaganda."

Tremaine Waters, another longshoreman at the Port of Oakland, told the Guardian, "The majority of ILWU workers are supportive of what's going on. They understand the situation occurring in America right now." He added that if community members organize a picket line on Dec. 12, "I would say, yes, the ILWU members will respect it."

Clarence Thomas, a third generation Oakland longshoreman, discussed the planned port shutdown in an interview with Worker's World. Thomas emphasized that ILWU traditions and practices dictate that union members do not cross community picket lines.

"A picket line is a public demonstration — whether called by organized labor or not," Thomas said in the interview. "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," Thomas said. He added, "Labor is now officially part of the Occupy movement. That has happened."