SEIU strikes at Oakland port

December 5, 2012

François Hughes and Katrina Walther report on a one-day dock strike in Oakland.

HUNDREDS OF Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 members came out in a show of force November 20 to shut down the Port of Oakland--and almost immediately pressured management to return to the bargaining table.

Clerical staff, maintenance staff, skilled trade workers and security staff have been working without a contract for more than year, as negotiations have stalled between the Port of Oakland and the union. SEIU accuses port management of engaging in unfair labor practices by unilaterally altering the contract to impose pay and benefit cuts, and refusing to provide an accurate representation of their finances.

Despite a constant drizzle and an early start of 5 a.m., enough workers mobilized to shut down operations at the port for most of the day. Picketers chanted, beat drums and hopped shuttles between the dozens of berths at the port to ensure that no entrance was left vulnerable.

There were a few ILWU members who came in early on some gates where the pickets weren't set up yet, and so went to work, but some of those workers came out after they found they were working behind a picket line.

SEIU members picket at the Port of Oakland
SEIU members picket at the Port of Oakland

Strikers were outraged that the port had refused to respect workers' rights and instead forced them to escalate their fight. "I think they thought we wouldn't strike, even though we said we would," said Jean Parks, who has been a port plumber for 11 years.

Even as management cried poverty--insisting that workers accept wage and benefit cuts that come to a 15 percent cut in pay--the port generated a surplus of more than $37 million. It was also recently discovered that port management was indulging in frivolous expenses, such as golf outings and visits to strip clubs, using public funds.

It's no surprise that workers feel management is sitting aloof while they--the people who run the day-to-day operations of the port--are treated like dirt.

THE NIGHT before the November 20 action, workers organized a picket at Oakland International Airport to kick off of the strike. UNITE HERE workers, who have been fighting with airport management for a fair contract, refused to cross the SEIU picket line.

Workers in both unions have faced similar obstacles from management, which insists workers take concessions. UNITE HERE has also taken a stand to support nonunion workers at the airport businesses. "Everyone in the airport wants to get together," a worker at a nonunion airport store said. "Yesterday affected everyone, and SEIU and UNITE HERE hope that this shows the nonunion workers that we will fight with them."

Workers felt heartened to see that their action had a visible effect on business as usual, as trash cans overflowed with garbage and airport restaurants remained closed. Union members feel that their struggles for recognition and respect are part of the same fight, and SEIU members have been present at all of UNITE HERE's airport actions.

In another show of solidarity, several other unions whose members work at the ports, including International Longshore and Warehouse (ILWU) Union Local 10, refused to cross the picket lines and honked in support as they drove by. Also in solidarity on the picket lines were activists from the Occupy movement and activists from the Justice for Alan Blueford coalition.

SEIU members have been vocal supporters of Justice for Alan Blueford, a young man who was murdered by police on May 6 in Oakland. Alan Blueford's father, Adam Blueford, walked the picket line at the port.

Shutting down the Port of Oakland has become a tried and true method of flexing the muscle of organized labor and people power in the city of Oakland. A single missed shift can cost millions in profits to the corporations that depend on last-minute shipments, and this tactic has been employed for a range of political as well as economic demands.

One of the earliest examples of this tactic was in 1984 when the ILWU refused to offload cargo from South Africa for 10 days to protest racist apartheid. Often, ILWU workers will use health and safety clauses in their contract to refuse to cross picket lines that they deem "unsafe."

Occupy Oakland shut down the port on November 2, 2011, as the culmination of a 20,000-plus march, and then again on December 12 in response to police repression and in solidarity with ILWU Local 21's fight against EGT in Longview, Wash.

And after just 24 hours on strike this November, port management came running back to the negotiating table. SEIU members showed how to take a stand and push back the bosses' agenda of cutbacks.

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