West coast port shutdown, Oakland

Occupy Oakland is participating in the West coast port shutdown organized for today. Here’s my account of participating in this morning’s action — my perspective is very limited, but I felt it was worth presenting the unspectacular side of the Occupy movement.

I arrived at the West Oakland BART station right at 5:30 a.m., the time we were scheduled to start heading out to the various berths. I looked around for Kurt and Craig, the ministers I was hoping to meet, but couldn’t find them in the pre-dawn darkness. The organizers started us walking towards the terminal; we moved along at a pretty quick walk; this was a serious and committed crowd of people.

I joined the contingent heading to berth 30-32. One of the organizers told us that members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 said they would not cross a picket line, so we formed two picket lines at the two gates near us. It was not the best-organized picket line I’ve ever seen: people kept drifting away and standing in the middle of the road in front of the gates, then drifting back. I saw a few people wearing shirts or carrying signs identifying themselves with organized labor — some members of the Oakland Education Association (OEA) carrying a banner of their union, someone with an IWW banner, and one or two others. The OEA members and the Wobbly stuck to the picket line.

OEA members on the picket line

I got to talking with Mark, a physician who works for one of the Bay area counties. I asked him where his accent came from. He described himself as a “New York Jew,” said he was originally from Brooklyn, and admitted to being a Dodgers fan. He was an old-school leftist, and we had a good conversation about systems thinking, and the limitations of economic theory that’s based on an assumption that individuals are basically rational actors. He also said he had seen some SEIU members, but they must have gone to another one of the berths.

Someone shouted that riot police were coming. I did not want to get arrested, so I grew watchful. A line of riot police came down along the road, marching purposefully; I was not pleased to see that their riot gear was emblazoned with the word “SHERIFF” since the Alameda County Sherriff’s office has a bad reputation: the Bay area chapter of the National Lawyer’s Guild has a couple of pending lawsuits against Alameda County for illegal bookings and excessive violence, and news reports have implied that the most egregious use of excessive force against Occupy Oakland came from the sheriff’s office. Besides, the Occupy protesters made me nervous: I watched some of the young protesters put on gas masks and pull out treatments for tear gas and pepper spray. I stepped out of the picket line to think about things for a moment. But everyone seemed calm, so I decided to rejoin the picket line.

The riot police were carrying and wearing a lot of gear: bullet-proof vests, helmets, face shields, body shields, and what I was told were tear gas, projectile weapons, pepper spray, etc. Not as bad as the drawn bayonets used at the 1912 Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, but worse than the protest I went to in 1980 at Seabrook nuclear power plant in 1980, where the riot police there looked like ordinary cops wearing face shields and carrying night sticks. In any case, the riot police took up their position inside the gate of berth 32; presumably someone thought we were going to tear down the gate and go rampaging through the port.

One of the Occupy organizers told us that we were waiting to hear if the port’s arbitrator would tell ILWU workers to go home. A man wearing an ILWU Local 10 jacket came down to look us over; he was accompanied by a man who was, I was told, the arbitrator. After a time, they left. We kept walking the picket line. It was pretty boring.

By this time, I was getting tired of the drums and the boring chants. This is not a singing movement, which is too bad. I suspect some people these days dismiss singing as old-fashioned; but singing can be subversive, and in the past protesters have been arrested for singing:— “On June 14 [1928], Elizabeth Donnelly was arrested for singing, ‘We’ll catch the boss and put him in the sauce and never let him go,’ to the tune of ‘A hunting we will go.’ Several others were arrested that day, including Bessie Katsikaras, for the second time. She replied in court, ‘God gave me my voice, and God is the only one that can keep me quiet.’ ” (The Strike of ’28, Daniel Georgiana [New Bedford: Spinner Publications, 1993], p. 100.)

We kept getting snippets of news: One of the gates didn’t have enough people to keep the picket line going, but some protesters on bikes zipped over and strengthened their numbers. The Port of Vancouver got shut down for the morning shift. The riot police broke up the protesters in San Diego. And so on. These snippets of news helped break the boredom of walking the picket line. But I was more interested to see that the few times a tractor trailer drove by, the driver blew the air horn in support of us.

Finally at about ten o’clock, I had to pee. I went over to the one public toilet nearby and got in line. I counted: 15 people in front of me, at least a fifteen minutes wait. The line moved slowly up. Then the young woman standing behind me in line whooped: she had just gotten a text that the arbitrator had sent the ILWU workers home for the morning shift. We agreed that it was not exactly where you want to be when you hear that news: “Which picket line were you on when the port was closed?” “Um, the line to pee.”

After that, we walked back to the BART station; we passed a couple dozen tractor trailer rigs, and most of the drivers blew their air horns in support of us. Then I got on the train and went back home.

View from the picket line.

13 thoughts on “West coast port shutdown, Oakland”

  1. 10 a.m.? Look at that. I could’ve gone to Oakland and still made my mural-tour date with the folks from church. I’m really glad you were there.

    And let’s get a few people to teach the picketers some songs! There’s a labor chorus in SF . . .

  2. Why were they trying to shut down the port? Shutting down commerce, such as the import and export of goods, doesn’t make sense to me. I import goods from Sweden (I’d prefer to make them here, but that’s too expensive) and could lose business if the Port of Boston was shut down. Occupy has to start getting a little more specific about what it stands for or evolve to its next phase. It’s already getting bad press about that in Boston.

  3. I agree with Carol. You only made some people lose a day’s pay at the terminal and possibly delayed delivery of some materials so that some production line workers also lost a day’s pay. The real problem is our disfuncional government. Why not picket them?

  4. Carol and Dad — You two are making the classic argument made over the years against unions: that going on strike just makes people lose wages. Well, that’s true, but unions had to go on strike to keep their employers from cutting wages and benefits. If you look at the early 20th C., unions went on strike and lost wages — but they also helped end child labor, reduce the work day from 12+ hours to 8, get benefits, etc.

    There was disagreement in labor unions about the port shutdown. Several unions did support the port shutdown openly; as you can see in the photo above, OEA was represented, and I heard that an SEIU local and other unions were present at other picket lines. The national leadership of ILWU came out as essentially neutral about the port shutdown: they did not support it, were not pleased that it was Occupy organizing this action, but they also said they would not cross Occupy picket lines. ILWU rank-and-file are reported to be more supportive. This sounds to me like the classic case of the union leadership being more conservative than the rank-and-file.

    By the way, this disagreement is also right out of labor history. There have been other cases in the past when established unions who already have what they want don’t want upstart movements to come along and make their own demands. This is part of the reason behind the split between the AFL and the CIO.

    Carol, you write that Occupy is “already getting bad press about that in Boston.” OK, but does that prove anything about Occupy, or does that demonstrate something about the press? I rather think the latter. The press in the last few decades has been supportive of big labor, which has become fairly conservative in its aims and goals, but has not been supportive of some of the smaller more progressive unions. Furthermore, over the past few decades the American press has generally been dismissive of anything to the left of mainstream Democrats, which these days is right of center.

    The real problem with the Occupy movement is that they are using an anarcho-syndicalist organizational model. Anarcho-syndicalism was not uncommon in the U.S. up through the very early 20th C., but disappeared when America actively went after anything that smacked of leftist politics in the early 20th C. Thus, most Americans today are completely unfamiliar with the anarcho-syndicalist organizational model. This is one of the problems the press is having — because they don’t know what anarcho-syndicalism really is, they simply dismiss it. However, a little more attention to labor history would reveal that in some situations anarcho-syndicalism has proved an effective organizing tool. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies) made some real progress on several fronts before they were effectively crushed in the early 20th C. While I am not much of a supporter of anarcho-syndicalism myself, I understand that it can be effective.

    I would suggest that the best way to understand the Occupy movement is to begin with a better understanding of the history of labor movements and their allies, both in America and Europe. There is not much that is new about the Occupy movement.

  5. If you want to understand Anarcho-Syndicalism, you best learn the history of Spain, and their slaughter at the hands of the Communist Party and Stalin. Or simply watch Emma Goldman’s speech on Reds on the fate of the Russian Anarchists. That’s the history and the failure.

  6. I think Occupy did us all a favor by creating some visible discontent and backlash for the financial bailout sans accountability, etc., but if I’m unclear on Occupy’s motives for many actions despite its signs, public calls, etc., then the more middle-of-the-road public is definitely unclear. If Occupy is going to shut down a port, it should make its motive better known through signs, statements, chants, etc. The “bad” press it was getting in Boston was only about how few in the Occupy crowd articulated the purpose of the gathering and how its numbers were dwindling. It might be time for Occupy’s organic leadership to detail a concluding stance and a follow-on agenda.

  7. Occupy will have the support of lifelong liberals because that’s what they do: get involved with anything that smacks of a protest. To gain the support of the mainstream, who are mostly moderates, it’s going to take stating specific goals and objectives, deciding on and staying on message, determining and communicating what constitutes success. I hear the local Occupy people, mostly kids who have freely admitted they “have nothing better to do” and are mostly homeless, throw around the “we are the 99%”, but when asked what that means to them, they can’t say. These kids at our local Occupy are NOT the 99%. The majority of us have obligations that we must meet on a daily basis in order to support our dependents. We can be convinced to support the actions of the “other 1%”, the 1% who have the time and fortitude to actively protest IF we had a clue what, specifically, they hope to accomplish and that there is a plan with any logic behind it.

    The average person has no idea what anarcho-syndicalism is. It means nothing to them. And throwing it around is indicative of the kind of intellectual snobbery that makes the far left seem elitist and removed from reality. Most people are not scholars. They are not interested in lofty concepts and ideals; they are interested in pragmatism. If Occupy wants support from the 98% — the part that isn’t the 1% super-powerful or the 1% super-activists, they are going to have to find focus, find a message, and get real.

    No one should have to become a historian to comprehend Occupy: it’s message should be clear enough that the average high school student could comprehend and explain it.

    And those truck drivers honking “in support”. Not all of us were. Some of us were annoyed to be losing a day’s work or not making it home for our kid’s birthday without a really crystal clear reason to make it worthwhile. You’d get a lot more support is we’d known what you were going to do, why, and how.

  8. alona — You write: “The average person has no idea what anarcho-syndicalism is.”

    Yup. That’s a real problem for Occupy. Nobody really remembers who the Wobblies were, or why the AF of L and the CIO were competitors for so many years before they joined and became the AFL-CIO. Very few Americans remember why the eight-hour day, the forty-hour work week, and OSHA became the norm for most workers (though, of course, not any more). And Occupy is doing a really bad job of explaining what they’re doing, and why, and honestly I don’t think most of them even know what they’re doing and why.

    Which is why I’m trying to tell people about this, just a little. You’re sure as hell not going to hear it from newspapers or television or online news sources, which are almost entirely not supportive of labor getting organized. Nor are you going to hear it from most labor unions, which these days are so embattled they just don’t want to rock the boat and lose what little they have left.

    You also write: “And throwing it around is indicative of the kind of intellectual snobbery that makes the far left seem elitist and removed from reality.”

    Here I have to disagree with you. This used to be a term that was well known in labor circles. Whatever you may think of Newt Gingrich, I value him for bringing a clear sense of history to American politics. Forgetting our history doesn’t do us any good — and calling historians “elitist” doesn’t do anyone any good. Yes, our schools suck, and don’t teach us what we should know about U.S. history — but that doesn’t mean we should reject all knowledge of history because it’s elitist. When I was working in a lumber yard 25 years ago, some of the other guys I worked with, including the big rig drivers, were seriously interested in history and current events — back then, it was not an insult to say that you knew something about U.S. history. I’d like to see us change back to that attitude, instead of the current anti-intellectual attitude that we have today.

    You also write: “And those truck drivers honking ‘in support.’ Not all of us were.”

    Yup. This is always the problem with any kind of movement like this. If you start rocking the boat, there are going to be people who suffer. This is my big beef with Occupy — I’m not convinced they are as aware as they should be of how many people are hurting. I was willing to participate in the port shutdown because as a minister I’m seeing a lot of people who are seriously desperate, who are losing benefits, who are out of work, who are being forced to part-time, who can’t find work at all, and people who have fallen so far they’re living on the streets. And this is in the Bay area, which is much better off than the rest of the country. And on top of that, I’m not seeing any signs that this is going to stop for ordinary workers for another five years. Missing a day’s work (and yeah, I had to make up the day’s work that I missed to be at the port), or missing a kid’s birthday seems pretty minor to me compared to watching people end up homeless.

    Will Occupy make a real difference, and seriously address this problem? I doubt it. Anarcho-syndicalism has a really bad track record in the U.S. (which is why we should know our history, so we can stop following a model that doesn’t really work). But what the hell else are we supposed to do? Sit down and shut up and get screwed? Yes, Occupy sucks, but who the hell else is doing anything? Not the politicians, that’s for damn sure. Not organized labor. No one else is doing anything, so I hold my nose and participate to a limited extent with Occupy, because it’s better than sitting down and letting things get worse.

  9. Dan,
    One of the things that I enjoy about your blog is that you are willing to live and think and muddle in the grey areas of, well — everything. You usually don’t oversimplify or overgeneralize to make a point.
    So I want to challenge you on this comment: “yes, our schools suck, and don’t teach us what we should know about U.S. history” in your response to alona.”

    OK, American public education has problems – even some really big problems – no doubt. But the issues here are complex and the curriculum highly politicized. Your comment “our schools suck” dropped in there as almost an aside just kind of struck a raw nerve for me.

    I am a former social studies teacher. I agree with you that Americans don’t know much about labor history (and so many other topics…) — and should! Wouldn’t it be nice if our American history curriculum had a critical edge — what if we read authors like Zinn, Takaki, etc…

    But think of the political power behind suppressing that history. Think of the lack of “approved” (read: legally eligible for purchase) curriculum resources on these topics. There is an intentional silencing here. And then, there is the anti-intellectualism that pervades our culture — a juggernaut that our schools have been unable to counter, even when they try.

    So if you want to go there, please give us a provocative post on how schools need to change – but please don’t drop in “our schools suck” as the reason people don’t understand the Occupy movement.

    OK. I’m off my soap box. Thanks, as always, for creating a forum for thoughtful discussion.


  10. Mary — You write: “please give us a provocative post on how schools need to change”

    I think you just did that — thank you for your powerful words!

  11. I need to rebut this because the charges of anarchy-syndicalism within Occupy are, as always, far far too broad. A brief example.

    I went to the SF march on the 17th of Oct and the first Port action. While walkin from the subway the first thing I saw was the infamous destroyed wndows at Wells Fargo. I felt sorry for the diversity of tactics protestors, because they lack true belief in e power of subverting the government.

    My all black clothes and EZLN style hat finally got a voice when on the two minute schlepping a woman gave me ten principles of nonviolence. This is in line with the civil side of civil disobedience. I personally am an anarcho-pacifist; And I believe in Gene Sharp when he says of violence “There Are Realistic Altenatives”; the threat of violence never needs to be made, rather the decision of the people to dissolve trust in their government- you will find this ‘right of revolution’ in both our Declaration of Independence and the Color revolutions. A geopolitics professor I had at the Center for Talented Youth (pro tip, your struggling kid is bored, let them take three weeks of what they want to aspire to.)

    My professor was a lecturer from Vancouver or so; he specialized in the Causcaus and monitored elections for the OSCE. Thus he was privileged to see the beginnings of a true color revolution- he was coincidentally in front of the first thousands of protestors when they first entered the Square and shot truly exasperated video of what was happening on a handy cam.

    Revolution works as a self-evident fact. Solidarity- which was the mother of all unions mind you- occupied not only their base in the ports but in the economic transition points.

    And what was the poster put up all night- that shocked the world by giving Solidarity a democratic legislative team and broke the Iron Curtain?


    Craig Ferguson, host of the LATE LATE SHOW, is one of my favorite comedians.

    As a Scotsman, former punk band drummer, actor, recovering alcoholic, father and a gentleman of approximately my own age, Craig has a lot of wordly experience and a very interesting perspective on life.

    He’s refreshingly uninhibited, frequently goofy and genuinely funny. He’s also thoughtful and well-informed.

    And as a recently naturalized U.S. citizen, Ferguson appreciates a lot about this country that many of us natural born Americans take for granted.

    Last night, in his opening monologue he had this to say:

    Tens of millions of Americans in the next election will not vote which I think is pathetic. You hear people, you know, complain about our image around the world. Nothing makes us look worse than not voting.

    I remember after the 1994 first democratic elections in South Africa people lined up for miles to vote. You know, that’s not gonna happen this time.

    You know people, they’ll say the things. “I was busy. I didn’t know where to vote. My penis got stuck in the vacuum cleaner.” All the usual excuses.

    You get that vacuum cleaner down to that polling station with you!

    . . . They don’t have a problem with this apathy about voting elsewhere.

    Democracy is always under threat, by the way. Always under threat. The threat that it’s under right now is complacency. That’s the threat democracy is under.

    And Poland. They remember struggling to win their freedom. I know that Ronald Reagan single-handedly brought down communism with folksy wisdom. But in the 1980’s in Poland there was something called the Solidarity movement. It started off in the shipyards of Gdansk as a trade union for the Polish shipbuilders. You know, the guys who put the screen doors on the submarines and that kind of thing.

    It’s an old joke.

    Anyway in 1989 there was a nationwide referendum in Poland whether they were going to stay with the communists, the soviet communist party or go for democracy. And the Polish government were instructed by the Kremlin to break the heads of anyone supporting an opposition party like Solidarity.

    People were scared. They didn’t know what to do.

    The night before the vote Solidarity plastered Warsaw and Gdansk, the whole town, with a poster. The poster was such a powerful image that it inspired the nation.

    Do we have that poster there?

    Not that poster! Show the real poster.

    That poster. That’s what they said. That’s a poster. That says “Solidarity” in Polish, in red in the background.

    Show me again.

    See that. That is Gary Cooper in “High Noon”. That’s what they used. Instead of a gun he’s holding a ballot paper.

    The best way these Polish workers knew how to symbolize the struggle against communism was a single American armed with a ballot.

    You remember that the next time someone tells you voting’s a waste of time!

    You tell ‘em, Craig!

    Watch the complete monologue at: youtube.com/watch?v=S9_6SN4aMwk

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