Countdown to Occupy Protest Shutdown Attempt

Importers and exporters are getting nervous as momentum builds for a Dec. 12 shutdown of West Coast ports by the Occupy movement. West Coast ports handle more than 50 percent of the U.S. containerized trade, including 70 percent of U.S. imports from Asia.

Shippers who lived through the 2002 employer lockout of longshoremen still have nightmares about the 10-day shutdown that cost the U.S. economy an estimated $1 billion a day.

Port executives are taking the threat of mass demonstrations seriously. Ports such as Los Angeles and Long Beach that have their own police departments are mapping out strategies to keep trucks moving and cargo flowing on Dec. 12. There is no port police department in Oakland, but port managers are working on a safety plan with city and county law enforcement agencies, said Isaac Kos-Read, director of external affairs.

“We’re going to keep our maritime operations up and running at full speed to keep the 99 percent working,” he said.

While isolated disruptions at individual marine terminals are certainly possible on Dec. 12, it is hard to imagine how a movement with very little knowledge of waterfront operations, and limited contacts with transportation unions, can shut down all West Coast ports from Seattle to San Diego.This is especially true because the movement lacks the support of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. ILWU officers notified union members that any picket lines erected by the Occupy movement are not sanctioned by the union.

The ILWU is becoming increasingly annoyed by Occupy press releases that cite ILWU issues as reasons for a coast-wide port shutdown. The Occupy organizers never consulted with the union.
Furthermore, the ILWU is dealing with globalization in a more effective way, such as its announcement this summer of a pact with the Panama Canal Pilots union. Finally, cargo volumes this year have been weaker than forecasted, and most union members don’t want to give up a day’s work over issues that are not clearly defined.

Some Occupy press releases have chastised the ILWU leadership for failing to actively support the movement. Current and former ILWU members have had a hand in the releases, and therefore the statements contain surprisingly detailed information about the history of union actions in support of workers around the world. ILWU officers said all members of a democratic union are free to express their own opinions, but Bob McEllrath, international president, was quick to point out that only ILWU members or their elected representatives can authorize job actions on behalf of the union.

The Teamsters union, which established a high profile at West Coast ports the past few years as it attempted to organize harbor truck drivers, is likewise not involved in planning the ports shutdown.
The Teamsters, though, are more openly supportive of the Occupy movement because they see it as an opportunity to draw national attention to the plight of the drivers. Change to Win, an umbrella labor organization supported heavily by the Teamsters, said that union is encouraging Occupy organizers to support the drivers and to “to pledge their ongoing solidarity with these workers who are fighting louder and harder than ever before to win their collective bargaining rights.”

Nevertheless, even this show of support from individual ILWU members and the Teamsters union will have a limited impact on a movement that seeks to shut down ports that last year collectively handled almost 15 million loaded TEUs. The big enchilada for the Occupy movement, of course, is Los Angeles-Long Beach, which handles 70 percent of West Coast container cargo. However, shutting down this sprawling complex of 13 container terminals that handle 30,000 truck moves a day without the active support of the ILWU would require an army of demonstrators blocking numerous roads and freeways in the harbor area. That would be difficult and dangerous. Individual terminals could be affected, but it is hard to foresee how the entire port complex could be shut down.

Oakland is the only U.S. port so far to be shut down by the Occupy movement. The Nov. 2 action closed the Northern California port for the night shift, and the demonstrators who stayed on the next morning agreed to go home after a union officer treated them to breakfast burritos. Kos-Read noted that the Nov. 2 event was part of a larger general strike, but Oakland executives do not anticipate as huge a turnout on Dec. 12.

The Occupy movement has yet to clearly define the goals it hopes to accomplish in shutting down the ports. Nor has the movement come to grips with the impact of its actions on the many longshoremen, truck drivers, rail yard employees and other blue-collar workers in the harbor, all of whom are members in good standing of the 99 percent. “Big Bob” McEllrath of the ILWU does not look or act like the 1 percent associated with Wall Street, and his words resonate with union members. “Any decisions made by groups outside of the union’s democratic process do not hold water, regardless of the intent,” he said.

-- Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at Follow him on Twitter @billmongelluzzo.

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