By Katie Loncke
In pre-dawn darkness, the picket began.
The task: to shut down key port terminals, and block the ILWU Local 10 longshoremen’s parking lot.
As a silver car inched stubbornly toward one of the open gates blocked by picketers, in swarmed the Oakland police.
Dozens of them.
Arms outstretched, one group of cops parted and jostled the crowd to create a path for entry. Slippery picketers, dodging this stone-faced comb of wide blue wingspans, re-filled the space in front of the silver car. Still yelling, we fluttered in dizzy circles like moths in the headlights. News crews peered from the periphery, hungry for a morning segment, while comrades brandished camera phones like bulbs of garlic against vampire police.
Their frustration clearly mounting, OPD kept pushing us out of the way, pushing, pushing — until the whole tense dance was interrupted by a piercing howl.
The car, still nudging forward, had accidentally rolled over a cop’s foot: pinning him in agony underneath the right front wheel.
What does it say when a giant police team risks physical injury to break the picket lines of striking workers and their supporters?
It says that this strike is significant.
It says that the city (deploying around 50 Oakland police) wants to bust the truckers’ self-organization.
It says that there’s probably a whole lot of money at stake.
Wednesday, November 27, was the third wildcat strike by the Port of Oakland Truckers Association (POTA), demonstrating their collective power, pushing the Port to negotiate rather than delay, and, perhaps as an unintended side bonus, dramatizing the excruciatingly slow waits that the truckers themselves endure at the over-congested port. As we circled in the crosswalks of the roads and gates, cars and trucks idled, their drivers tight-jawed and impatient.
Why Take The Risk? What’s At Stake?
Routinely, Port of Oakland truckers face 4, 5, 6-hour waits where they are forced to stay in their trucks, motors running, pissing away gas money, literally pissing into bottles, watching their paid-by-the-load wage dissolve with each passing hour, and fouling up the very air they have to breathe. Air that also spreads to residents of West Oakland, and beyond.
The Port of Oakland Truckers Association, a non-unionized, autonomous organization of owner-operators who have to pay out of pocket to maintain their own trucks and upgrade their equipment, are fighting for improvements to port policies that will allow them to make a living while also improving air quality.
If they fail, 800 of these truckers could lose their jobs on New Year’s Day, 2014 — for being out of compliance with equipment upgrade regulations that are unreasonably strict on them, in comparison to company truckers in Oakland or owner-operator truckers at other ports. Keeping trucks compliant with environmental standards is all well and good, but we can reach those goals while giving workers enough time that they don’t go bankrupt.
As revolutionaries, as people who support workers’ struggles, and as people who support environmental fights, we feel compelled and inspired to assist the truckers in their self-organization, as much as we can.
What Makes the Port Truckers’ Struggle Special?
1. the most affected are leading. the fight is led by the truckers themselves: mostly immigrant workers of color, many struggling to help support their families. though aided by talented community organizers in a solidarity committee, the workers operate with the knowledge that ultimately, it’s up to them. they vote; they have the power to act in coordination; and no one’s going to do it for them. Read this great interview with POTA member Tarcilo Caldera to get one trucker’s perspective on the fight.
2. labor and environment fall on the same side. too often, we hear about labor and eco-justice movements butting heads, as workers desperate for jobs do the dirty work that poisons not only their own bodies but the air, water, land, and more. this is an example of a labor struggle where the workers’ interests and community health interests align: we all want cleaner air, and de-congesting the ports is a step in that direction.
3. the ports remain important. oakland’s port is the fourth largest in the country, processing about $30 billion of exports and imports annually. no wonder the cops come out in full force to defend the flow of capital. we believe it’s important to continue encouraging militant worker organization at this key point of industry.
Why Are Longshoremen Crossing the Line?
It was frankly disappointing to see members of one of the more historically militant unions in the entire United States — ILWU Local 10 — crossing the picket lines of fellow workers and community at the port. What’s behind this surprising behavior? Independent journalist Jonathan Nack reports:
Part of the independent truckers’ action was not as effective as planned. Members of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union, Local 10, crossed the picket line at the SSA terminal. POTA was disappointed that Local 10 didn’t honor the picket lines.
It was a surprising response from Local 10, which has historically honored picket lines in support of progressive struggles. It was particularly surprising, since Local 10’s membership meeting had voted to honor all POTA picket lines.
According to Stan Woods, a member of ILWU, Local 6, who attended Local 10’s membership meeting as an observer, the membership had voted 73 to 39 to honor POTA picket lines. It was hotly debated. There were strong feelings on both sides. A contingent from POTA attended the union’s meeting and Frank Adams of POTA spoke at the meeting. In the end, the union’s membership vote to act in solidarity with POTA by honoring their lines wasn’t close, according to Woods.
Members of Local 10 said that the telephone recording they call daily instructed members to go to work at the SSA terminal. One member claimed that the membership’s vote to honor the picket line was not followed because, “the membership was misled. These guys are not union, they [POTA] said they’ll never go union.”
Attitudes like this (“fuck it, they’re not a real union”) illustrate the danger of valuing form over content in the labor movement. As a general rule, in my opinion, workers’ self-organization should be respected regardless of whether or not it’s officially unionized. To borrow a line from one of my all-time favorite labor films, the live-action musical Newsies (seriously):
[Jack Kelly (Christian Bale)]: “Well if we go on strike, then we ARE a union, right?”
…Even if we ain’t got hats or badges
We’re a union, just by sayin’ so…
And the world will know!
Help the Truckers’ Struggle Succeed!
You can support the Truckers!
1. Share this article and other news about their struggle
2. Come out to pickets, noise demos, and other actions
3. Join the POTA solidarity Facebook page for updates on the fight
Thank you and may you be well!
POTA truckers and their families at a community solidarity BBQ. Photos by the author.