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Dockworkers Shut Down West Coast Ports To Protest the War

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In an unprecedented action, rank and file members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) shut down shipping ports up and down the West Coast yesterday to protest the War in Iraq. Organizers said it was the first time a labor union has taken such an action. On a clear, warm day here in San Francisco, several hundred members of the ILWU and sympathetic unions, as well as a good number of antiwar activists, marched along the waterfront as the usually busy cranes at the Port of Oakland sat idle across the bay.

A spokesperson at the Port of Oakland citing John Martin and Associates economic analysis, said that $1.2 trillion in business activity flows from West Coast ports each year. She reported that it costs between $50,000 and $100,000 for each ship delayed for a day from docking. Officials, she said, planned for the strike and diverted ships, but the action kept at least one ship from docking in Oakland. There are 29 ports up and down the coast.

This wasn't your average peace rally. Yes, dove banners flapped in the breeze, Che Guevara's visage graced more than a few t-shirts, and Cindy Sheehan put in an appearance, but this action had a harder edge, reminiscent of the days when the labor movement could -- and regularly would -- affect this country's daily business to get its points across. Led by the nattily dressed ILWU drill team, which tapped out the rhythm for chants like "Ready to Fight, Damn Right!" and "We're the Ass Kicking Union!," the march stopped traffic down the Embarcadero as it followed the route of bloody waterfront protests three quarters of a century ago. Those actions led to the last time bustling West Coast ports went quiet - during the general strike of 1934. Chalk outlines outside of ILWU's Local 10 in Fisherman's Wharf still mark the spots where two longshoremen fell from police bullets during those days.

Local 10's Jack Heyman wrote the resolution that brought about the May Day stoppage. In between shouting encouragement and directions into a bullhorn, he brought up those seminal marches in 1934 as a reference point for yesterday's events, "This is labor power at its rawest, at its best ... The politicians in this country have said, 'We don't know how to stop this war.' We're saying, 'Here's how you do it. You stop this war by stopping work.' And in the best tradition of the ILWU, it's the rank and file, not the union leadership, who are doing this."

Indeed, several people at the rally said they were not only defying shipping companies -- who lodged a formal protest against the stoppage in federal court on Wednesday -- but also their own union's brass. John Showalter, an ILWU spokesperson confirmed by phone that no officials from the International took part in the stoppage. Showalter added, "We support our members rights to free speech and their right to protest... We're a democratic union and the longshoremen voted to take this action." But several union members at the rally said that locals were pressured by their parent organization not to go through with the stoppage. When asked whether the International tried to head off the event, Showalter would only repeat that the union supported its members' strong desire to go through with the historic action.

"They were very clear that they were going to proceed with this ... they clearly wanted to make a statement."

Perhaps no other dockworker displayed the determination of the rank and file to make that statement than Local 10 member Angela Benjamin. Benjamin took the day off without pay to be at the rally with her eight year old son, George. "My father was a Vietnam Vet and he died in 1969," Benjamin said. "So it's important for me to be here to protest this war. I have a personal idea about what's going on."

Longtime dockworker and Vietnam vet Steve Fyten echoed Benjamin's sentiments. "I felt it was my duty as a veteran and a patriot to get up and speak out about getting out of this unjust war." Fyten, who reportedly gave a passionate speech in support of Heyman's No War or No Work resolution at the union's caucus last August, continued, "I'm supporting the kids that are over there [in Iraq]. I lost the best part of my generation in Vietnam and the same thing is happening to them today. It's time to speak up."

The march wound down the waterfront and spilled into Justin Herman Plaza at the foot of Market Street. Sheehan, Danny Glover and former congresswoman, and current Green Party presidential nominee Cynthia McKinney spoke at an hour long rally to cap the event. McKinney's voice boomed off the façade of the Hyatt Hotel behind the plaza as bemused office workers on their lunch hours stopped to listen to her denounce the "Bush-Pelosi war."

In the middle of one particularly fiery passage regarding Pelosi's attempt to "sneak another war funding bill to the President," the bells atop the Ferry Building clock tower chimed the hour. Behind the building, the bay sat empty of shipping traffic and the gantry cranes on the far shore were frozen in place -- brought to a stop for one day at least by the actions of the workers cheering McKinney's words.