Occupy Oakland and Workers Back Off Plan to Shut Down the Golden Gate Bridge for May Day
May Day protest actions are planned across the region, state and nation, but many eyes are on the flashpoint of Occupy Oakland, where organizers say "traditional labor and precarious workers will strike together for the first time" at Occupy's call.
"It's an interesting convergence of unorganized labor and the Occupy movement creating this pressure and momentum that encourages the rank and file to plan strikes on this day," said Steven Angell, an organizer with Occupy Oakland. "I've heard unions say that they haven't celebrated May Day in a very long time, or most of the rank and file doesn't even know what it is. And now they're having work stoppages and meetings and walk-outs and pickets and all sorts of actions."
From an early morning at the Golden Gate Bridge to a late afternoon on the streets of Oakland, May 1 in California's Bay Area is shaping up to be more of a Workers' Day than it has in decades. Organized labor plans to mark the day with strikes and walk-outs across the region while Occupy activists, who called for a mass general strike many weeks ago, are attempting to rally support for the more than 80 percent of California's wage and salary workers who do not belong to unions -- all while avoiding potential law enforcement crackdowns.
At the same time, Occupy and organized labor are still figuring out how best to work together, and there have been a few potholes in the road to May Day in the Bay.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 17.1 percent of workers in California belong to a union. The national rate is even lower, at 11.8 percent. "Let's not just talk about organized labor," said Clarence Thomas, an International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 member for 26 years and a Port of Oakland worker. "The overwhelming majority of working people in this country do not belong to a union and the prospects of being able to join one are very dim. Now is the time to remember our militant labor history because historically labor has played a very leading role in the fight for social justice."
Thomas was speaking at the downtown triangle where Oakland's 1946 general strike commenced -- the last general strike in the U.S. before Occupy Oakland's November 2 event, which drew tens of thousands to the streets and shut down the city's port for several hours, but was not truly a “general strike” in the sense of vast labor support. Compared to 1946, it was more like a mass protest.
Union membership as a percent of employed workers peaked eight years after that '46 strike, in 1954 at 28.3%. The vision of a general strike as it existed in the first half of the 20th century revolved around organized labor supporting one another and burgeoning attempts by other worker groups to unionize. Today, the vast "precariat" of non-unionized labor presents both challenges and opportunities for the action.
While some unions are being coy about their May 1 plans, others have come out in support of work stoppage, including some who have no ongoing negotiations or grievances with their employers -- exactly the kind of labor a general strike is meant to halt.
Occupy activists will not be helping to shut down the port this time around, because they don't have to. ILWU Local 10 rank and file workers there have stated they will not be working on the eight-hour May 1 day shift, putting port operations on hold until the evening.
Up to 4,500 California Nurses Association registered nurses at Sutter hospitals in Berkeley, Oakland and six other Bay Area cities will strike on May 1 in response to what they call "greed and misplaced priorities" on the part of Sutter Health, who are raising executive salaries while cutting services. "We'll be some of the many people having a strike that day," said CNA nurse Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto. Following the one-day strike, Pardue-Okimoto said, Alta Bates Summit hospital in Oakland will lock the nurses out for five days. The California Nurses Association has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. "We believe this is a punitive action against the nurses."
In San Francisco, Service Employees International Union workers from several different locals, including janitors, retail workers, librarians and others, plan to occupy city hall on Monday and Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. “until they kick [them] out.”
But the Bay Area action that has received the most buzz in the run-up to May 1 has been stepped back significantly in recent days, without much explanation. A coalition of 14 unions representing more than 380 workers at the Golden Gate Bridge District's ferries and buses, who have been without a contract since July 1, 2011, is planning for a May 1 rally and shutdown of the district's services if unions vote to strike. "We're expecting hundreds of participants from community groups all over the Bay Area helping the coalition out on May Day," said Alex Tonisson, an organizer with the bridge labor coalition and the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21. The North Bay and San Francisco labor councils have granted strike sanctions to the coalition, but strike votes are still ongoing.
The Golden Gate Bridge labor coalition reached out to Occupy Oakland for support in shutting down the bridge weeks ago, in part because of the group’s experience in blockading the Port of Oakland. There was initial excitement about the bridge action. "It's an international icon. It would be so wonderful to start the day with this beautiful, nonviolent direct action," said Lauren Smith, an organizer with Occupy Oakland's labor solidarity committee, which grew out of the West Coast Port Shutdown organizing group and has since provided support for labor struggles around the Bay Area. But, Smith was careful to point out, Occupy activists cannot take the place of striking workers on their own picket lines, and will only support the action if the workers themselves do.
"We have to avoid situations where we can be used as a bargaining chip either inadvertently or on purpose," said Smith. "Our first responsibility is to protect our people. Only slightly second to that is protecting the integrity of the movement."
Since initial excitement around a potential bridge blockade, plans have been scaled back significantly. Early Saturday, the labor coalition announced that their May Day plans would include a hard picket to shut down the ferry services, but keep the bridge open. “We ask supporters to stand with us at strike picket lines on May Day, and to keep the bridge open,” said Tonisson.
It remains to be seen how Occupy Oakland might figure into the new plan, which stands to make the embattled bridge district more money, as the bridge tolls actually offset the cost of running the more expensive ferries. Some of those who initially helped to organize the bridge shutdown are now calling for Occupy Oakland support to stay in Oakland.
"The wisdom of taking a step back to reassess is something we're developing," said Smith. "It shows a maturing of the group."
While actions are planned all over the region, much of the May Day attention is focused on that group and its reputation for rough tactics. Many Oakland organizers plan to stay in the East Bay on May Day morning and keep the emphasis on non-unionized and undocumented worker struggles. "There are tons of worker struggles in Oakland," said Smith. "It's such a working class town, with so many people that are hard living."
To this end, organizers with the Precarious and Service Workers assembly are attempting to organize those who "don't comply with the traditional definition of labor" in a new kind of solidarity network.
"We're organizing outside the union form. We're not interested in leadership," said one organizer, who declined to give their name. "We aren't trying to replicate that model, because we don't just want better pay, but totally different lives." Workers from across the Bay Area come together to "share their struggles" in regular meetings that will continue after May Day.
A hotline has been running for weeks to collect complaints from non-unionized workers whose employers will not allow them to leave work on May 1. Roving community picket lines organized for the morning of May 1 in Oakland aim to shut down these and other businesses around the city.
A 3 p.m., a workers march "for dignity and resistance," which will include many undocumented laborers, "employed and unemployed, paid and unpaid," is planned as a Bay Area wide convergence in Oakland. Organizers have obtained a permit for the event, putting them at odds with some Occupy activists; they say the permits were necessary for the protection of undocumented workers who will be participating. They are expecting thousands of attendees on the march from East to downtown Oakland.
The decentralized protests may be met with decentralized enforcement from police, who have vowed to change tactics. Last November’s general strike ended in a haze of tear gas, broken windows and more than 100 arrests after police marched on the Occupy camp in city hall plaza. "A key element of our strategy change is to intervene early," said Oakland Police Chief of Staff Sergeant Chris Bolton. Oakland police also say they may use "small teams" to go into crowds and make targeted arrests as opposed to surrounding and arresting marches and protests en masse as they have in the past. These sorts of “snatch squads,” as protesters are calling them, might succeed in heading off actions like the black bloc anti-capitalist march of November’s general strike, where protesters smashed and graffitied bank windows and a Whole Foods around the downtown Oakland area. "The Constitutional tests of time, place, and manner -- among other factors -- will determine our tactics and approaches," said Bolton.
It remains unclear whether law enforcement will allow these pickets as community protest actions protected by the First Amendment, or will crack down on them as marches organized and held without city permits. "We are looking at changing our tactics in terms of how we approach [the protests] to be much more assertive in terms of not allowing unpermitted marches throughout the city," said Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan of the May Day plans.
Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild immediately expressed concern at this announcement. Such changes would fly in the face of the current federal court-ordered crowd control policy, which states that a march’s lack of a permit is not reason enough to declare it an “unlawful assembly” and arrest demonstrators. The current crowd control policy was put into place as result of a lawsuit filed against the Oakland Police following excessive use of force at anti-war protests in the Port in 2003.
Since that announcement, plans for the policy upheaval have been “postponed” until after May Day, according to the Oakland city attorney.
Nonetheless, Occupiers are, as ever, braced for the crackdown, but focused on the task at hand.
"There's so much that we can do and we're just kind of finding our way," said Smith.