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Class Struggle on the Waterfront

With less than a month’s time with which to plan, Occupy Portland set out early Monday morning to shutdown the Port of Portland.  Braving the morning’s freezing fog, protesters began arriving at Kelly Point Park around 6 a.m. for a final staging before breaking into two groups to march on the port.  A group of 300 or so protesters were directed to head to Terminal 6, the port’s busiest terminal, while another 200 or so headed to Terminal 5.

Heading to Terminal 5, I encountered riot police having already established a line upon arrival.  Undeterred, protesters had also already begun their community picket, with some stationed at the initial entrance to the terminal, while others gathered a few hundred yards down the road at the terminal gate.  Spirits were high, as picketers circled in the dusk to chants of “The Port of Portland!  Shut it down!  The whole West Coast!  Shut it down! The whole damn system.  Shut it down!”

By 7:30 a.m., the police abandoned their line.  A few confrontations between picketers and truckers followed in the intervening hours, with those seeking access blocked.  Reports from Terminal 6 indicated that ILWU workers there were being allowed access to the port, as had been planned, although many had instead chosen to join the picket.

By 10 a.m., confirmation came that the Terminals 5 and 6 had been shutdown.  Many protesters, exhausted from the early wake-up and bitter temperatures, soon dispersed, but a solid core remained to stand vigil at the shuttered terminal gates.  Food was brought to the picketers throughout the day from community supporters, including at least one ILWU family member.

Intermittent confrontations also continued through the day between picketers and truckers, as some picketers sought to expand the blockade to a material depot located adjacent to Terminal 5.  Most confrontations were resolved in a matter of minutes, although others took longer as consensus was sought on whether to allow passage on a near case-by-case basis.  In the end, the port terminal remained blockaded, while all other traffic was allowed to continue.

Around 4 p.m. protesters began to reassemble for a planned picket of the evening shift change.  Soon after, confirmation arrived that the port had already cancelled all evening work at both Terminal 5 and 6.  The decision was then made to move on Terminal 4.  Occupiers quickly formed a mass caravan along the three-mile route leading to Terminal 4.  All those without rides were taken to the terminal, as they had been throughout the day, by one of two shuttles secured for the day’s action.

Within an hour of establishing a picket at Terminal 4, word came that the terminal had been shutdown, its ILWU workforce sent home with four hours pay.  Seeking to capitalize on the momentum, 400 or so protester began a march on the adjoining Schnitzer Steel terminal, owned by a private company employing both ILWU and non-union workers.  Pickets were established at both Schnitzer terminal entrances and the wait commenced for an arbitrator to arrive and rule whether the pickets created unsafe working conditions, thus requiring the ILWU workers to be sent home.

After holding the picket line for nearly two hours, it was clear that the information regarding the arbitrator was inaccurate, as one had yet to arrive.  All the while, reports continued to come from rank and file ILWU workers inside the plant indicating that they stood by the action occurring outside.  In the process of deciding what to do next, three ILWU Local 8 officials arrived to try to convince the picketers to go home, as they claimed the picket threatened the job security of the ILWU workers at the notoriously anti-union facility.  As one ILWU Local 8 official pleaded with the Occupy picketers, “We support you.  We support what you are doing and what you have done today.  But, we just don’t want you here at Schnitzer.”

As the debate dragged on over whether to maintain the picket and wait for an arbitrator, or pack-up, the numbers steadily began to dwindle.  Eventually, it became clear that even if consensus were to be reached to maintain the picket there would simply be insufficient numbers.  Thus, the picketers disbanded and victory was hastily declared with having shutdown three port terminals on the day.  A day of action starting in the wee hours of the morning had finally drawn to a close at 10 p.m.

In all, the Occupy Portland-led shutdown of three port terminals ultimately blocked nearly 400 longshoremen from working on Monday, and extracted an unknown financial toll on the port’s operators and corporate clients.  It effectively brought the spirit of Occupy to the waterfront.  But Occupy Portland’s show of force was not as overwhelming as the results perhaps indicate.  Without a doubt, the day’s success was substantially aided by the police response.  After a police crackdown the previous weekend only led to a defiant protest meandering through the downtown core on a Saturday night, the police decided to lower their profile for the Monday ports action.  After their initial show of force in the morning, the police keep their distance.  This allowed the 500 or so protesters to better maximize their numbers, for without having to worry about outmaneuvering the cops all focus could remain on maintaining pickets.

The port shutdown was also not flawless in its execution, leaving lessons abound for future actions.  Picketers at Terminal 5, for one, repeatedly obstructed non-port workers and remained convinced much of the day of the existence of a phantom back entrance into the terminal.  This confusion over the port’s physical layout and the day’s intended targets at times created a degree of irrationality and chaos.  But such disorder ought not to be of great surprise, given the action’s ambitious aim and limited organizing time.

Thus despite the day’s problems, it was indeed a great success.  Occupy Portland set out with the intent to shutdown Terminals 5 and 6, and ended up not only shuttering the both, but also a night shift at a third terminal.  And despite the claims made prior that the action did not have the support of the ILWU rank and file, its success was ultimately due to the fact that the union longshoremen chose not to cross the community picket line.  And so even though the whole West coast was not shut down on Monday, and though the system of capital remains entrenched, so, too, does Occupy, with Occupy Portland maintaining a prominent role in the movement.

Ben Schreiner is a freelance writer living in Salem, Oregon.  He may be reached at bnschreiner@gmail.com.

 

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Ben Schreiner is the author of A People’s Dictionary to the ‘Exceptional Nation’.  He may be reached at bnschreiner@gmail.com or via his blog.

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