The Internationalist  
  May 2012  

Why Labor Solidarity Matters:
Lessons from Portland’s D12 Port Blockade

Confrontation at Gate 5 of Port of Portland on December 12.
(Photo: Rick Bowmer/AP) 

By the Portland Trotskyist Study Group

On December 12th, 2011, hundreds of activists from Portland, Oregon converged on the Port of Portland to shut it down as part of the West Coast Port Shutdown called for by Oakland activists. Protesters targeted EGT, the union busting grain giant, and called for solidarity with the Longview ILWU members in their struggle for a contract. The action also supported the port truckers who are paid very little and have no union recognition, as well as criticizing labor and environmental abuses, both domestically and abroad, on the part of the corporations running the ports.

As the pickets reached two strategically chosen gates, it was clear that the blockade had already had some success. The gates were closed before the workers were even due for their first shift. Police made an attempt to turn away protesters at Gate 5, but as the morning wore on and not a single Longshore worker entered the port, they took their tear gas canisters and riot suits and retreated. The blockade was then left in charge of the two gates where cargo was to be exchanged that day, as well as the train tracks leading to the grain terminal at Gate 5. Not a single longshore worker crossed the line to go to work.

Many activists on the picket lines were new to this type of action. Many had never been on a picket line before, and debates began as the pickets settled in at the entrances to the Port about the strategies and tactics necessary to carry the day.

As the Port began to open for business and trucks began to move through the sprawling facility, confrontations broke out at Terminal 5 between protesters and drivers. As a section of picketers attempted to set up a barricade at the gate with some construction fencing, the situation became tense. Although the organizers of the shutdown had specified that no vehicles should be prevented from moving, the protesters with the barricade were undeterred.

The barricade was a clear departure from the methods that the organizing committee had democratically decided were appropriate for the action. Still, activists who were part of the committee were reluctant to interfere with the barricade. Because the activists with the construction fence were acting according to their own plan, it was argued that the protesters who didn’t want to stop trucks should just continue not stopping them, and allow the barricade to persist. However, since the demands of the demonstration clearly stated solidarity with the port truckers, it was decided that the trucks should be allowed to pass.

Organizers of Shutdown the Port, in which we participated, called on experienced class-struggle trade unionists from the ranks of the picket to deal with the confrontation, as some protesters flung insults such as “redneck” at the drivers, even though the drivers were a part of the solidarity effort of the day. We explained that the port was already closed, thanks to solidarity on the part of ILWU members who were not at work, and that the effort to blockade the port would benefit more from outreach to the truckers than confrontation with them.

The conflict that erupted at the entrance to the terminal continued as trucks reached the gate and activists again attempted to turn them away, with one protester calling a trucker a “scab” in the process. As the pickets parted and the truck finally turned in to the driveway, the picketer was challenged by another activist, asking the reason for the use of that word. The picketer had been operating under the misunderstanding that “scab” was a word to describe any non-union worker, and not a worker who entered a struck workplace to reopen it.

The Portland shutdown was a success, with only one ship being loaded at nearly midnight, and only because there was no picket in place at the beginning of the work shift. Although the ILWU leadership resisted the shutdown from beginning to end, the membership decisively supported the action by not going to work that day.

Without that contribution on the part of the workers at the Port, the blockade that constituted a few hundred people would never have been able to shut the Port of Portland down for the day. Without the experience and dedication of the ILWU members who resisted the bureaucracy’s attempts to demobilize and vilify the D12 shutdown, the day may have ended in disaster. Instead, not a single train was loaded, and the shipping terminals were idle.

Building a struggle that challenges capital’s rule will require more than just good demands; it will require the will of workers and their allies to enforce those demands. The lessons from the D12 shutdown are clear: Rather than acting on behalf of Port workers, it’s far more effective to act in solidarity with them.

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com