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At the Port of Oakland, Truckers Fight for Legitimacy

Everything Against Them But Their Will

by SCOTT JAY and BARUCHA PELLER

On Monday, October 20th, truckers at the Port of Oakland protested their deteriorating working conditions by withdrawing their labor and shutting down the terminals for the second time this year. These truckers, who are mostly Latin American, Asian, and African immigrants, are among the most marginalized workers at the Oakland seaport, the nation’s seventh busiest container terminal, and an export hub for California’s massive Central Valley agribusiness industry. The trucker’s struggle is ongoing and another shutdown looms in the upcoming weeks.

What is historic about this struggle is the truckers’ capacity for self-organization despite language barriers in a socially splintered work place with at times violent conditions. It would seem that everything is against the port truckers–there are 5,000 truckers on the port of Oakland. They are classified as owner-operators rather than employees, and they are not protected by labor laws, or allowed to form a union. They have no support from Oakland’s political leaders or institutions, and encounter severe racism on the port everyday. Two of the truckers have been hit with temporary restraining orders for their organizing efforts along with “Does 1 through 2000.”  Despite all this, the militancy of the Oakland port truckers has only grown.

“If our demands aren’t met, the truckers are going to have to decide what to do,” said Oakland port trucker Frank Adams a week following the October 20th shutdown. “But I think we will be out protesting and shutting down the port again.”

Truckers Strike and the Shutdown Begins

With the odds stacked against them, the truckers realized that the only way they would be heard is by asserting economic pressure on the port, and against the companies that operate there. Coinciding with the Bay Area Rapid Transit train system employees strike, truckers voted on a Friday afternoon in late October to strike and shut down the port the following Monday.

Before dawn broke on Monday October 21, truckers speaking Spanish, Punjabi, Mandarin and various African languages, held handmade signs reading “Don’t kill my future, I have kids,” and “ILWU thanks for your support,” referring to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union that represents thousands of port workers on the West Coast, Alaska and Hawaii. They were joined by activist supporters in establishing pickets at the notorious SSA terminal, known amongst truckers as the most abusive terminal with the worst conditions. SSA’s terminal was also a favorite target of the Occupy movement as Goldman Sachs is 49 percent owner. Additional pickets were established at Ports America and the TraPac terminal, where truckers were joined with members of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555.

Typically, pickets like these establish a health and safety violation which the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) members are not legally required cross. For the Longshoremen, conflicts between the Oakland police and protesters are a safety hazard–many have a clear memory of the Oakland police pulverizing workers and activists with rubber bullets in 2003 during a protest against the Iraq war. However, on October 20th an arbitrator ruled that the truckers picket line was not a health and safety violation–after a heavy oakland police presence broke up the pickets with new “Urban Shield” techniques, using billy clubs to hit and even throw protesters to the ground. And yet the morning pickets were still a success in shutting down the port because ILWU Local 10 members went home after seeing the police and protester presence. Truckers refused to take work for the day, and ILWU Local 34 members, representing clerks, pulled out their members in spite of the arbitrator ruling.

“The impact on SSA terminal was catastrophic,” Adams says of the largest terminal at the port which sat idle while a vessel was docked there. “No business went through the terminal at all and they lost a lot of money.”

Solidarity, Arbitration, and Betrayal

As the evening shift approached, truckers and their supporters were in high spirits after the morning victory. That changed soon after a sixty person picket was set up at the SSA terminal. An ILWU Local 10 business agent drove his car straight into the line and attempted to forcefully cross. When the pickets refused to move, he exited his car and was joined by Local 10 President Mike Villeggiante, who began yelling at truckers and their supporters that his members were going to work that shift.

“I don’t see a picket line here,” Villeggiante screamed, red-faced. “What union are you in?” he demanded, mocking the non-unionized truckers’ organizing efforts while threatening to beat up their supporters.

Overall, the ILWU members were supportive throughout the truckers’ actions, and their president’s position was an anomaly compared to the attitude of the rank and file. Typically, the ILWU does not have to take sides in an arbitration ruling against a picket line, and they do not need to cooperate with the police in clearing it. By driving their car into an established picket line, however, the president of Local 10 and the business agent gave the police a justification to clear the line because it was blocking their car from going through.

Furthermore, a union can legally contest an arbitrator’s ruling. Dan Siegel, a longtime civil rights labor lawyer in Oakland who was present on the picket line that night, explained the tension between arbitration and the ILWU leadership’s actions: “I can understand the ILWU’s decision to obey the arbitrators ruling in order to avoid being fined, but it seems to me that they went way further than that by assisting the police in breaking up what was a lawful picket and thus providing evidence that made the arbitrator’s decision inevitable.
“By evidence I mean driving their cars through the line–giving a legitimacy for the police to break up the line and for the arbitrator to make his decision,” explained Siegel. “This is very contrary to the ILWU’s history and tradition of standing with the working class.”

After the Oakland Police Department forced the picketers off the line and onto the sidewalk, members of the ILWU were allowed to enter the terminal to begin their shift, escorted by the police. Adding salt to the wound, Miguel Masso, the Oakland police officer who shot and killed a Black teenager named Alan Blueford last year, was on the riot line keeping protesters on the sidewalk while ILWU members were escorted into the terminal. Once Masso was recognized, the rage from the crowd prompted the police to remove him from the line.

However, some turned around and drove away, suggesting that many more rank-and-file members would have stood in solidarity with the truckers had they not arrived at their worksite to be directed in by the police and the union president. What was clear to all present was that the leadership went beyond what was a necessary legal consideration into the realm of working class betrayal, using the ludicrous political cover of reactionary anti-union regulations, and relying on the force of the state, while making machismo physical threats towards picketers.

Villegiante even used an argument typical of the Port of Oakland’s management when he complained to the media that,  “[the truckers are] trying to use the port as an economic tool. I understand that, but the problem is, they hurt the area . . . People looking on the outside will think it’s not a reliable port.” The backward nature of business unionism and cooperation with management could hardly be made more clear.

The following day, work at the port continued but the truckers’ job action slowed it to a crawl with 90% of the truckers refusing work, forcing various political figures from the port and the City of Oakland to negotiate. Mayor Jean Quan promised another meeting with statewide political figures and port administrators, but the truckers are hardly under any illusions and are prepared to exert economic pressure again if these negotiations go nowhere. The truckers are currently awaiting further response to their demands, but they say that their patience is wearing thin. All the while their support is growing.

Abuse, Racism, and Exploitation

Anecdotes of the working environment for port truckers are brutal and humiliating. Verbal abuse, racism, and even threats of physical violence are a typical part of the working day. The truckers arrive early at the port and often sit in line for four or five hours or more, unpaid, while they wait for cargo to be loaded onto their trucks. During this time, they are required to follow strict rules and are not allowed to leave their truck even to go to the bathroom, forced to urinate in plastic bottles and inhale the fumes from the from their diesel exhaust. Those fumes have also created an environmental health hazard for the mostly Black West Oakland community. Toxic smog drifts into nearby homes, schools, parks, and workplaces.

The main demands of the truckers are meant to offset their increasing economic burden. Specifically, they are asking for help in paying for environmental compliance and economic assistance in upgrading their trucks to meet new standards. Emissions from trucks, cars and ships are a major source of pollution in West Oakland, causing heightened rates of asthma that have been a constant complaint from local residents.

The truckers are supportive of these changes–but they insist on not paying the full cost while the companies that benefit from their work make billions. If they are not given economic assistance, hundreds of truckers will be out of a job on January 1, 2014 as their trucks will no longer meet the new standards.

They are also asking for a waiting fee from the port. To pick up and move cargo the truckers are required to idle on the main roads and near the entrances to the various terminals. The truckers want to at least be minimally compensated for their wait times and, more importantly, they seek to discourage the port from having these excessive wait times in the first place. They have asked the port to hire more ILWU workers and install new equipment–also requested from the union–so that more rigs can be loaded in a shorter amount of time but without increasing the already dangerous work conditions. Finally, they are asking for a raise after not having received one for ten years.

A tale of Two Strikes

There is an important contrast between the truckers’ self-organized strike and the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) strike that occurred the same day. BART workers, along with asking for a pay raise, have been fighting for improved safety conditions. The importance of this demand was laid bare days before the truckers’ strike when a train driven by a manager practicing to be a replacement driver struck and killed two BART maintenance workers.

But rather than rally their troops to demand more concessions from BART when their case was proven with the coming to fruition of the worst-case scenario, the unions instead took down their pickets and galloped back to the bargaining table to further compromise. The unions will ultimately get more than BART was initially offering, due to the power of their strike, but less than they could have, due to the leadership’s fear of that same power.

The BART unions, especially Service Employees International Union (SEIU), are highly connected to the Bay Area Democratic Party machines in San Francisco and Oakland but have been running scared of their own strike since the beginning. Terrified of public outrage over the inconvenience caused by the strike, they have done everything they could to avoid taking action and have been slammed by these fairweather friends anyway. Lieutenant Governor–and former San Francisco Mayor–Gavin Newsom, a rising star among California Democrats, declared after the strike that   “this can never happen again.” Steve Glazer, a Democrat running for State Assembly who has also worked as Governor Jerry Brown’s advisor, put forward a proposal to outlaw public transit strikes as a centerpiece of his political platform.

Having spent millions to put Democrats in power in California, the unions are finding that their allies have become enemies. Rather than rise to prominence by allying with unions, these Democrats are furthering their electoral careers by attacking them.

The contrast between the two actions was stark–the self-organization of truckers in the face of legal restrictions on the one hand, and the multi-million dollar machine operation of SEIU on the other hand. While the truckers face legal action and police batons every time they picket, the BART unions spend their days agonizing over bad press.

The future of the labor movement just might rest with workers such as the port truckers–those who don’t have a union, don’t have the support of mainstream institutions, and are not even classified as workers. And yet through their own determination and willingness to withhold their labor “as an economic tool”–the best tool they have–these truckers show what a different labor movement could look like.

Scott Jay and Barucha Peller are Bay Area activists.