Occupy vs. Big Labor

In the Dec. 12 port shutdown campaign, the rank and file are leading organized labor, not the other way around

Topics: Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Oakland, Occupy Movement, ,

Occupy vs. Big LaborOccupy Oakland protesters (Credit: AP/Noah Berger)

As Occupy Wall Street groups stretching from San Diego to Anchorage mobilize for a multi-port shutdown of the North American West Coast, union members are finding the mobilization offers more than just support against union busting and unfair contracts. Activists and rank-and-file workers say the movement is teaching them what the bureaucratic infrastructure of organized labor has made them forget: collective power.

On Dec. 12, general assemblies (the decentralized governing bodies of OWS) in Los Angeles, Oakland, Calif., Tacoma, Wash., Santa Barbara, Calif., Portland, Ore., Seattle, Longview, Wash., San Diego, Anchorage, California’s Port Hueneme region, and dozens of smaller camps plan to blockade ports and halt commerce for a day. There is a combined Dallas-Houston effort to demonstrate at the port in Houston. Japanese rail workers, who are sympathetic to longshoremen, who work a partner company of Bunge — the company Occupy is protesting — will be demonstrating in Japan.

Farther inland, Denver will try to shut down a Walmart distribution center. Occupy Bellingham may block coal trains; and landlocked California occupiers will bus to the coast. According to the Journal of Commerce, the “West Coast ports handle more than 50 percent of the U.S. containerized trade, including 70 percent of U.S. imports from Asia.” The demonstration is in solidarity with Longview longshoremen who say their jurisdiction is being threatened by multinational grain exporter EGT, as well as port truckers who have been prevented from unionizing in Los Angeles. (Their little-known plight was exposed by Salon in October.)

The campaign to shut down what some call “the Wall Street of the Waterfront” is consistent with the general Occupy Wall Street message on the distribution of power and wealth. Yet, the effort faces opposition from the union bureaucracy’s upper echelons, precisely because of the conflict with EGT. Last week officials of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU ) sent out a memo reminding its members:



“To be clear, the ILWU, the Coast Longshore Division, and Local 21 are not coordinating independently or in conjunction with any self-proclaimed organization or group to shut down any port or terminal, particularly as it relates to our dispute with EGT in Longview.” (emphasis added).

So, paradoxically , where labor conflict is starkest, the union leaders reject outside support, and when Occupy Oakland acts to support the union’s members, the union itself resists. That’s why Dec. 12 looms not just as a test of strength for the Occupy movement. The port shutdown is also shaking up Big Labor.

Mobilizing without unions

The idea of a port shutdown was born out of an Occupy L.A. plan to demonstrate in solidarity with local port truckers. L.A.’s intentions exploded into a large-scale mobilization to shut down the ports along the entire coast.

Shrugging off tent removal, tear gas and rubber bullets, Occupy Oakland has become the nucleus of coordination, holding inter-Occupy conference calls; brainstorming budgets to provide camps with everything from porta-potties to bullhorns; and using union networks to connect rank-and-file members with general assemblies on the West Coast.

Hundreds of Oakland citizens are leafletting commuter trains, staging rush-hour banner drops, reaching out to non-unionized workers, and sending out bilingual teams to ethnic boroughs to help populate the blockade. Other local organizations are independently working for the event. For example, the International Socialist Organization immediately began contacting branches in relevant cities while the East Bay Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice will be hosting a pre-march teach-in about the plight of longshoremen and port truckers.

As for the possibility of future police action, the occupiers do not have to speculate. The City of Oakland and the Oakland Police Department will be working together to keep port operations running on Dec. 12. Though Oakland is no stranger to police violence at port shutdowns the police presence may actually help the protesters.

A police blockade, says one union member and shutdown organizer, is enough reason to prevent longshoremen from unloading ships. Though the longshoremen could technically ask the police to escort them across the picket line, historically, they have not done so. Such a standoff would protect the ILWU from litigation and enable it to respect– as it usually does — a community picket.

The labor battle in Longview highlights Big Labor’s awkward position of resisting a popular movement against corporate power. Longshoremen have been protesting EGT’s decision to contract with another union whose members are paid lower wages than the ILWU’s.

EGT is an export grain facility owned, in part, by agribusiness holding company Bunge Ltd., and has employed ILWU workers on the ports for years. Bunge extracts billions of dollars a year in profits, but has a tarnished international reputation. It was expelled from Argentina this year for accusations of evading taxes. Environmentalists charge Bunge with undermining ecological recovery through intensive sugar cane and soybean-growing in Brazil. It has also resisted South American union demands for workers’ rights.) But in the United States, the company’s name doesn’t make much news outside of stock reports and longshoremen activist sites.

The ILWU’s problem is that no-strike clauses in contracts require union leaders to foreswear labor action and distance themselves from independent action. Throughout the protests, including those at the Nov. 2 general strike and shutdown of the Oakland port, most unions did not officially sanction the strike, though they all supported it materially and in marching feet. The president of Local 21 of ILWU, for example, was a keynote speaker of the Nov. 19 march.

But resistance endures at the top of the unions. In a recent meeting, the Alameda County labor council not only refused to endorse the port shutdown, but actually considered a public rejection of the action. The proposal was eventually tabled, but the whole debate was arguably a consequence of the entanglement of big business and labor: specifically, of the labor council’s executive treasurer-secretary and a port commissioner.

“The fear of getting sued that haunts the union leadership is unfortunate,” said Barucha, a young anarchist with Occupy Oakland.

“It’s not our job to rail against union leadership,” she said. “We don’t have to come out and criticize union leadership, because we’re leading by example. The occupation movement being able to provide a better framework of getting the rank-and-file working class’s needs met. [It] exposes the recuperation of the union institution by political parties.”

For years, members of certain — not all — unions say their bosses have compromised their collective power in back-door agreements and concessions. Some resent the “team concept,” a labor term for the working relationship between union bosses and CEOs, which places efficiency and profits over workers’ needs, according to disgruntled members. There is similar sentiment regarding the unions’ long-standing relationship with the Democratic Party — an institution also married to big business.

“The Occupy movement struck a chord,” explained Stan Woods, a member of the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee, a multi-union rank-and-file organization made up of ILWU members, teamsters, city train drivers and other similar blue-collars workers. “The union leadership doesn’t want to be left out, but they are hamstrung by their relationship with the Democrats, mayors and other politicians. They’re caught in a quandary.”

Barucha says the democratization paradigm of the leaderless occupation movement is proving to be a model for workers unhappy with the status quo.

“This is the first time there has been an exemplary movement that is encouraging and teaching people to self-organize.” The occupation, she said, allows union members to act as individual community participants and create community pickets, alongside the unemployed, the non-unionized working class, the homeless and any other supportive neighbors that share the same material needs.

One Bay Area couple who belong to another big local union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, said they and some other grocers chose to organize after watching their contracts being written up behind closed doors. The couple, who asked not to be identified, said the UFCW leaders negotiated a pension concession that they could opt out of by accepting other concessions.

“The union and the company decided all of this without employees being aware of it,” said one grocer. “They kept sending out sugarcoated letters but never once said, ‘Prepare yourself because there’s going to be drastic changes.’”

After attending Occupy Oakland’s general strike, they heard socialist and union activist John Reimann speak to the crowd. They approached him and asked for help. Out of their concerns, and those of others who had joined the strike, they formed the Grocery Workers’ 99% Club, a group of UFCW members who “have created a sort of rank and file caucus of members who want to fight to make their union do what it is supposed to do: fight for the members,” said Reimann.

“We’re not trying to break the union,” said the anonymous grocer. “We just want our voice back so we can make decisions about our contracts. That’s what we thought the unions were supposed to be about.”

And that desire is an oft-missed message of the West Coast occupation movement, often overshadowed in media coverage focused on sanitation issues and simplistic debates on violence. The occupation movement is proactive as well as reactive, offering new paradigms that transcend binary choices such as unions vs. corporations, Democrat vs. Republican, and leaders vs. followers. Just as the 1 percent now has to listen to the 99 percent. Big Labor has to listen to the rank and file. Dec. 12 marks a step in the evolution of the movement from a collection of improvised tent-villages to a national network of empowered, community-conscious problem-solvers.

Emily Loftis is a writer in San Francisco and organizer active in Occupy Oakland. You can follow her on Twitter @eloft.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>