Will Occupy and unions reunite on the docks?

Peter Rugh reports on two battles at an East Coast port--and how connecting them could further collaboration between Occupy activists and the labor movement.

Protesters picket at the Port of Elizabeth in New JerseyProtesters picket at the Port of Elizabeth in New Jersey

ON A cold December morning, before sunrise in New York's Chinatown, about 60 activists gathered in front of Dunkin' Donuts along Canal Street. Gripping steamy styrofoam cups of joe, they stepped onto several chartered buses leaving for the port of Elizabeth, N.J. They had an appointment with a ship soon to arrive that, as they saw it, had blood on its cargo: apparel produced in Bangladesh, destined for the shelves of Wal-Mart.

One hundred and twelve sweatshop workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, burned to death on November 24 at the Tazreen Fashion Factory, laboring to ensure that the mega-retailer was fully stocked ahead of America's busiest shopping season. They were paid $37 a month and gave their lives so that Wal-Mart and other U.S. corporations can maintain a competitive edge in the global marketplace.

Occupiers and labor activists who assembled that day aimed to block Wal-Mart--symbolically and physically--from profiting off the deaths of the workers.

As the fleet of buses sped under the Holland Tunnel, an unmarked police car followed close behind. Detective Sergeant Bob Zukowski greeted the protesters when they arrived at the Jersey docks, asking activists what they planned to do on Port Authority property. Organizers made no secret of their plans. They came to the docks to establish a community picket so that workers with the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) would see it, honor it and walk off the job, refusing to unload the Maersk Carolina.

The attempted blockade wasn't happening in a vacuum. That day, the New York Times detailed widespread instances of bribery by executives with Wal-Mart Mexico, who used millions of dollars to skirt labor and environmental protections. A month prior, on the busiest shopping day of the year, picket lines went up at Wal-Marts across the U.S as workers and supporters demanded full-time hours and higher pay.

So on that December morning in New Jersey, activists had reason to believe a community picket might encourage workers to join them--a tactic that was applied successfully on the West Coast in the past.

But the East and West Coast dockworkers belong to two different unions, with very distinct traditions. On the West Coast, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) inherited a spirit of militant social justice unionism dating back to its founding in the 1930s.

The legacy of ILWU leader Harry Bridges and the other dockworkers of the San Francisco General Strike of 1934 could be seen alive and well when, at the height of Occupy fever in the fall of 2011, ILWU members walked off the docks of Oakland in solidarity with an Occupy picket as part of a call for a general strike on November 2. The ILWU again refused to unload ships a little over a month later, responding to an Occupy call to shut down West Coast ports.

On the East Coast, the ILA was long riddled with mob intrigue. The union was associated the general trend among labor toward business unionism, which tends to see the relationship between bosses and workers as collaborative, not on of competing interests--or in Occupy parlance, the 1 percent versus the 99 percent.

I asked Sergeant Zukowski if it was normal for Port Authority police to trail demonstrators ahead of protests. Zukowski responded: "It's not very normal to have a demonstration here."

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Labor's New Front Line

That could start to change. Backed against the wall in recent contract negotiations with the U.S. Maritime Alliance (USMX), the ILA has threatened to strike. Picket lines could start popping up at ports from Maine to Texas on January 28. USMX has sought concessions from the union including reductions in hiring and health care payments, along with a slicing of the royalties workers receive on the cargo they handle.

The strike threat comes as unions across the country are being urged to swallow concessions. Meanwhile, wages for both organized and unorganized labor have stagnated or fallen since Wall Street financiers crashed the economy in 2008, intensifying a decades-long decline in the working-class standard of living.

The possible strike also arises at a moment of increased militancy among rank-and-file workers inspired by the Occupy movement, which shifted the national debate on economic inequality.

"Labor has been very isolated, very under attack," said Jackie DiSalvo, a member of the teachers union at the City University of New York. She has worked as a bridge between unions and the Occupy movement and says that in all her years as an activist, "OWS is virtually the first mass movement to aggressively say that unions are a good thing."

One of the first struggles Occupy put its energy behind was the battle for a contract for Teamsters Local 814, whose members were locked out of Sotheby's, the auction house. Over a 10-month period, Occupy staged actions that both disrupted business at Sotheby's and called attention to the workers' plight. Hundreds rallied in the Teamsters' defense.

The spectacle of men in tuxedos and women in fur coats confronted by militant trade unionists in Teamster jackets holding Occupy banners at the doors of Sotheby's highlighted the deep class divide that Occupy highlighted. After those 10 months of protest, members of Teamsters Local 814 were back on the job--with a raise.

With its emphasis on direct democracy, spontaneity and flexibility of tactics--and unbounded by legal impediments such as the Taft-Hartley Act--Occupy has infused the labor movement with a fresh dose of radicalism. As DiSalvo said:

If the workers at Sotheby's had gone into the auctions, their picket line would have been declared illegal. Labor has tolerated and not been able to overturn tremendous legal restrictions on what they can do. We're not covered by those labor laws. People can get arrested. A union leader gets arrested, the union gets fined. We can be the front lines.

But Occupy has also leaned on labor at times. On October 14, 2011, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Brookfield Properties--the deed holders to the "privately-owned public space" where Occupy Wall Street pitched its tents--attempted to clean the Financial District of protest.

The night before, however, AFL-CIO affiliates in New York City sent a mass mailing to their members, urging them to turn out and defend the Zucotti Park encampment. Thousands mobilized in the early morning hours to help Occupy stave off eviction. The next day, media coverage of the movement started to take a different tone. "You can't say these are a bunch of wacko, slacker hippies if you've got the labor movement there," said DiSalvo.

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Back to the Basics

At the same time, organized labor and Occupy haven't always seen eye to eye.

In January of last year, a meeting meant to help forge a united front between Occupy and ILWU members in the Pacific Northwest ended in a brawl. In a statement that month, members of Occupy Seattle wrote that they stood in solidarity with ILWU Local 21 in its battle against shipping giants trying to open a scab terminal.

But the Occupy activists seemed to exclude longshore workers from the struggle. Citing the December 12 shutdown of Oakland docks, the authors wrote that Occupy "has become a new type of movement of unemployed, low waged and casualized workers both in the workplace and outside of it. We are the 89 percent of the U.S. working class that is not unionized." The statement went on to call for moving "beyond the limits of traditional labor struggle."

As Occupy participant and longtime union activist Amy Muldoon said:

Who shut down the docks in Oakland? I see it as the product of collaboration, whereas people who are more dismissive of the possibilities of organized labor right now think it was purely coming from the outside. They think they can gum up the works while not actually being part of the production, transportation, distribution or sales process.

To reorganize society based on "mass mutual aid," Muldoon added, the change has to come from within the communities being affected.

Muldoon cautions against confusing the bureaucratic, top-down labor structures of today with the ways things were in the past, or how they will be in the future:

The labor movement has itself been historically flexible and encompassed a number of things that the occupation of Zuccotti Park also encompassed. In the 1934 Teamster strike in Minneapolis, there was a commissary. There were medics. There was volunteer child care. There were a number of things that sprang up out of the needs of self-organization of collective struggle.

In this sense, she said, Occupy wasn't so much something new as it was a return to the basics. While expectations about the Occupy movement working successfully with organized labor may have been too high too early, OWS had a visible impact--and will continue to be a part of the fabric of the labor movement going forward.

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The "Inherent Power" of the Global 99 Percent

Ironically, the precariat workforce alluded to by members of Occupy Seattle last year has undergone an upsurge of activity in New York City in recent months, with grocery workers, car washers, airport security personnel and employees within the fast food industry all seeking to unionize. Sometimes they've worked in collaboration with Occupy, while at other times, job actions have been sponsored by the Service Employees International Union and others.

"Those people within labor who wanted to be more militant have been able to express that," added DiSalvo. "They had been trying for years to get people to talk about growing inequality with the 1 percent, and they had gotten nowhere. The press ignored them. Then all of a sudden, Occupy made this breakthrough."

On the New Jersey docks in December, Occupy Wall Street labor activists were hoping for such a breakthrough with ILA members. But several dozen Port Authority police turned up to ensure that this didn't happen. The community picket was squeezed far away from the sight of dockworkers.

Instead, activists mic-checked a letter sent from the Bangladesh Center of Workers Solidarity, thanking them for helping to ensure that the workers who died at the Tazreen sweatshop were not forgotten. Disrupting the movement of goods, said their allies in Dhaka, "will further prove workers' inherent power within the supply chain." They added: "In acting in solidarity, you are showing the potential of this power to work across the world and confirming that we are all in this fight together."

That potential power could be seen in a new form if the ILA makes good on its threat to strike in the weeks ahead, putting a brake on the machinery moving global capital. We had the year of Occupy in 2011. Maybe now it's time for the year of the blockade.

A version of this article was published at Occupy.com.