Published on
the San Francisco Chronicle

Defending Labor's Right to Protest the War

There's a rising tide of workers' anger against the war in Iraq and the cuts in government programs to pay for it -- in enforcement of worker- safety laws, health care, Social Security, education and jobs. The recent victory of the nurses' union over Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's attempt to deny adequate staffing ratios in hospitals shows that labor can turn the tide.

Last year, the Port of Oakland -- the fourth largest port in the United States, ratcheting Northern California higher up on the global economic wheel -- handled more than 2 million containers of cargo worth $30 billion. Yet nearby Oakland schools are being closed for lack of funding. And although the surge of trade with China has boosted profits for shippers and jobs for port workers, it's accompanied by an increase in dockworker deaths from unsafe working conditions. Already this year, two longshoremen have died in California ports, according to CalOSHA.

The local International Longshore and Warehouse Union will protest the war in Iraq and the deadly cuts it has forced by holding a stop-work meeting, shutting down all Bay Area ports on Saturday, the second anniversary of the Iraq war. It will then lead the labor contingent in the anti-war march in San Francisco under its banner, "An injury to one is an injury to all."

The ILWU has a proud history of defending workers' rights, civil rights and civil liberties. Repressive legislation like the Patriot Act and Transportation Security Act shackle everyone by gutting the Bill of Rights. A waterfront saying is "If you don't know your rights, you don't have any. And if you don't use 'em, you lose 'em." The ILWU has always led by example.

In 1978, for example, longshore workers in Oakland refused to load bombs for the Pinochet military dictatorship in Chile and later for the bloody Salvadoran junta. The union also waged a relentless campaign against apartheid in South Africa, culminating in a 1984 ship boycott in San Francisco. Nelson Mandela credited the union with inspiring the protest movement that helped topple apartheid. In 1999, union actions demanded freedom for black death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal and joined in solidarity with protesters at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle.

During longshore-industry contract negotiations eight months before the invasion of Iraq, several threatening phone calls were made to ILWU President Jim Spinosa from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and White House staff. Using the ruse of "national security," they warned the military would occupy the docks if there were any job actions. Maritime employers then shut down all West Coast ports, locking out workers for 10 days, with no government reprisals. Then, at the prodding of California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Bush, siding with employers, invoked the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, and opened the ports and ordered longshore workers back to work as directed by their employers.

Two years ago, police opened fire with so-called "less-than-lethal" weapons on peaceful anti-war demonstrators and longshore workers near the Port of Oakland. Scores were injured, some seriously. A state agency, the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center, had falsely warned police that "terrorists" may be demonstrating. Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown never anticipated the outcry that would follow. The bloody police attack was condemned by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, Jesse Jackson, author Alice Walker, several British members of Parliament and union officials, who represented millions of transport workers internationally. The U.N. Human Rights Commission cited the attack as one of the worst acts of police violence.

Still, criminal charges were filed against 24 anti-war protesters and one longshore union official, only to be dropped a year later. Police videos and TV footage refuted the government's case that demonstrators threw objects at police before they opened fire and were blocking terminal gates. The victims of police brutality are suing the Oakland Police Department. The case is scheduled for court in January. (Some victims settled out of court last month.)


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Brown supported the police attack, though many were shot in the back as they fled. (He is now "law and order" candidate for state attorney general, but in 1997, Brown, the quintessential political chameleon, participated in a labor-solidarity picket line that blocked trucks in the port.)

The police "shock and awe" shooting in the Port of Oakland highlights the collusion between government and corporations in repression of civil liberties and workers' rights. Then-Oakland Police Chief Richard Word admitted in a New York Times report that riot-clad police had been deployed at the behest of maritime employers, who acknowledged meeting secretly with police and port commissioners three days before the attack. Last month, the Oakland City Council "scolded" the Oakland Port Commission for yet another secret meeting.

Despite adversity posed by employers and the government, the ILWU has persevered in the struggle for justice for all workers. On Saturday, longshore workers are encouraging others to follow their lead in protesting the war and occupation and in defense of civil rights and social gains.

Express your view!

What: Labor rally against the war in Iraq

When: 10:30 a.m. rally; noon march, Saturday, March 19

Where: Dolores Park at 18th and Dolores streets, San Francisco; then march to rally at Civic Center.

More information: (415) 440-4809;

Jack Heyman

Jack Heyman has worked 45 years in the maritime industry as a seaman and as an Oakland longshoreman.

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