If the intent of the Occupy movement was simply to attract attention by attempting to shut down West Coast ports on Dec. 12, the loosely knit groups achieved a major coup. Local and national media coverage of demonstrations in Oakland, Long Beach, Seattle and even Longview, Wash., was extensive.
But if the Occupy demonstrators truly intended to have an impact on the direction of U.S. trade and transportation policy by targeting seaports, their efforts fell short.
Port authorities are landlords. They build facilities and lease them to terminal operators. Ports don’t book cargo. They don’t determine what products Americans import and export, nor do they have any influence over the nation’s trade balance. Ports have no say over who invests in terminal operators, be the investors a teachers fund or a Wall Street powerhouse such as Goldman Sachs.
Occupy protestors also learned that if they are to successfully shut down all of the ports from Vancouver, British Columbia, to San Diego, they need the full support of the only organization that can carry out that mission: the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
The Occupy movement failed because it chose not to consult with the ILWU leadership before taking action. Still, the ILWU leaders probably would have refused to go along even if they had been consulted.
ILWU President Bob McEllrath issued a strong statement before the protest decrying any link between the union and the stated goals of the Occupy movement. “Support is one thing,” he said. “Organizing from outside groups attempting to co-opt our struggle in order to advance a broader agenda is quite another.”
Although the ILWU stated publicly it is also concerned about the growing disparity of wealth between the top 1 percent and the working 99 percent, the ILWU isn’t interested in shutting down ports to achieve ephemeral goals. A coastwide port shutdown is a last-resort measure reserved for specific, achievable goals. To the union, cavalier use of this weapon weakens its usefulness and attracts unneeded animosity from employers and the general public.
The Occupy movement also learned that logistically, shutting a port is easier said than done. Oakland, with one entrance and one exit, is relatively easy to choke off. Los Angeles-Long Beach, with 14 container terminals spread across San Pedro Bay, isn’t occupied easily.
Even in Oakland, where the Occupy demonstrators succeeded in shutting down cargo-handling operations for a work shift, the impact on the affected terminals was minimal. By the morning of Dec. 13, all facilities had recovered what was lost the day before.
The most poignant lesson to take away from the Occupy incident was that many workers employed in port-service industries are “casuals.” Truck drivers, who happen to be near the bottom of the food chain, don’t get paid when they can’t work. The truck drivers who lost a day’s pay in Oakland lost 20 percent of their weekly earnings for a cause that really wasn’t theirs.
Even the higher-paid longshoremen are casuals. Longshoremen report each day to a union dispatch hall for assignments. If terminals aren’t working, they also lose a day’s pay.
For those who have a taste for irony, the Occupy movement was completely off target in attempting to harm the 1 percent by disrupting port operations. If anything, port-dependent jobs including longshoremen, truckers, warehouse workers, importers, exporters, shipping industry employees, freight forwarders and customhouse brokers live much better and earn more than most wage earners that fall into the 99 percent category.
John Husing, an economist in Southern California’s Inland Empire 50 miles east of Los Angeles, notes many distribution warehouse jobs in that region offer workers the opportunity to earn middle-class wages and are a welcome replacement for the manufacturing jobs that have long since migrated to China.
For those workers lucky enough to land a job on the docks, the average annual longshoreman’s earnings of more than $100,000 place them at the upper end of the 99 percent.
After many years of being obscure and ignored, seaports in recent years suddenly find themselves under the microscope. Environmental issues such as pollution from vessels, trucks and trains thrust ports into public awareness. Now the Occupy Wall Street movement has made its way to the waterfront.
Port directors nationwide should learn from the Dec. 12 Occupy demonstrations that ports have been discovered. The general population now understands that ports handle the goods that support the middle class lifestyle. Port executives can take this message to their city and state governments, and all the way to Washington, to impress upon policymakers that ports are vital to the nation’s economy, and disrupting port operations hurts the entire economy.