West Coast ports shut on May Day

Cynthia McKinney speaks at the ILWU May Day Rally. “The strong, proud men and women of the ILWU have drawn a line in the sand,” she said.
“And I am proud of you!” Photo – Charles Slay

by Clarence Thomas 

The International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU), known for its militant and democratic traditions as well as its economic and social justice activism, has written a new chapter in its glorious labor history by shutting down all 29 ports on the West Coast for eight hours on May Day.

This historic and courageous action on the part of the ILWU came about as the result of a “No Peace No Work Holiday” resolution adopted by the Longshore Division Caucus, its highest ruling body, in February. The caucus passed this resolution by an overwhelming majority of the 100 longshore delegates representing all locals on the West Coast.

This resolution demanded “an immediate end to the war and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Middle East.” It also asked the AFL-CIO and Change to Win for “an urgent appeal for unity and action” to end the war. The resolution further included a request for a May 1 coastwide stop-work union meeting to accommodate the closure of the ports. Contractually, the ILWU is entitled to one stop-work meeting a month to address union business.

The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents shippers, stevedoring companies and terminal operators and negotiates labor contracts on their behalf, denied the request for a coastwide union meeting for May 1. While such requests have been honored in the past with advance notice, this time PMA received nearly three months advance notice and still denied the request.

The rank and file proceeded with plans for a stop-work shutdown even though the International leadership withdrew its request to the PMA for the May 1 coastwide meeting.

PMA then insisted that the union leadership notify its members of the withdrawal of the request for May Day. The PMA even went to an arbitrator to force the union leaders to do this. The arbitrator ruled that the union is obligated to notify members that the union’s request had been withdrawn.

None of this pressure weakened the resolve of the rank and file, who organized marches, rallies and other demonstrations in San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest. Union locals continued to prepare for the May Day action.

In San Francisco, Local 10 members organized the Port Workers’ May Day Organizing Committee, made up of union members, immigrant rights, and anti-war and social justice groups. In the Pacific Northwest, May Day organizing groups were headed up by rank and filers Gabriel Prawl of the Local 19 Executive Board in Seattle; and in Portland Local 8 members Jerry Lawrence, member of the Executive Board, and Debbie Stringfellow. 

Anti-war solidarity from West Coast to Iraq 

There were numerous solidarity statements not just from trade unionists but a wide array of individuals and organizations from around the world in support of ILWU’s unprecedented planned action. The first was called by the National Association of Letter Carriers locals observing two minutes of silence in all carrier stations at 8:15 a.m. on May 1 in solidarity with the ILWU action. 

Independent port truckers on the West Coast were very active in taking on solidarity actions in support of the ILWU. In the ports of Newark and Elizabeth, N.J., as well as the port of Houston, independent truckers protested against higher gas prices and in support of the ILWU May Day action. 

In Seattle, students at Seattle University, University of Washington and Seattle Central Community College left their respective campuses to hold their own rallies or join the march and rally of ILWU Local 19. San Francisco State University students did the same in San Francisco.

The ILWU action resonated so much in the community that one of the oldest movie theater venues in Oakland, Calif., the Grand Lake, had the following on its marquee for a week leading up to May Day, We Salute the Longshoremen’s May Day Strike to Protest the Criminal Occupation of Iraq.” Due to its location near the central city thoroughfare, thousands of people could see the marquee on any given day.

The most significant solidarity action of all came from longshoremen in Iraq itself. Members of the Port Workers Union of Iraq shut down the Ports of Umn Qasr and Khor Alzubair for one hour on May Day in solidarity with the shutdown of all West Coast ports by members of the ILWU in opposition to the occupation of Iraq. This action was taken in defiance of the Ba’athist legislation of 1987, which banned trade unions in the public sector and public enterprise.

The General Union of Port Workers in Iraq sent this message to the ILWU: “The courageous decision you made to carry out a strike on May Day to protest against the war and occupation of Iraq advances our struggle against occupation to bring a better future for us and for the rest of the world as well.”

There was a second solidarity message received from the Iraqi Labor Movement, a broad cross section of union leaders from many different unions and labor federations in Iraq. The message read in part, “On this day of international labor solidarity, we call on our fellow trade unionists and all those worldwide who have stood against war and occupation to increase support for our struggle for freedom from occupation – both military and economic.”

Jack Heyman, Local 10 Executive Board member and co-chair of the Port Workers May Day Organizing Committee, was interviewed by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! on May 2 about the significance of the May Day action. He responded to several of her questions in the following way: “We’re really proud here on the West Coast as longshoremen. The ILWU is making a stand because it’s part of our legacy, really for standing up on principled issues.

“This is the first stop work – work stoppage ever where workers were withholding their labor and demanding an end to the war and the immediate withdrawal of the troops. Not only did we defy the arbitrator, but in a certain sense we defied our own union officials. The union officials did not want to have the actions we organized up and down the coast despite the arbitrator’s decision. Simply, we don’t take our orders from the arbitrator – we don’t take it from judges. The rank and file goes out and does what it has to do.

“We did that in 1984 during our struggle against apartheid when a ship came in from South Africa. We Local 10 members refused to work that ship for 10 days. That was in defiance of what the arbitrator said and what our union officials were telling us. So we’ve got strong traditions in the ILWU, rank-and-file democracy where we implement what we decide in a democratic fashion.”

In San Francisco, more than a thousand people marched from Local 10’s union hall, led by the Local 10 Drill Team, along the Embarcadero where the 1934 Big Strike took place, to a noon rally at Justin Herman Plaza. Actor-activist Danny Glover, Cynthia McKinney, former congresswoman from Georgia and candidate for the Green Party presidential nomination, Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq and who is running against Nancy Pelosi for Congress, and many others spoke to the crowd.

Local 10 was the local of the legendary labor leader and founding member of the ILWU, Harry Bridges. Local 10 initiated the Million Worker March (MWM), which took place on Oct. 17, 2004, at the Lincoln Memorial. The MWM movement calls upon the rank and file of the labor movement, organized and unorganized, to wage a fight-back movement for the working class. One of the aims of the MWM following the 2004 mobilization was to reclaim May Day by reclaiming our proud history of struggle and social gains which International Workers’ Day stands for.

Rallies, marches and resolutions all play an important role in terms of organizing, but the ILWU’s May Day action of shutting down all 29 ports on the West Coast is an example of how workers can exercise their power in the workplace and move from protest to resistance.

© 2008 Workers World. This story was originally published May 5, 2008, by Workers World, 55 W. 17th St., New York NY 10011, ww@workers.org, www.workers.org. Clarence Thomas is a Local 10 ILWU Executive Board member, Port Workers’ May Day Organizing Committee co-chair and Million Worker March Movement national co-chair.