Occupy Activists Try to Shut Down West Coast Ports
Photo Credit: Joshua Holland
On Monday morning, about 500 activists with Occupy Oakland braved a predawn chill to blockade the Port of Oakland, the fifth busiest container port in the United States. The protesters broke up into 3 which which blocked the entrances to several shipyards in the sprawling complex, leaving dozens of trucks idling in line. Police eventually moved in to force open the gates; Oakland Police interim Chief Howard Jordan said that two occupiers were arrested.
The shut-down was part of a coordinated day of action on the West Coast. Protesters also reportedly caused disruptions at ports in Vancouver, Portland and Seattle for at least part of the day (details are sketchy as of press time). Occupiers clashed with police in Long Beach, Seattle Houston and San Diego.
On Monday evening, a second wave of Occupy Oakland protesters, this time numbering around 2,000, again marched to the port. During an impromptu “General Assembly,” protesters agreed to keep their promise to extend the blockade into Tuesday if other occupations faced police violence.
Meanwhile, a solidarity action against Goldman Sachs in New York led to as many as 18 arrests. Goldman owns 51 percent of SSA Marine, a leading shipping company, and Shippers Transport Express, a trucking company.
The goal of the day's actions was to raise public awareness of the plight faced by dock-workers and truckers. As AlterNet's Tara Lohan wrote last week, “Between the dock where the cargo is unloaded and the shelf from which you pluck your treasure, there are several critical lynchpins.”
One of them is port truck drivers. These drivers (around 110,000 of them in the United States) are responsible for moving approximately 20 million containers a year from the ports to railway yards and warehouses. Drivers operating large trucks are expected to safely haul loads up to 80,000 pounds. It's a job for professionals, only these professionals are earning poverty wages, sometimes even less than you'd make flipping burgers at a fast food restaurant. Once a middle-class profession, the port trucking (or drayage) industry has now been dubbed "sweatshops on wheels."
The shutdowns had prompted some controversy among supporters of the Occupy Movement after Craig Merrilees, communications director for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), told the Guardian that the action was “being promoted by a group of people who apparently think they can call general strikes and workplace shutdowns without talking to workers and without involving the unions.” On Monday, Merrilees took a softer stance during an interview with a local radio station, KALW, saying that ILWU had long supported progressive causes but couldn't endorse the action without going through the union's democratic process. Of the dozens of rank and file members who had participated in the shutdown, Merrilees said he was happy they were exercising their First Amendment rights.
While members of the ILWU didn't lose any pay as a result of the disruption, over 80 percent of the nation's truckers are classified as “independent contractors,” and delays cost them. A few truckers expressed anger at the shutdown in Oakland, while others honked their horns in solidarity.
In an open letter about the day's actions, four truckers working at terminals up and down the West Coast wrote about their situation:
We love being behind the wheel. We are proud of the work we do to keep America’s economy moving. But we feel humiliated when we receive paychecks that suggest we work part time at a fast-food counter. Especially when we work an average of 60 or more hours a week, away from our families.
Just like Wall Street doesn’t have to abide by rules, our industry isn’t bound to regulation. So the market is run by con artists. The companies we work for call us independent contractors, as if we were our own bosses, but they boss us around. We receive Third World wages and drive sweatshops on wheels. We cannot negotiate our rates. (Usually we are not allowed to even see them.) We are paid by the load, not by the hour. So when we sit in those long lines at the terminals, or if we are stuck in traffic, we become volunteers who basically donate our time to the trucking and shipping companies. That’s the nice way to put it. We have all heard the words “modern-day slaves” at the lunch stops.
There are no restrooms for drivers. We keep empty bottles in our cabs. Plastic bags too. We feel like dogs. An Oakland driver was recently banned from the terminal because he was spied relieving himself behind a container. Neither the port, nor the terminal operators or anyone in the industry thinks it is their responsibility to provide humane and hygienic facilities for us. It is absolutely horrible for drivers who are women, who risk infection when they try to hold it until they can find a place to go.
The companies demand we cut corners to compete. It makes our roads less safe. When we try to blow the whistle about skipped inspections, faulty equipment, or falsified logs, then we are “starved out.” That means we are either fired outright, or more likely, we never get dispatched to haul a load again.
So while the shutdown caused some truckers a day's pay, the goal of the day's actions was to bring attention to the abusive labor practices with which they contend every day.
The port shutdowns are part of an escalation of tactics by the Occupy Movement in the wake of a number of evictions across the country. No longer is it just about occupying public space – at least parts of the movement are refocusing their message on the predations of “the 1 percent.” Whether it's foreclosure defense or shutting down West Coast shipping in solidarity with truck drivers being paid sweatshop wages, the occupiers are finding new ways to flex their muscles.