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‘Wisconsin on the docks’

Labor defends longshore union from employer attacks

Published Apr 28, 2011 9:45 PM

Local 10 members applaud as Dave Welsh reads
letters of solidarity.
Photo: Randall White

Several hundred defenders and members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 in Oakland took over the plaza at Pacific Maritime Association headquarters here on April 25 to demand that the employers’ group drop its lawsuit against the union. The suit was in retaliation for the dockworkers’ solidarity action on April 4 in defense of Wisconsin public workers.

The militant lunchtime rally praised the voluntary rank-and-file action by Local 10 members on April 4. The action resulted in no ships being loaded or unloaded for 24 hours in the San Francisco and Oakland ports.

“This was Wisconsin on the docks,” said ILWU member Clarence Thomas. He pointed out that the rank and file were answering the AFL-CIO’s call for “No Business as Usual” during the April 4 nationwide day of action to defend besieged public workers in Wisconsin and 15 other states -- who are threatened with losing their pensions, union work rules, collective bargaining rights and social services.

“This was a courageous act of conscience on the part of these dock workers -- whose work, by the way, is critical to the functioning of the global economy. Remember that Oakland is the fourth-busiest container port in the country,” said Thomas.

The mass protest at PMA was seen as a “shot across the bow” launching a national defense campaign, supported by the San Francisco Labor Council, to defend and assert the right of ILWU members and all workers to take job actions or withhold their labor in solidarity with the struggles of other workers.

Jack Heyman, another Local 10 dock worker, said the 1934 West Coast Maritime Strike led by Harry Bridges and the San Francisco General Strike that followed it “are what made San Francisco a union town. Now we’re in another crisis of capitalism. This time the government workers are in the forefront of the struggle.

“It’s a class struggle, and we’re facing bipartisan attacks,” continued Heyman. “The difference between the two parties is that the Republicans want to take away collective bargaining and the Democrats want to keep collective bargaining as long as we accept unacceptable concessions. In addition to Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Walker, we’ve got Democrat Gov. Jerry Brown in California. They both want to sock it to us.”

Trent Willis, Local 10 dockworker and former president, said the April 4 actions took place on the anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. He told how Dr. King was made an honorary member of Local 10 and addressed the membership in September 1967 while in San Francisco organizing for a Poor People’s March on Washington to demand economic and social rights for unemployed workers and the poor.

“We need to recreate what Brother Martin was trying to do in those years,” said Willis. “Today the employer class is coming after everybody. That means we need another Million Worker March, another Poor People’s campaign. We need a general strike.”

Monadel Herzallah of the Arab American Union Members Council recalled the powerful moment last June 20 when 800 to 1,000 people massed at a terminal in the port of Oakland at 5:30 in the morning to prevent the loading or unloading of an Israeli Zim Lines ship. This was to protest the murderous Israeli attack on a Turkish ship bringing aid to besieged Palestinians in Gaza. ILWU Local 10 honored the picket line and the terminal was idle for 24 hours.

“You can’t begin to imagine the impact that action had,” said Herzallah. “There are homes in Gaza where pictures of that 5:30 a.m. picket line in Oakland are taped to the wall. I have no doubt that the people’s uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and the union movements that played such an important role there were inspired by the ILWU refusal to cross the line and work the Israeli ship.

“But solidarity is not a one-way street,” Herzallah concluded. "Now Local 10 is under attack for taking a selfless action in solidarity with Wisconsin workers, and they need the active support of every union, every community group, every one of us.”

Cephus Johnson, uncle of Oscar Grant, who was shot dead by transit police on New Year's Day in 2009, referred to the fact that Dr. King was in Memphis to support the campaign to win a union contract for sanitation workers. “For change to occur, labor and community, we all must unite,” he said. “On the streets not far from here there are homeless people; there is police brutality. ILWU Local 10 fights for justice and equality for all. This is the only way we will win.”

Two ILWU ship’s clerks from Seattle, Michael Hoard and Gabriel Prawl, flew to San Francisco to be part of the rally. “I came down here to fight,” said Hoard, “and to stand with my brothers and sisters in Local 10 because they’re not afraid to go to bat for people who are suffering.”

Prawl said he was “inspired by Local 10. There is an attack coming down on working people, an attack by big business and the bosses on Wall Street. Local 10 is the one union that stands with organized labor and also with the unemployed.” Longshore locals in Seattle and Portland, Ore., have voted to support Local 10 in this fight.

Solidarity from Wisconsin, Greece, Brazil, the Carolinas

Solidarity messages have rolled in from around the world. From Madison, Wis., the South Central Federation of Labor extended “our heartfelt thank you for the solidarity your members showed on April 4. Whether it’s racist apartheid in South Africa, imperialist war in Iraq, or fascist plutocracy in Wisconsin, Local 10, over and over again, shows us ‘what a Union should look like’!!”

The World Federation of Trade Unions, based in Athens, Greece, with 80 million affiliated members, wrote to “salute the militant solidarity demonstrated by the sisters and brothers of Local 10 ILWU. Your refusal to work on April 4th is a real example of class-oriented trade unionism in action. The right to strike is fundamental to all workers. Especially now, as the crisis of the capitalist system deepens and workers find themselves under increasingly sharp attacks, this basic right needs to be protected and extended.”

Brazil’s CGTB labor federation wrote to “condemn the attitude of the PMA and the U.S. government to crack down on workers’ rights to unionize, to demonstrate, to fight for their rights.”

A resolution from United Electrical Workers, Eastern Region said of the 24-hour Oakland port shutdown: “Such bold, militant rank-and-file worker job actions are similar to that taken by UE Local 1110 members in Chicago to occupy and save the Republic Windows and Doors factory in 2008.”

The UE pointed out that anti-labor laws like the Taft-Hartley Act can be resisted, as the ILWU did successfully after the coastwide shutdown of West Coast ports on May Day 2008 to denounce the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Meanwhile, employers and state governments have also used Taft-Hartley to deny collective bargaining to public workers in the South, “yet public workers in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia boldly organize under the UE banner.”

Ken Riley, president of the Charleston, S.C., Longshore local, wrote ILWU Local 10 that their solidarity action on April 4 “was exactly the medicine that was needed to treat and destroy this aggressive and malignant cancer that was unleashed on the body of Labor. … Your valiant stand on the Wisconsin issue has once again set the bar for Labor's response. Unfortunately, the rest of Labor just hasn't got it yet. Labor should have issued a national strike to address the Wisconsin issue.”

In mid-April, many labor, community and social justice activists, including ILWU rank-and-filers and the SF Labor Council, came together to form the Committee to Defend ILWU Local 10, which can be reached at [email protected] You can sign up online to send a letter to the CEO of PMA or download a petition at www.bailoutpeople.org/ilwu. Send donations, with “Defend ILWU” on the memo line, to the committee c/o SF Labor Council, 1188 Franklin, San Francisco, CA 94109.