Arriving in the Port of Oakland at 6 a.m. last Thursday, the grey-blue colossus auto carrier Century Highway No. 3 carries enough cars to fill all the parking lots surrounding the Giants stadium — a mere fraction of the average 368 million annual tons of autos, toys, and other goods moving through the 29 ports along America's Pacific coast. Could there be a force of man or nature powerful enough to interrupt this perpetual merchandise tsunami?
Would you believe — San Francisco radical peaceniks?
On May 1, the usually bustling ports along the West Coast will become still, as members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) stop work during the day shift to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"If we can do something so dramatic as to shut down the ports on the West Coast, I think people will realize how important" opposition to the war is, said Jack Heyman, an executive board member of San Francisco's ILWU Local 10, and a prominent antiwar activist. In 2003, Heyman and about a dozen other war protesters were arrested outside Oakland shipping facilities.
"The ILWU has had a legacy of opposing U.S. imperial wars like the one in Iraq," Heyman wrote in an essay describing that event, "while supporting struggles internationally like the antiapartheid struggle and the Cuban revolution."
Indeed, the union, which represents 25,000 dockworkers on the Pacific coast, is simultaneously the most politically radical and economically comfortable group of U.S. workers. Full-time portside equipment operators can earn salaries into six figures, and union-hall conversation can drift into splitting hairs over early-20th-century Russian history.
Last month Heyman, who operates a forklift-like machine that moves shipping containers at the Port of Oakland, proposed to his union brethren that they conduct an antiwar work stoppage on May Day, an international socialist holiday. The proposal was met with groaning from some members, because the protest will occur at a delicate time. On March 17, the union will begin negotiating a new six-year coastwide labor contract with shippers. If successful, these negotiations will preserve longshore workers' status as among the most highly paid workers in America.
After some heated argument, Heyman's antiwar rhetoric won the day. Union rank and file took a vote and made it official: During the eight-hour day shift on May 1, portside traffic in goods between the U.S. and Asia will cease.
Officials with the shippers and the union — who must spend the next few months sitting across from each other at a bargaining table, ideally without distraction — sought to downplay the stoppage's significance.
Steve Getzug, spokesman for shippers' group the Pacific Maritime Association, said company officials were too busy preparing for contract negotiations to pay much attention to the May Day protest.
Meanwhile, ILWU spokesman Craig Merilees put it this way: "It's been agreed that on the first of May, the union will exercise its right to hold a meeting on that day. On the day shift, local unions will have the opportunity, if they wish, to take some of that time to speak out against the war if they feel so inclined."