Workers’ Power from Puget Sound to Goose Island

February 29, 2012

[SubDisp Exclusive]

For anyone wondering where I’ve been lately, I apologize for my literary absence at Subterranean Dispatches. A combination of day-job work, organizing in the local Occupy movement and other preoccupations have prevented me from finding sufficient time to write a solid dispatch column worthy of publication here or elsewhere. February has been a busy month.

But it’s also been a busy month for organized labor and workers’ struggle in general. The following articles are highly-recommended essential reading on two crucial battles in labor in the month of February – one that may set the stage for a larger union rights struggle in an industry that desperately needs it; and the other, a swift and salient reminder of the possibilities that exist when workers come together and take bold action. The first article discusses the two-week strike among 500 non-union port truck drivers in Seattle. The second chronicles a factory occupation last week led by the same workers at the same facility who occupied their Republic Windows and Doors plant back in 2008. In their own terms, workers were victorious in both cases, though their long-term battles continue. In an era in which workers are under the gun, from teachers in public education to manufacturing workers across the board, the lessons from these two recent struggles are profound.

Seattle Port Strike Challenges ‘Independent Contractor’ Lie

Truck drivers in the Puget Sound shut down ports for two weeks—and begin to shift the balance of power. 

By David Bacon (In These Times)

SEATTLE–Employers say they’re “independent contractors.” Drivers call that a legal trick to deny them their rights–a nice-sounding label obscuring an ugly reality.

For two weeks in February, this argument raged at terminal gates in the ports of Seattle and Tacoma. Hundreds of truckers, who normally ferry huge shipping containers from dockside to waiting trains and warehouses, refused to get behind the wheel and drive. Instead, they caravanned to the terminal gates and appealed to their coworkers to climb out of their cabs and join their strike.

Port managers claimed that it was business as usual on the docks. Standing in front of the BNSF rail yard, though, the strikers could see stacks of containers that weren’t going anywhere. When they wouldn’t drive, the “cans,” as they’re called, stacked up on ships, in rail yards, and at warehouses. The port’s lifeblood slowed to a crawl. Cargo has to move for shippers and trucking companies to make money. A still container, a waiting ship and an idle truck all mean lost profits. It was clear the strike was costing employers a lot of money.

Finally, after the standoff had gone on for two weeks, on February 14 the two sides basically declared a truce, and drivers went back to work. In their eyes, however, it was only a step, not yet an agreement that resolved their problems. They had made their point, however, by showing the trucking companies they work for–and the huge shipping corporations behind them–that drivers have power over the movement of cargo. And they could and would use it to bring about the changes they demanded.

The truckers came away from the strike better organized than they’d ever been before. Every morning they’d gather at the Teamsters Union hall in Tukwila before heading to the docks. Then, in the evening they’d return. The hall would fill with drivers in intense conversations in Amharic, Somali, Urdu and English as they repeated their demands and decided on tactics for the following day. After two weeks, a hardened core of 400 were veterans of the flying squads, deployed in winter rainstorms from gate to gate. They had testified in hearings and spoken to reporters.

In the end, many agreed their most important achievement was the organization that emerged strengthened from the strike: the Seattle Port Truckers Association.

Ultimately, the drivers want a change in their status, as does the union helping them, the Teamsters. “We want to be considered employees,” said striker Burhan Abdi, by which he meant that the companies should assume real responsibility for the conditions they impose.

While the containers with the cargo and the trailers that carry them belong to the shipping companies, the tractors–that is, the engines and cabs that pull the trailers–belong to the drivers. In theory. In reality, ownership is a not-so-polite fiction.

Click to Read More

Factory Occupation Saves Jobs

Report from Chicago on an occupation at the former Republic Windows & Doors factory that won a deal to keep workers at their jobs.

By Orlando Sepúlveda (Socialist Worker)

A 12-hour occupation by workers at a Chicago factory on February 23 won an agreement that will save workers’ jobs for at least three months so they can seek other ways to keep their plant open and producing.

The factory on the northwest side of the city is the former Republic Windows & Doors plant, where union members occupied for a week in December 2008 after the previous owners and their financial backers, Bank of America, announced without warning that the factory was closing.

That struggle electrified the local and national labor movement, causing an outpouring of solidarity that stunned the bosses and bankers. After six days of the occupation, management caved. A new owner who promised to continue operations took over, and the Republic factory became Serious Energy.

On Thursday afternoon, the same workers whose courage three years ago inspired people around the country again heard that the next day would be their last day of work. They again turned to the tactic of the great labor struggles of the 1930s and occupied the factory.

But this time, they won a concession that saves their jobs for now before the dawn of the next day. Around 2 a.m.–with snow flurries starting to fall that brought back memories of the 2008 occupation–the 60 members of United Electrical Workers (UE) Local 1110 who remained inside the plant proudly marched out, fists held high, after an agreement was reached.

UE Local 1110 President Armando Robles, who led the 2008 occupation, told the crowd of supporters who assembled as soon as they heard about the new takeover: “We got more than we expected. Now we have 90 days to work and try to get somebody else to buy the company, with the possibility of the workers run it under our own banner.”

Click to Read More

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About SubterraneanDispatcher

Brian Tierney is a longtime socialist activist who works as a communications specialist for a labor union in Washington, DC. After completing his undergraduate studies in International Affairs and Latin America Studies, he has been working in the labor movement and writing reports and analyses on various struggles for social and economic justice. In addition to reporting on protests in the DC area, he also writes about union struggles, immigrant rights, the fight to defend public education, and struggles of the poor and working class in general. His work has been published in The Washington Post, The Nation, The Progressive, Common Dreams, CounterPunch, Socialist Worker and The Neoprogressive. Brian can be reached via email at btier@yahoo.com.

Posted on February 29, 2012, in Austerity, Budget Cuts, Corporate Greed, Immigrant Rights, Labor Movement, Occupy, Public Education, Racism, SubDisp Exclusive, Teachers Unions, Union Rights, Workers Rights. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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