Union leadership critical of Occupy plan to shut ports


But the calls for shutting down ports comes without the support of leadership from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, who have said that while they support the broader goals of the Occupy movement, they are not supportive of unilateral calls by third parties to shut down ports.

A port shutdown was proposed by Occupy Oakland and Los Angeles groups mid-November. Calls for action throughout the West Coast brought support from other Occupy movements in the following days and weeks.

Occupy Oakland organizers have said the action is partly intended to show solidarity with an ongoing labor dispute between ILWU members and grain exporter EGT in Longview, Wash.

But in a letter to local chapters Wednesday, ILWU International President Robert McEllrath clarified that the union had not voted to support the actions, and accused Occupy groups of trying to co-opt their struggle to advance their own agenda.

"Support is one thing, 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," McEllrath's letter stated.

But McEllrath remained supportive of the broader goals of the Occupy movement -- including corporate influence on democracy, the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, and the failure of accountability for the financial crisis.

"While there can be no doubt that the ILWU shares the Occupy movement's concerns about the future of the middle class and corporate abuses, we must be clear that our struggle against EGT is just that -- our struggle," he said.

Port of Oakland officials pleaded with Occupy members not to shut down the port in an open letter to the community published as a full-page ad in several newspapers Sunday.

"Shutting down the Port of Oakland is a bad idea. Another shutdown will only make things worse -- diverting cargo, tax revenue and jobs to other communities. It will hurt working people and harm our community," the letter stated.

The Port's letter also stated that it is still feeling the impact of the Nov. 2 action, where thousands marched from downtown Oakland to the Port, shutting down operations overnight. The Port said that not only did the action cause lost profits, but lost wages for Port workers as well.

ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees confirmed that no Port workers who missed shifts on Nov. 2 were paid. Merrilees said that whether or not Port workers would be paid depends on negotiations between the employers and the union.

"Typically this involves a dispute between the employers and the union over what's going to happen in a situation like this. Naturally the company doesn't want to pay and the union would like the pay and sometimes this requires adjudication and arbitration, and often there are appeals," he said.

But the Nov. 2 action did have some support among union members, as 10 percent of Port workers scheduled to work that day individually elected to stay home from work, Merillees said.

During that evening's march to the Port, among the thousands marching were contingents from several local unions including the Oakland Education Association, the Service Employees International Union, and the ILWU.

Merillees also pointed out that most of the truck drivers at the Port do not belong to a union, and are paid by the container, not by the hour. He said that those workers would not be paid for the lost time regardless, and have no recourse.

The plight of those truck drivers was scheduled to be one of the issues covered at a teach-in at 6 p.m. Thursday at Bay Area Christian Connection Church at 810 Clay St. in Oakland to discuss turning the Port of Oakland into a "People's Port."

Port workers, community members and faith leaders were expected to discuss how an upcoming major expansion of the Port into the old Oakland Army Base could be an opportunity to place an emphasis on "people over profits," small businesses, and environmental regulations.

Organizer Nikki Bas from the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy said that helping Port truck drivers who she says are miscategorized as independent contractors is one of two key campaigns her organization is working on.

She said that because of their status as independent contractors, the drivers do not have the benefits of sick leave, access to health care, workers compensation and unemployment insurance that their unionized peers enjoy.

Furthermore, the drivers are responsible for maintaining their own trucks and purchasing fuel, and that after these expenses, many will work 60 or more hours a week but take home as little as $25,000 per year.

She said that while her group is not organizing for Monday's Port action, they are seeking to capitalize on the increased attention on the Port to bring attention to their own organizing efforts.

"What's positive about this is people are starting to look a little bit more about what are the companies causing inequity in our society and particularly at the Port," Bas said.

Meanwhile, Occupy Oakland is planning a wave of outreach this weekend, including a planned outreach event for Saturday at DeFremery Park in West Oakland, not far from the Port. Protesters are planning to go door-to-door in the neighborhood to raise support for the Port shutdown, followed by a 1 p.m. cookout at the park.

For the Port shutdown, Oakland protesters are planning to gather early Monday morning, meeting at 5:30 a.m. at the West Oakland BART station for the first march to the Port of Oakland.

Two afternoon marches are also planned. Protesters will rally at Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland at 3 p.m. and march to the Port an hour later. Another group will meet at the West Oakland BART station again at 5 p.m. for a third march.

Other port shutdowns are being planned all over the West Coast, including Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland, Tacoma, Seattle and Vancouver.

The calls for action have even grown beyond the West Coast, as protesters in Houston plan to shut down the port there, and Occupy protesters in landlocked cities such as Denver and Salt Lake City are planning to disrupt Walmart distribution centers.

While the ILWU may not officially endorse the port shutdowns, union leadership has been careful to maintain that they do support the broader goals of the Occupy movement.

"We remain supportive of the general thrust of the Occupy movement which is to promote greater economic equality and social justice in this country. It's a new movement and there will be plenty of opportunities down the line to work on other strategies and actics to achieve that," Merillees said.

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