Occupy action at Seattle port: going ahead without union support

Labor unions have worked with Occupy Seattle in a number of ways, but leaders oppose shutting down a source of solid jobs.

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The Port of Seattle. (Chuck Taylor)

Labor unions have worked with Occupy Seattle in a number of ways, but leaders oppose shutting down a source of solid jobs.

Occupy Seattle — acting in conjunction with several other Occupy movements on the West Coast — faces a moment of testing on Monday (Dec. 12) when it will try to shut down the Port of Seattle.

As it stands currently, Occupy Seattle has no support from the unions representing the workers they wish to support, and Occupy leaders have had to resort to soliciting individual workers in hopes they will refuse to cross picket lines. Some union activists along the Coast say that workers will respect the Occupy action, however, according to some reports.

“We don’t support it," said David Freiboth, Executive Secretary of the M.L. King County Labor Council, about the action aimed at the port.  "We don’t think it’s the right target.”

The Labor Council otherwise has been largely supportive of Occupy Seattle and its message, offering classes, collecting and dropping off supplies, and even helping protest. But while the Labor Council understands that Occupy Seattle is trying to hit the corporations, Freiboth said, shutting down the port would simply hurt too many workers.

The Port of Seattle’s spokeswoman Charla Skaggs echoed this statement.

“We never support shutting down the port. Port activities generate tens of thousands of family wage jobs.  And these are the types of jobs that are part of the 99 percent,” she said. “These are the kinds of jobs that we believe… the economy depends on.”

Skaggs said that the Port of Seattle is committed to keeping the port open, but would not say what course of action they would take should Occupy Seattle succeed in shutting down the port.

Likewise, Rob McEllrath, president of the International Warehouse and Longshoremen Union (ILWU), sent out a memo to all of the local unions denouncing the event.

“The ILWU shares the Occupy Wall Street movement’s concerns about corporate abuses and the future of the middle class,” McEllrath said, but he continued to say that they would not support any action made on their behalf by outside forces.

“Only ILWU members or their elected representatives can authorize job actions on behalf of the union, and any decisions made by groups outside of the union’s democratic process do not hold water, regardless of the intent.”

Without labor unions to beef up the numbers, Occupy Seattle may have trouble carrying out the shutdown. However, Phil Neel, a spokesman of the movement, said that outreach efforts have been larger than ever and that the responses from individual longshoremen and, especially, port truckers, some of whom are immigrants, have been supportive.

In addition, Neel said there are several local high school walkouts planned, and that with those extra numbers, Occupy can be confident of shutting down the port. Occupy Seattle plans to avoid intruding on the properties where the terminals are, but instead will be setting up a picket line at the entrances, which they hope longshoremen will respect.

In an interview with Worker’s World, which was also posted on various West Coast sites, Bay Area ILWU veterans Clarence Thomas and Leo Robinson explained that the workers would respect the picket line even though it was a non-union action.  

“We don’t cross community picket lines. When people begin to do so they have completely turned their backs on the ILWU’s 10 guiding principles,” Thomas said.

However, it is uncertain whether union workers generally will follow this argument on Monday, or if they will ignore the picket lines and go to work as usual. The question for all of the Occupy movements, then, is whether they will succeed in closing the ports, or if a lack of union support might result in a flop with larger reverberations.


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