Dreadlocks vs. Hardhats

Unions say no to Occupy Portland's call for a waterfront strike.

On Monday, Dec. 12, Occupy Portland plans to bus hundreds of protesters to the Port of Portland's marine terminals as part of a coordinated effort by at least nine other local branches of the Occupy Wall Street movement to shut down West Coast ports. 

The idea is to protest "Wall Street on the waterfront," says Kari Koch, an Occupier who is helping plan the new protest. "The 1 percent owns much of what goes on in the ports.” 

The port shutdown was first proposed by Occupy Oakland "in solidarity" with striking longshoremen in Longview, Wash.

But the International Longshore and Warehouse Union is publicly vowing not to participate in Occupy's shutdown nor honor the protest as a picket line.

The planned protest reveals tensions between established labor unions and the upstart movement claiming to represent "the 99 percent" of low- and middle-income earners.

As much as the unions try to benefit from the enthusiasm created by Occupy—and borrow its slogans—they'd prefer to avoid arrest. The Occupiers, meanwhile, may welcome union support, but disdain the unions' embrace of party politics.

The differences concern style and substance.

"If I wanted to shut down the port, I could do it without Occupy. I don't need 'em," says Jeff Smith, president of ILWU's Columbia River District Council. "This is a question for the Occupy movement: Why would I want to send my people home? Why would I take a job away from somebody?

"I don't get what they're thinking. It's my job to put people to work. I've got jobs for 'em, so I'm going to put 'em to work. And I'm going to take some of Wall Street's money."

Like many unions, the ILWU endorsed Occupy—until the new movement targeted the ports.

Occupy organizers downplay the longshoremen's rejection of their strike in a strange way: Accusing union leaders of not telling the truth. 

"The legal reality for ILWU is they would open themselves up to being sued [if it endorsed the port shutdown]," Koch says. "We totally understand that they are not allowed to do that. We are in direct communication with them. We have been working with the rank-and-file."

Smith says no one from Occupy has called him, although he did get an email from someone whose name he doesn't recall. 

"As the president of the local, I would say I run a pretty tight ship," Smith says. "[Occupy organizers] need to find somebody who is going to take the bull by the horns and run it like an organization. How many people have you seen on the news saying, 'I'm the spokesman of Occupy Portland'? That's frankly why I don't think it's working."

But Occupy rejects "hierarchy."

"Occupy is a place for the 89 percent of people who are not in unions," says Koch, who is unemployed but previously worked for a union-backed organization. "It's more representative of the working class at this particular moment."

She and other Occupy organizers are concerned about getting co-opted by the Democratic Party in an election year. Events like the port shutdown, she says, establish the movement's independence. 

And Koch says it's a sign of strength—not incoherence—that supporters of Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul post messages on Occupy Portland's Facebook page. Sympathetic messages show up on Occupy's "bat signal," a high-powered projector. At a Dec. 3 downtown protest, the bat signal cast anti-capitalist slogans against the Southwest Park Avenue façade of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, along with a libertarian rallying cry: "End the Fed."

Occupy's open-source ethos means its slogans are up for grabs. And organized labor has freely partaken. Professionally printed window and yard placards are showing up around Portland, saying "We Are the 99 Percent." Many were distributed by Working America, a Washington, D.C.-based affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

AFL-CIO Oregon spokeswoman Elana Guiney confirms that the union and its affiliates produced "some signage" for people who supported Occupy. That said, she knows some individual union members do expect to participate in Occupy's Dec. 12 port shutdown. 

Despite some coordination on specific events, Guiney says, “Occupy is its own movement, and we are our own movement.”  

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