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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

US, Iraqi Dock Workers Strike Against Occupation

From protest to resistance
West Coast ports shut on May Day

By Clarence Thomas
Published May 5, 2008 9:19 PM

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. Such
requests have been honored in the past with advance
notice. (PMA received nearly three months advanced 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been withdrawn.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
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 the University of
Seattle, 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.

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,
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; Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq; 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.


The writer is a Local 10, ILWU Executive Board member;
Co-chair, Port Workers’ May Day Organizing Committee, and
National Co-chair, Million Worker March Movement.