The Case of Occupy and the Longshoremen’s Union

Occupy Oakland has called for a “General Strike” on the West Coast docks – a significant escalation in the conflict in the East Bay.

Interestingly, this call is made just as the strike wave in Europe has intensified – in a rolling series of national General Strikes.

On December I, Greek unions led a 24-hour general walkout, protesting the new government’s 2012 proposed austerity budget.  The day before, November 30, British workers struck, more than 2 million in a near general strike in the public sector; it was possibly the largest strike in Britain since the historic General Strike of 1926. They challenged Tory attacks on pensions.

On November 24, Portuguese workers led the country’s first general strike since 1988, protesting austerity measures demanded by international bankers. The Greek strike was just the latest of a dozen general strikes in the fierce conflict raging there in the past two years.

This will not be news for many, not in Europe where labor resistance to the 1%’s austerity onslaught has been building for several years now.

What is news is intensifying class conflict here in the United States, now taking place in the context of a widening revulsion of the extreme class inequality – this thanks of course to “We are the 99%”, the brilliant slogan of Occupy Wall Street. Certainly, labor stirs. As labor reporter Steve Early has written, the Occupy Wall Street movement “has given our timorous, unimaginative, and politically ambivalent unions a much-needed ideological dope slap.”

The European general strikes are led by the national trade union movements. Is a general strike in the picture in this country? This seems highly unlikely – though there was in fact some discussion of this in Madison. But the AFL-CIO is just as likely to break strikes as to spread them, in any case it and its erstwhile companion, the SEIU, are already focused on the 2012 elections.

Still, this has been a year of renewed labor action. We have seen the magnificent rebellion in Madison, the substantial Verizon strike, the bitter battle of longshoremen in Longview, WA, and the 20,000-strong strike of hospital workers and nurses at Kaiser Permanente, the latter just one battle in the ongoing fight to represent California’s healthcare workers.

This (however tentative) resurgence takes on new significance in light of the achievements of Occupy Wall Street; it captured the country’s imagination, and has inspired hope and action in hundreds of places by many thousands of people. It has also explained in language accessible to ordinary people, to workers, the roots of the dysfunctionality of the American political/economic system. It has put into words and action what millions know; the system doesn’t work.

So “We are the 99%”   is now commonplace, and this includes with workers as well as within the labor movement. National trade union figures endorsed Occupy Wall Street, including AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka; likewise dozens of city and county Labor Councils extended support including funding. Just as important, thousands of rank-and-file workers have visited occupation sites, joined them, and marched in support of them, most notably in New York City.

California labor leader John Borsos (National Union of Healthcare Workers, NUHW) believes that the Occupy movement has “energized labor” and will continue to do so. Importantly, Borsos argues, the occupiers  “refocused attention on class inequality and they do this in a much more convincing way than the mushy ‘fighting for the middle class’ that has been the mantra of the official labor movement in this country.”  “The healthcare industry,” says Borsos, “is a case study of the 1% in action. We negotiate with George Halverson, the CEO of Kaiser Permanente, the huge Oakland based HMO. He makes $8 million a year and is being given a raise of another million this year. Kaiser made $5.7 billion in profits in the last twenty eight months. And they want concessions from us!” NUHW members at Kaiser have struck three times in this year alone.

This, then, is all encouraging.

But now we have the call for an American “General Strike” – specifically a West Coast wide waterfront strike, called for December 12, 2011. But this call comes not from the waterfront workers, rather it comes from Occupy Oakland: “We will now shut down ports along the entire West Coast.” Occupy Oakland, driven from its encampments, authorized the strike call “unanimously” at its November 18  General Assembly (I have to add here that I have been advised by reliable sources that the Oakland General Assembly and the anarchists at its core offer something much less than what is considered to be democratic). In this, Occupy Oakland is joined by a little known group, the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee  whose website includes no names, no links, and no points of principles. But not to be outdone, it adds: “The call must go out: PORT WORKERS: SHUT DOWN ALL U.S. PORTS !!”

This, to say the least, is a leap. Is it “Demand the impossible”? How can we know? But let’s start by asking, who wouldn’t want to see a West Coast General Strike – it’s been far too long since 1934. Better yet a national strike, no international, in particular one in support of the embattled Longview strikers, and a strike carried out in the spirit of Occupy Wall Street, democratically, horizontally, a massive challenge to the 1%? Of course we would.

The truth, however, as we all – in our hearts – know, is that this is highly unlikely. Moreover, it is well-known, at least within the labor movement, that, routinely, from the fringe, the demand for a general strike is raised – whatever the circumstances. It’s almost always a one-size-fits-all rallying cry. When it was raised in Madison last winter, it made, theoretically, perfect sense. Yet, on the ground only the Madison teachers struck – and then just for the first three days

So why pay attention to this call? For two reasons, but two very important reasons. The Occupy movement is now by no means a fringe group, it has real influence, and in less than three months it has earned and deserves great respect.

The first reason relates to the fact of the November 2, 2011 “General Strike” in Oakland, called by Occupy Oakland in the aftermath of the horrors of September 27 when the police, in a military-style assault, cleared Oscar Grant Plaza in downtown Oakland. In the process they fractured the scull of young Scott Olsen, the 24 year old Marine and injured dozens more. In the aftermath of this atrocity, with the city administration momentarily in disarray, Occupy Oakland called for a “General Strike,” by which it seems to have meant a demonstration – an occupation – of the Oakland docks. The demonstration which began at 5 pm on November 2 at Oscar Grant Plaza was, in the event, a magnificent success. I was on it. The marchers, multiplying as we proceeded, entered the docks unopposed – the police on orders withdrawn, out of sight – and with demonstrators, overwhelmingly youth, pouring in for hours, they effectively shut down the waterfront for 24 hours. It was sensational.

The politics of the demonstration were enormously variegated, including those of the radicals who led it. It is now said to have been “anti-capitalist”? One wishes this to have been true; anyway it all depends upon what is meant. It is also said, we learn now, that the demonstration was “a warning shot to EGT /the giant multinational company/ to stop its attacks on Longview.” It was? I think not. No, in fact I think it was something more. There were perhaps 20,000 people that night on the docks, though not, as Occupy Oakland claims 60,000. And they did indeed send a message – to the Mayor, to the Oakland Police, to the 1% – a message of support for Occupy and a defiant don’t tread on us!

What is there to say about this? First, some corrections. The November 2 demonstration needs to be seen not just in terms of Occupy Wall Street but in a tradition of protest that goes right back to the sixties when anti-war activists attempted to interrupt and stop the flow of men and machines to Vietnam. This tradition continued into this century with demonstrations at the docks in opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. This is a tradition – broadly, “Stop the War Machine,” that we can take great pride in, just as we can in the November 2 action. November 2 was a demonstration, it was an occupation, but it was not a strike. Certainly not a “General Strike,” not if the word strike is to have any meaning. There is a point to speaking honestly.

This is important. It is not just semantics. So, second, this is important because strikes are important. Let’s begin with workers, wage workers, for they are the people who comprise perhaps 60% to 70% of the 99%. They are just one group, one among many in society, but they are the largest group, the majority. Moreover, they are not simply a category, as the late Edward Thompson explained: the working class is not an “it” or a “thing” but is comprised of people who “contribute by their own conscious efforts to the making of history.”

Strikes are one way, just one, of understanding this; they are one window into understanding this “contribution.” They are also a means of getting at basic relationships in society. They can reveal much about societies and the social structures of the 1%’s world. The strike is/can also be an expression of how workers make history. The strike is one way they do this – it is an aspect of the power of workers, real as well as potential. It is a fundamental weapon in their conflict with the employers, a means of defense and at times a way of forcing concessions.  Strikes expose the fundamental conflicts in capital; they can be basic points of resistance.

Strikes are also moments of education and even transformation in workers’ lives. Why? They are collective activity in an atomized world and as such they are central to the creation of solidarity, working-class organization and working class consciousness. Strikes open new vistas for workers, they clear the path for new thinking, thereby opening the way for higher forms of organization and consciousness. This is also true for students (and others). Consider what has been exposed – and what we have learned from just the most recent conflicts at UC Davis and UC Berkeley. The outcome of a strike is crucial, even when what is at stake, say a few cents or a work rule, is not so great. Strikes, then, are not to be taken lightly. Strikes can also have symbolic importance – a sign of strength or weakness can swing the initiative to the other side. Strikes can indicate which way the wind is blowing.

The “General Strike” is an extension of this – it is a strike against multiple employers, sometimes industry-wide, sometimes regional, sometimes national, sometimes against the state. Some are political, some are not. The stakes are higher. The consequences are greater.

General Strikes are real, yet they vary considerably in form and content. The General Strikes today in Europe are largely bureaucratic, political, top-down affairs, yet they are still important. They need to be understood for what they are; still they demand and deserve our support. They reflect in part the degrees of the anger and frustration of their members and thus, to a degree, the working classes. They reflect the depth of opposition, in this case, to the imposition of draconian austerities and the varying preferences of punishment our oppressors wish to inflict upon us.

Not all such strikes are bureaucratic. There have been other forms of General Strikes, and other traditions, including a history of spontaneous, bottom-up General Strikes, often more like rebellions. There have been countless such strikes. I report on two such in Waterfront Workers, New Perspectives on Race and Class, harbor wide general strikes of New York longshoremen in 1907 and 1919, when immigrant workers rebelled in defiance of their union leaders, demanding  from the shipping trusts better wages, but much more, they fought for fair employment, democratic unions, dignity. The 1907 strike began with a May Day march by Brooklyn Italians; they marched behind red flags over the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan. The 1919 strike, involving 150,000 harbor workers, shut down the then world’s biggest port – for six weeks.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, anarcho-syndicalists, in particular in Spain, Italy and South America advanced the idea of revolutionary General Strikes, projecting the seizure of industry (not the state) by the workers. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the US sometimes embraced this perspective, but never really called even a limited one – a possible exception being the 1917 strike in forests of the Pacific Northwest. Alas, by 1919, the year of national strikes in steel, garment, and mining, the year of the Seattle General Strike – the IWW had effectively been defeated – smashed by a collaboration of the state and the vigilantes of industry. The 1919 strikes were economic strikes but much more; they poured over into workers’ neighborhoods and became class movements. The Seattle General Strike was about wages in the shipyards; the Central Labor Council (AFL) called the strike, but revolutionaries were central on the ground, including on the docks. The 1946 Oakland General Strike began with the women retail store workers’ demand for union recognition (see Counterpunch, Nov. 1, 2011). In St. Petersburg in February, 1917, rebellion on the bread lines sparked a general strike in industry, then a revolution.

There have been other sorts of such rebellions: the 1970 student strike, following the invasion of Cambodia and the killings at Kent State and Jackson State, was one of the biggest strikes ever – more than four million took part. Lysistrata examines what may have been the first General Strike. The 2006 Latino General Strike, “A Day without the Immigrant,” was perhaps six million strong; it was a wonder to behold.

So the point is we know what a General Strike is and we know why strikes are important. And we can see that the November 2 in Oakland “General Strike” was not a strike, let alone a General Strike – truth be told I’ve heard of not a single case of a worker striking that day, walking off the job in defiance of their employers, though to be sure many workers found their ways to the docks. The double-speak on the Occupy Oakland website is not helpful.

The great strikes we have mentioned here reflect vast upheavals and  confrontations with the authorities; and they suggest another world is possible. They reflect a tradition that is a bit bruised and battered but one that remains real. I said strikes can be transformative, but not always of course. There have been “bad” strikes, the Chilean truckers, the New York City teachers in the sixties. But they were exceptions. A question now is, just what was the experience in London last week? What did it mean for hundreds of thousands of workers, on strike for the very first time? Will their lives have been changed? Will they be back out again? Strikes, even the bureaucratic, involve mobilizations from below – implicitly they raise issues of power and control. And the fundamental place of self-activity – and isn’t that the point? “The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the workers themselves.”  No one can do it for you; you have to do it yourself. Not the politicians. Not the bureaucrats. Not the church.  And not Occupy Oakland.

The longshoremen of Oakland, San Francisco, the Bay Area have a long, proud tradition – if their democracy, their militancy is often exaggerated, it does not change this, nor the powerful inheritance of the Great dock strike of 1934; it does not change the fact that the ILWU stands virtually alone in defense of political and solidarity strikes – and putting this into action, even if this is at best symbolic – against apartheid, the May Day 2008 strike against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in solidarity this year with Madison.

The ILWU is not today what it once was, its waterfront workforce has been dramatically reduced by automation, rationalization and reorganization. There are now perhaps 15,000 working on the West Coast docks. The old gangs, for which the ILWU was famous, are gone. Still it remains potentially powerful; its members occupy, after all, a strategic, highly sensitive spot in the multinational chain, one that promises its customers not just transportation, but fast, on-time delivery. And the ILWU is not to be ignored – nor should it be.

I confess to knowing little about the officers of the ILWU, the same for the rank and file. But now, for better or worse, the case is that neither the officers of the ILWU nor any significant section of its members support the December actions planned by Occupy Oakland. Here is their response to Occupy Oakland. In fact, the union opposes the proposed action:

“To be clear, the ILWU, the Coast Longshore Division and Local 21 are not coordinating independently or in conjunction with any self-proclaimed organization or group to shut down any port or terminal, particularly as it related to our dispute with EGT in Longview (Wash).”

“The ILWU considers its dispute with EGT, which is attempting to open a grain terminal in Longview, Wash., with the use of non-ILWU labor, to be a crucial issue for the union, but the ILWU does not want outside groups using that issue to attract support from the union rank and file for a ports shutdown.”

Strong words. So this is not just definitional – “What is a strike?” This project has become an issue of appropriation – and substitution, the substitution of Occupy Oakland for the workers themselves, no matter what the intentions of the organizers. It has become a challenge to the basic principles of workers’ democracy – to all notions of worker’s self-activity, workers’ empowerment, workers’ control; it suggests the opposite of democracy and is, in my mind, contrary to the best and deepest traditions of socialism – and anarchism. It needs to be abandoned.

What can be done then? Plenty. Occupy actions, almost everywhere, continue. And if Occupy Oakland is serious about EGT, it can still mount a campaign against these union busters in Longview, and against Goldman Sachs, a player here, apparently, and do this in coordination with the ILWU, or do it with the longshoremen themselves. And look around, there is no shortage of battles, surely not here in California; they are all around us, on the campuses, in the hospitals, hotels, in the factories and fields. Support them. And, as Mike Davis has suggested, “calm down.” Occupy Wall Street, including Occupy Oakland, can continue to inspire the 99%, get them involved. Inspire them to be actors in history, not subjects.

And for labor, this means for the ILWU, the ball is in its court, just as it is in all labors’ court. It means that if labor is serious it will pay attention to Occupy Wall Street’s proposition that this crisis is not just about Republicans and Democrats, it’s about the system and it will attempt to understand this from the bottom up. It’s not about “reforming” the banks. It’s about economic democracy. And it’s about action, including rethinking and reviving the strike – perhaps even the General Strike. And it means that workers’ democracy is as important in the unions as it is for society. Let’s not let this moment pass. Let’s stop fighting for crumbs.

Cal Winslow is the author of Labor’s Civil War in California, PM Press and an editor of Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt From Below during the Long Seventies (Verso, 2010). He is a Fellow at UC Berkeley, Director of the Mendocino Institute and associated with the Bay Area collective, Retort. He can be reached at

Cal Winslow is the author of Radical Seattle: the General Strike of 1919. He can be reached at