Black Lives Matter on the docks

April 30, 2015

Alessandro Tinonga reports from Oakland on this year's plans for May Day solidarity.

THE INTERNATIONAL Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 will shut down the Port of Oakland on May Day in an act of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

The dockworkers plan to take action to close the port early Friday morning, which will prevent millions of dollars worth of goods from being unloaded from cargo ships. Later, in conjunction with several community organizations and other unions, workers will hold a rally at the docks followed by a march to Oakland City Hall.

The action is the first time a major labor union has conducted a work stoppage in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement since it returned to national attention last August with the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

The Bay Area has already had a number of actions and marches around the demand for justice for Mike Brown and Eric Garner and in response to multiple cases of police violence since. Last December, thousands participated in a demonstration that closed off downtown Oakland. Over Martin Luther King Day weekend in January, there was 90 hours of direct action, followed by a mass march that brought community and labor activists together.

Members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 at an Oakland rally calling for justice for Oscar Grant
Members of ILWU Local 10 at an Oakland rally calling for justice for Oscar Grant

Now, ILWU Local 10 will shut down a major Bay Area workplace to raise awareness about the national epidemic of racist police violence. The shutdown will follow a string of actions this week in the Bay Area in solidarity with protests in Baltimore to demand justice for Freddie Gray.

Cat Brooks of ONYX/Anti Police-Terror Project, a coalition that spearheaded demonstrations in Oakland, explained the importance of the ILWU action:

Labor is one sector of the community that can truly shut this country down. If workers refuse to work, product doesn't get made, and money doesn't exchange hands. The only way this country is going to take us seriously is if we interrupt their commerce and impact their bottom line. Simply appealing to their humanity doesn't work. If that was the case, the epidemic of Black genocide at the hands of police would have ended decades ago.

THE MAY Day action could not be timelier. Both on the national and local level, the Black Lives Matter movement has been assessing and discussing strategy and next steps for the movement. In the East Bay, there have been major actions to protest institutionalized racism, yet the racist violence of law enforcement continues unabated.

In February, Emeryville police gunned down Yvette Henderson with an assault rifle. Protests forced the police to start to release some of the evidence, but the officers who murdered Henderson are still on active duty. In Oakland, there is growing support for a police review board with the power to discipline violent officers, but the City Council continues to stall attempts to institute it.

Building a movement that can draw on the power of organized labor is an important development in the struggle. It raises the possibility of combining antiracist demands with the fight for economic justice.

Poverty wages--combined with chronically high Black unemployment rates that typically are double the white unemployment rate--enmesh millions of Black people in economic circumstances that are only exacerbated by police abuse.

For example, the cop who shot and killed 50-year-old Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, as he ran away had pulled Scott over for a broken taillight. Scott, who had struggled to get a decent-paying job, owed $18,000 in child support and likely feared he would end up in jail--though he probably didn't figure he would be shot and killed in cold blood.

In various cities, such as Chicago, some of the core activists in the Black Lives Matter movement have also been on the frontlines of fighting for a $15 an hour minimum wage to provide low-wage workers, many of them Black and Latino, with a paycheck that could lift them above the poverty line, even if barely.

In other words, just as Black Lives Matter, Black Jobs Matter also--a point that the ILWU, a majority Black union, has been living throughout its proud history.

According to Jack Heyman, a retired member of the ILWU:

We have always been a militant union. We integrated our union during the 1934 maritime strike, way before the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. We refused a work a ship from South Africa to protest apartheid in 1984, and we shut down the local ports in 2010 to demand justice for Oscar Grant. This shutdown continues our tradition of connecting class struggle to race struggles and demanding justice for all.

Among the many other instances in which ILWU members have stood in solidarity with others: In 1999, the union organized a work stoppage to protest the planned execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal. In recent years, the union held two actions in solidarity with the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israeli goods.

CONTINUING LOCAL 10's tradition of standing up against oppression is also important for raising the confidence of its own members to fight. For the last few months, ILWU locals on the West Coast have been struggling for a fair contract against shipping companies. Workers have conducted a series of slowdowns at the ports, causing daily losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars to the U.S. economy.

The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping lines and terminal operators, has responded with lockouts. At the beginning of April, the union leadership approved a tentative agreement that could weaken its members' ability to control production and prevent unsafe working conditions.

Taking an action to support a growing movement against racism shows that workers, both within and outside the ILWU, have the potential to shake the entire system. Police violence under the New Jim Crow targets Black and Brown people in order to make society run smoothly. Corporate America needs to grind down workers and smash unions in order to increase their profits. If workers are going to stop the destruction of their living standards, they need to take on their boss.

In a city like Oakland, where police abuse and harassment facilitates ongoing gentrification, the May Day action shows the possibilities of building a broader movement to combat racist police violence. Workers and antiracist activists should find creative ways to build on this example.

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