West Coast ports shut down for May Day

Todd Chretien and Adrienne Johnstone report from the Bay Area, where dockworkers shut down the port on May Day to protest the war.

ILWU Local 10 members on the march during a May Day work stoppage to protest the war (Todd Chretien | SW)ILWU Local 10 members on the march during a May Day work stoppage to protest the war (Todd Chretien | SW)

SAN FRANCISCO--Tens of thousands of West Coast dockworkers protested the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by refusing to work on May Day.

Despite threats from the bosses of the Pacific Maritime Association and a decision by an arbitrator that the union couldn't officially schedule its monthly stop-work meeting (which allows the union to call a meeting during a normal shift), rank-and-file workers didn't show up to work, paralyzing billions of dollars worth of cargo up and down the coast.

"Longshore workers are not slaves," International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 executive board member Clarence Thomas told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! "They can't make us work."

Dockworkers organized actions in almost 30 ports along the coast, from Washington to San Diego, and their protest coincided with demonstrations by tens of thousands of people around the country who marched and rallied on May 1, International Workers' Day, to support immigrant rights.

The ILWU action had solidarity from around the world, including in Iraq itself--dockworkers shut down the crucial port of Basra for several hours in support of the West Coast work stoppage. On the other side of the U.S., in New Jersey, port truckers protested. In Britain, a member of parliament introduced a resolution of support for the ILWU.

"It's really important that the ILWU is showing solidarity with all the working people. Workers all over the world know about this," said Allen Bradley, who spoke at the march on behalf of himself and other members of the Freightliner Five, UAW members from Cleveland, N.C., who were unjustly fired from their jobs at their truck plant. "The ILWU stood up today, and I'm glad about it."

The ILWU action got support from local port truckers as well as antiwar activists. According to Robert Irminger, vice chair of the Inland Boatman's Union for the San Francisco Region, "This morning, about 50 of us went down to the docks with Direct Action to Stop the War and picketed the Union Pacific rail yard. We blocked two gates, and the rail workers held up work for about two hours."

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ILWU MEMBERS have participated in antiwar protests before, but this was the first large-scale work action by them or any group of union workers in opposition to the war in Iraq. As ILWU Local 34 President Richard Cavalli told a crowd of nearly 1,000 workers and antiwar activists, "George Bush's daughters get married in the White House, and our sons and daughters get buried in Iraq."

The ILWU, a multiracial union with a high percentage of Black workers, has long been the target of right-wing politicians and corporations bent on breaking the power of organized labor on the docks, a chokepoint for the globalized economy.

Recently, the Department of Homeland Security tried to impose new background checks that threaten the jobs of many workers, justifying these moves with rhetoric about fighting the "war on terror." But ILWU members also made a connection between these attacks and the war.

As ILWU Local 10 business agent Trent Willis told the rally, "It doesn't matter if you're a dockworker, a school teacher or a garbage worker--an injury to one is an injury to all. The people who are going to end this war are working people."

The work stoppage was the first of several May Day activities in the Bay Area making the link between workers rights and immigrant rights. Local marches took place later in the day in Oakland, San Francisco, Santa Rosa, San Jose and Santa Cruz.

Antiwar activist and independent congressional candidate Cindy Sheehan, who is challenging Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in November, made the connection, as well. "We have to hurt them in the pocketbooks," Sheehan said, "because they'll never be hurt like my family was, like Iraqi families, like families that have to come across the border."