Tactics and the port shutdown

December 16, 2011

Bay Area activists Ragina Johnson, Alex Schmaus and Dana Blanchard consider some of the political discussions to arise after the West Coast Port Shutdown.

IN THE aftermath of the West Coast Port Shutdown on December 12, a debate over tactics has emerged in the Occupy movement. The discussion centers on the role of port workers and Occupy activists' relationship to them.

The December 12 actions were an important step for the Occupy movement, especially in connecting to the struggle of workers against some of the richest and most powerful corporations around. But the future of the movement depends on Occupy activists adopting strategies and tactics that treat workers on the docks--and everywhere else in the economy--as allies and potential supporters, not as opponents.

The call for a port shutdown on December 12 produced community pickets at ports up and down the West Coast, from Anchorage to San Diego--and succeeded in stopping operations, partially or entirely, in Oakland, Portland, Longview, Seattle and Vancouver. At the giant Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, activists collaborated with nonunion port truckers to disrupt operations for several hours at SSA Marine, which is half-owned by Goldman Sachs.

Community pickets block an entrance to the Port of Oakland
Community pickets block an entrance to the Port of Oakland

In Oakland, our preparations began weeks before December 12, with rank-and-file longshore workers and other unionists working with Occupy Oakland activists to build support for the shutdown, especially among workers at the port. We knew from this organizing work that the criticisms made by some union leaders and even left-wing writers and academics--that the Occupy movement was calling for industrial action without the support of workers--was false.

On December 12, we had a strong turnout despite the rain and cold--more than 500 Occupy supporters met at a nearby public transit hub for a 5 a.m. march to the port to set up community picket lines at three terminals. By the late morning, we got word that ILWU members had been sent home after the port arbitrator ruled on safety concerns. An even larger march on the port that evening caused the evening shift to be closed down as well.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) publicly disavowed the port shutdown call. But ILWU Local 10 in Oakland has a proud history of recognizing community picket lines and calling in a port arbitrator over safety concerns.

With rank-and-file ILWU members taking the lead, the December 12 action was planned in Oakland with this foremost in our minds--and with the goal of building solidarity with workers on the ports as a crucial means of strengthening the Occupy movement.

THIS APPROACH helped ensure the success of December 12 in Oakland.

Unfortunately, though, that success was jeopardized by the dangerous actions of a minority of demonstrators on the picket line.

The overwhelming majority of Occupy activists and workers worked together--as planned and democratically decided upon--to organize community pickets that were intended to make an appeal to port workers for support, but not blockade them. This was highly effective.

Nevertheless, a small minority took it upon themselves to try to impose their tactics on the rest of us. Within an hour of establishing our early-morning community pickets, a small group of activists at the Hanjin Terminal picket attempted to use their bodies to stop a semi truck from leaving the port. At least two of them sat down in front of the truck, an extremely dangerous act since the driver could not see them. Others screamed at the driver and spat on his windshield.

Naturally, photographers from the mainstream media swooped in to get their photos of the angry truck driver who "didn't support the action that day"--and not pictures of the several hundred people who were holding down an amazing picket 20 feet away. This only gave credence to the false argument spread by the media that we were trying to "impose" a shutdown on workers, rather than seek their solidarity.

The authors of this article attempted to reason with the group of activists sitting in front of the truck. We asked them to move out of the way and allow the truck to leave, explaining that organizers had agreed to allow drivers who had shown up for work to leave--as the point of our action was to build solidarity with workers at the port, not antagonize them. The port action committee had explicitly agreed on the point that the pickets were not to keep workers from leaving, but only to stop them from going in.

At one point, one of us, Ragina, positioned herself between the truck and the group in question to demand that they get out of the way. One person from this group of activists pushed Ragina against the front grill of the truck in an attempt to use her body to get the truck to stop.

Everyone eventually moved out of the way, but the fact is that the lives of several activists were put at risk during this scuffle.

Another dangerous situation occurred at the Hanjin Terminal picket line when a squad car and sheriff's bus, escorted by a line of riot police, attempted to drive through our line.

Throughout the morning, police were being moved around the port in groups in an attempt to intimate protesters. There was a diversity of people on the picket line--old and young, people holding toddlers, union and nonunion workers. Keeping the pickets organized and safe by preventing panic was important to succeeding in our goal.

Only walking picket lines are considered legally protected free speech, but some activists from the same group that blockaded the truck earlier attempted to form an immobile human barricade to stop police from driving through the line. This was another unnecessary risk, since it gave police a possible excuse to use force to break up our pickets.

The same group of picketers then attempted to provoke police who were pointing "non-lethal" assault rifles at the picket. We believe this act played into the hands of at least one provocateur, who said "the cops are going to smash us anyway, so why should we wait for that to happen."

Once again, the authors of this article found ourselves forced into a dangerous situation. We argued that the best way to stop the police was to maintain the walking picket--and that trying to provoke the police endangered not only picketers, but also the truck drivers and ILWU members who were standing by to observe the situation.

We eventually succeeded in breaking up the human barricade and held our ground with a traditional walking picket. The police backed off after about 20 or 30 minutes.

A few minutes after 10 a.m., a port arbitrator ruled that ILWU members would not be expected to cross our community picket lines. This was an important victory because it meant we had shut down the port without forcing unionized workers to lose a day's wages. Port management then has since sent a press release saying workers will not be paid unless the union takes up the issue with an independent arbitrator. This will be a fight for our allies within the ILWU to take up in the coming days.

Thousands marched to the port of Oakland that evening, but the port authority had by that time conceded defeat and didn't even call in the evening shift. Instead of pickets, a General Assembly of more than 2,500 people formed to discuss next steps.

Occupy Oakland had voted weeks ago that in the event of police repression at any of the actions along the coast, the pickets would be extended in defense of the Occupy movement. The original plan of the port action committee of Occupy Oakland was to vote on whether or not to follow through with this, based on the numbers of people who could participate. But there was never a vote.

Dozens of people from the crowd began to signal their frustration with the lack of democracy, but this was ignored. The facilitators told the crowd that anyone who could not stay for the 3 am pickets should stand up and go and those who could should sit down. Thousands of people picked up their things and left the port. Only about 100 to 150 people remained behind for a disorganized picket at 3 a.m. Fortunately, they did not face a police crackdown, which would have undermined the successes of the day.

What happened at the GA was a missed opportunity to get new people who had come out for the port action involved in a conversation about next steps for our work.

WHY DID a minority of activists act in such an undemocratic and dangerous manner at the morning picket?

To answer this question, we have to look at the different forces involved in the Occupy movement and the December 12 port shutdown.

The December 12 action was a step forward for the movement because it was about taking action at a crucial chokepoint in the economy that affects the flow of commodities and the realization of profits for the 1 percent. The debate that emerged in Oakland was about how to take action at the point of production.

There are two levels to the debate. The first is a strategic argument about the role of workers at the port. Are they central to shutting down it down or not? Do Occupy activists need to build solidarity with port workers or can they take action independently--and against workers if necessary?

The second level is about the tactics that flow from the strategic question. Should we organize for community picket lines that allow for the greatest possible participation and solidarity with port workers? Or should we build barricades to impose a work stoppage?

An article posted on Bay of Rage, an anti-capitalist website in the Bay Area, titled "Blockading the port is only the first of many last resorts", explains the position of activists who advocated taking action "autonomously" of workers. In a section titled "Power to the vagabonds and therefore to no class," the article states:

We need to jettison our ideas about the "proper" subjects of the strike or class struggle. Though it is always preferable and sometimes necessary to gain workers' support in order to shut down a particular workplace, it is not absolutely necessary, and we must admit that ideas about who has the right to strike or blockade a particular workplace are simply extensions of the law of property.

The first point to make about this statement is that its authors are dismissing the actual demands of the port action committee for December 12. These demands were very much about workers on the docks: first, solidarity with ILWU Local 21 members in Longview, Wash., and their battle against EGT; second, solidarity with port truck drivers in their struggle to gain union rights; and third, a coordinated response by Occupy to the police raids of the camps.

These were the three points we used in talking to port workers and other union forces leading up December 12. Linking up these three struggles helped bring together allies in the labor movement with the Occupy community. We were able to connect with radical rank-and-file union members who want to see more action from their unions. By contrast, the Bay of Rage article accepts that the "real" radicals will have to operate in isolation from workers and union members--and sometimes in direct opposition to them.

As for tactics, the Bay of Rage article goes on to argue that the community pickets were unnecessary:

[W]e have been told time and again that in order to blockade the port, we need to go to each and every berth, spreading out thousands of people into several groups over a distance of a few miles. This is because, under the system that ILWU has worked out with the employers' association, only a picket line at the gates to the port itself will allow the local arbitrator to rule conditions at the port unsafe, and therefore provide the workers with legal protection against unpermitted work action.

In such a situation we are not really blockading the port. We are participating in a two-act play, a piece of legal theater, performed for the benefit of the arbitrator.

If this arbitration game is the only way we can avoid violent conflict with the port workers, then perhaps this is the way things have to be for the time being. But we find it more than depressing how little reflection there has been about this strategy, how little criticism of it, and how many people seem to reflexively accept the necessity of going through these motions.

Once again, this statement shows how little respect the writers have for working people and their capacity for action. Anyone familiar with the history of the working-class movement in the U.S. or anywhere in the world knows that picket lines are more than a "piece of legal theater." The labor movement's victories historically have involved mass support from workers, community members, the unemployed and more.

In the specific case of the ports, the role of community pickets is important in building solidarity and involving wider numbers in the struggle. Rather than imagining that we can substitute for such mobilizations through sabotage or physical barricades, we should be looking to more solidarity actions of this kind to support the labor battles that are sure to come.

ULTIMATELY, THE wrong-headed ideas expressed in the Bay of Rage article share much in common with the claims made in the mainstream media, among conservative labor leaders and even within sections of the left that the action on December 12 was organized from the outside.

This discounts the role that rank-and-file workers, who are part of Occupy Oakland, played in helping to organize the action. There were extensive discussions between Occupy activists and members of the ILWU and Teamsters, as well as with unorganized port truck drivers, both in the lead-up and immediately after the call to shut down the ports.

By reaching out to and including the voices of rank-and-filers and labor activists, we collaborated with them to build the community picket line, rather than scheming in secret about how to blockade them from going to work. As a result, we were able to weather the attacks in the weeks leading up to the action--a barrage that came not only from the 1 percent and the media, but from union leaders who repeatedly tried to stifle participation in December 12.

The port action committee had a well-organized plan in place for December 12. People in the committee organized picket teams, communications and food distribution. There were teams to plan for speakers and rallies, and to make sure signs and banners were printed and brought to the gates. Organizers were also in close communication with port workers about which terminals had ships and which did not, so we knew which gates to picket.

There was also explicit outreach to talk to self-identified anti-capitalist forces who had declared a march at the same time as the port action--to ask them to agree to the tactics decided for the day.

Ultimately, the proof of these preparations lies in the success of the event itself. Hundreds of people showed up before dawn to put up community pickets before the first shift, and even larger numbers came in the evening. No ILWU members crossed picket lines. Teamsters didn't show up that day, and hundreds of non-unionized truckers stayed away. As for truckers who were at the docks, many showed their support in various ways.

None of that could have been accomplished without the support of workers at the Port of Oakland. But unfortunately, a minority believes its adventurist tactics are more radical and politically superior.

WHAT'S NEXT? We believe the truly radical step following December 12 will be to build on the alliance between Occupy activists and port workers. We shouldn't be satisfied with shutting down the port for a day, but must instead focus on building a working-class movement with power at the point of production--a project that must include union members, Occupy activists and other working people who are sympathetic to the new activism, but who have not yet joined it.

That's why the disorganizing effects of the General Assembly on the evening of the 12th were a disappointment. The GA could have been a space for thousands of people to collectively decide the next steps for building such an alliance.

Such organizing needs to continue--right now. In a matter of a couple weeks, EGT may try to load its first ship at the scab grain terminal in Longview. Labor and community members in solidarity with the ILWU are already planning caravans to support longshore workers in Longview with their struggle. We need to get as many people as we can to join this caravan from all the local Occupy struggles, from the Bay Area to Washington state.

The Longview struggle is just one example of how we can look ahead to the future of the Occupy movement.

The trigger budget cuts in California are devastating public-sector workers and students, especially at the community college level, and this spring will likely be a time of mass actions on campuses and in teachers unions in response to these cuts. There is already a planned occupation of the state capital on March 5, as well as regional actions on March 1 and possible student strikes throughout February.

In addition, immigrant rights activists and workers, both union and nonunion, are making big plans for a militant action on May Day that would shut down production and target the 1 percent, while linking up with struggles for amnesty and human rights.

These are just a few of the ideas that have been put forward for next steps. There will most certainly continue to be struggle on both a local and national level, and some of what it will do has not even been anticipated yet.

With working people under relentless attack, the Occupy movement has an opportunity to broaden its social base. But to reach that potential, we need to learn the lessons--both positive and negative--of what we just accomplished on December 12.

The most important lesson is that Occupy activists and union members share common interests in the struggle against the 1 percent, and the closer that alliance, the more powerful the struggle will be.

The port shutdown on December 12 also showed us that the November 2 general strike call in Oakland was no fluke--and that the Occupy movement can coordinate for picket-line action between different cities and states. This action has truly raised the bar for what is possible in the movement, if we do our work right.

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