After months of failed contract negotiations, Port of Oakland workers rallied outside Oakland Airport Friday to protest potential cuts to their own benefits amid allegations that port commissioners have misused public funds.
“We have been bargaining with the Port for over 15 months now,” said Alfonso Loera, president of Service Workers International Union Local 1021, which represents approximately 225 workers responsible for physical maintenance at the Port and at Oakland Airport, which is run by the Port. “Our offer to the Port was very basic and simple,” Loera said. “Cost of living, and that was it. The Port took four seconds to say no, and then put down 42 takeaways.”
Those takeaways—the Port’s requests for changes in the contract—included both an end to cost of living salary increases and higher employees’ contributions to their pension plans, union representatives said.
Port of Oakland representatives declined to discuss the details of the negotiations, but said that the personnel costs were outpacing revenues at the port. “The Port has approximately $1.3 billion in debt, and faces $850 million of unfunded liabilities and non-budgeted capital needs,” read a statement issued by the Port of Oakland on Monday. “Of the $850 million, unfunded pension and healthcare liabilities total over $250 million.”
More than 100 people gathered outside the airport’s Terminal 1 for about two hours Friday afternoon, some carrying picket signs that read, “Release the Secret Audit” and “Board Asleep at the Helm,” referring to allegations that the Port reimbursed corporate employees for personal expenses billed to the company. Several public officials, including city councilmember Jane Brunner and Ro Khanna, a former assistant secretary of commerce for Barack Obama, joined the picketers.
“When I worked for President Obama and he wanted the Port to increase exports, it was because he wanted to create jobs here,” Khanna said. “Those jobs are good paying jobs and if the Port expects to get resources from the federal government, they need to do right by the workers who are actually making things happen, actually allowing for the export.”
The protest on Friday followed a recent demonstration outside the Port of Oakland executive offices shortly after the public release of information that suggested that a port of Oakland commissioner had misused company funds.
As first reported last month in the San Francisco Chronicle, a Port executive and Port Director Omar Benjamin have been placed on administrative leave while Port officials investigate a business trip to Houston during which maritime director James Kwon reportedly incurred a large tab at a strip club.
Loera said the accounts of this spending gave extra urgency to union members’ frustration at the slow pace of negotiations. “We told the Port representatives we would sit down and go over each point one by one, but no response,” Loera said. “I guess they’d rather pay money out to special clubs in Houston and fancy haircuts someplace else.”
In a brief statement last week during that Port commissioners’ meeting, acting executive director Deborah Flint said she and her staff are “acting as swiftly and thoroughly as possible” to investigate the alleged misuse of company funds.
“To our business, community, elected, and labor partners, and as I have shared with our employees in person and in writing, I am as disappointed as you are at the allegations of improper expenditures,” Flint said, reading from the statement. “As acting executive director, I take these allegations seriously.”
She declined to answer any additional questions about the investigation.
After the speeches at Friday’s rally, Khanna, Brunner and District 3 city council candidate Nyeisha DeWitt each took a sign and joined the picket line that marched from Terminal 1 to Terminal 4 and back.
“We want a contract—we want a contract,” union members chanted.
“We want the Port to keep running and operating,” Loera said. “We don’t wish to shut it down. But if we have no recourse but to do that….then we all lose.”