Why we called for a port shutdown

December 7, 2011

Scott Johnson, an Oakland activist and supporter of Occupy Oakland and the December 12 West Coast Port Shutdown, debunks the claim that the movement is trying to impose an action on unwilling longshore workers. His views, expressed in an article for the Occupied Oakland Tribune, are his own, and not those of the Occupy Oakland General Assembly.

ON DECEMBER 5, Cal Winslow wrote a lengthy article for CounterPunch.org criticizing Occupy Oakland and the call for a December 12 West Coast Port Shutdown.

While he is clearly interested in building mass labor action and is a supporter of the Occupy movement, his critique is wrong-headed and littered with factual errors. He appears to be quite well-informed about the European labor movement, and yet is at a loss for accurate details regarding actions organized just miles away from his workplace at UC Berkeley.

To begin with, the December 12 action was not called as a "general strike" by Occupy Oakland, as Winslow insists. Had he taken the time to realize this, he may have saved a substantial amount of time in criticizing it as such. Additionally, the march that left Scott Olsen seriously injured occurred on October 25, not September 27.

After misunderstanding these details, he continues by criticizing the November 2 action, which was called as a general strike. "[I]t is well-known," writes Winslow, "at least within the labor movement, that, routinely, from the fringe, the demand for a general strike is raised--whatever the circumstances. It's almost always a one-size-fits-all rallying cry. "

Tens of thousands on the march during Oakland's day of action November 2
Tens of thousands on the march during Oakland's day of action November 2

I initially approached the call for a general strike on November 2 with the same skepticism, but the success of the event itself won me over. Academics will debate for years whether the Oakland General Strike was "real" or not, but it is clear that the action was the most successful event in the Occupy movement thus far. Only a pedantic nit-picker could be so concerned about whether slapping the "general strike" terminology onto the action was appropriate at this point.

Winslow continues to criticize the action, insisting that, "truth be told I've heard of not a single case of a worker striking that day, walking off the job in defiance of their employers, though to be sure many workers found their ways to the docks."

In fact, 20 percent of Oakland teachers took a personal day on November 2, a fact that Winslow conveniently ignores, along with the fact that hundreds of students walked out of class and the day of action was endorsed in various ways by the Alameda County Labor Council, the Oakland Educators Association, the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 and Carpenters Local 713.

Certainly, not everybody who participated did so by marching out of their workplace and chanting "strike!" but I would hope that Winslow could live with that. Everybody else did. Finally, the demonstration on November 2 did not begin at 5 p.m. as Winslow states but at 9 a.m.--for those who took the day off from work, anyway.

WINSLOW ALSO comments that Occupy Oakland "authorized the strike call [again, it was not a strike call] 'unanimously' at its November 18 General Assembly," and continues, "I have to add here that I have been advised by reliable sources that the Oakland General Assembly and the anarchists at its core offer something much less than what is considered to be democratic."

On the one hand, this comment about anarchists is slanderous red-baiting, and Winslow should know better. Anarchists, socialists and other radicals have always played a significant role in the American labor movement, which Winslow all but admits in his article.

On the other hand, I don't know how much more democratic you can get than 100 percent support. For my part, no sneaky anarchist coerced me into raising my hand in support at the General Assembly, and I doubt that is the case for anybody else. Winslow might have made the trek down to 14th and Broadway to verify these things himself rather than discussing it with "reliable sources," but his article is less reliable for not having done so.

What we do plan for December 12 is to organize community pickets at the ports along the West Coast, in solidarity with ILWU workers in Longview fighting against EGT and in solidarity with port truck drivers. The ILWU has not endorsed this action, and they did not endorse the previous one, but there is a long tradition of Bay Area activists setting up community pickets at the Port of Oakland, including actions in recent years against the war in Iraq and against an Israeli ship.

However, we are not working against the ILWU but in support of it, and while it is true, as Winslow states, that "the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the workers themselves," and action taken by the ILWU itself at the ports would be tremendous, community action is also part of a democratic impulse against inequality.

The Port of Oakland ought to belong to the people of Oakland, but instead, the mass of wealth that is accumulated and distributed through it is left largely in the hands of the 1 percent. Our action may not be a "strike," but it will be a "blow" against the union-busting tactics of the 1 percent along the West Coast. The African-American families who stood in front of their homes in West Oakland and cheered us on as we marched to the Port of Oakland on November 2 sure thought so last time, and I suspect the same will be true next Monday.

The labor movement is historically weak, with unionization at an all-time low. Mass workers' strikes in various industries would be a welcome development, but in the meantime, rank-and-file members of the Teamsters, SEIU, the Berkeley and Oakland teachers' unions and many non-union workers are organizing for the West Coast Port Shutdown, as are at least 20 local Occupy movements at 10 different port cities.

With the current state of the labor movement, many militant actions may occur outside of union officialdom, but that does not make it the work of outside agitators who have no interest in workers' democracy. In fact, many of us hope our actions, which have the active support of many rank-and-file union members, are a precursor toward a stronger union movement.

TO PARAPHRASE Winslow's favorite philosopher, historians have merely interpreted the labor movement in various ways; the point, however, is to change it. The path to achieving this is not always obvious, but labor activists all over the West Coast believe our action is a significant next step for both Occupy and labor.

Winslow's comment that we should "do this in coordination with the ILWU, or do it with the longshoremen themselves," and that our action "suggests the opposite of democracy" are irresponsible, showing a lack of understanding of the nature of the action itself. This is not an action against the ILWU--any more than the protests to shut down the WTO in Seattle in 1999 were against janitors and caterers working at the conference--but an action against the ports.

I assure you that we are not destroying workers' democracy--in fact, Occupiers have already reached out to port workers about the upcoming action and found a very positive response. You can even watch a video of ILWU Local 21 President Dan Coffman telling Occupy Oakland, "You cannot believe what you people did [on November 2] for the inspiration of my union members who have been on the picket line for six months."

It is too bad that Cal Winslow did not come down to Oscar Grant Plaza to talk to us about the December 12 action. Unfortunately, he dismisses our action at precisely the time when the Port of Oakland has launched a campaign against it. Had he sought us out before writing his article, I suspect he would have had a different appreciation for the relevance and nature of the West Coast Port Shutdown.

First published at the Occupied Oakland Tribune.

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