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From anti-war protest to resistance
West Coast ports shut on May Day
Published May 5, 2008 9:19 PM
The writer is a Local 10, ILWU Executive Board member; Co-chair, Port
Workers’ May Day Organizing Committee;
ILWU Local 10 drill team, May Day
march, San Francisco.
and National Co-chair, Million Worker March Movement.
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.
Clarence Thomas and Jack Heyman,
ILWU Local 10 Executive Board
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
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
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
Oakland, Calif., theater displayed
anti-war message several days
before May Day.
Photo: Steve Zeltzer
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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