Port of Oakland operations halted by SEIU Local 1021 strike

SEIU Local 1021 pickets at the entrances to the Port of Oakland container terminals, preventing truck drivers and longshoremen from entering the Port.

SEIU Local 1021 pickets at the entrances to the Port of Oakland container terminals, preventing truck drivers and longshoremen from entering the Port.

One by one, in the pre-dawn darkness Tuesday, delivery trucks exited Oakland’s 980 freeway at Adeline and headed toward Middle Harbor Road, prepared to pick up or drop off shipments at the Port of Oakland. Each truck came to a halt as the drivers faced picketers blocking the entrance to the international container terminals at the Port.

Starting at 5:00 in the morning, SEIU Local 1021 employees from the Port and Oakland Airport—both facilities are run by the Port—had formed picket lines extending almost two miles along the berths. A chain of semi-trucks formed a long line as people with picket signs marched in front of the entrances in an effort to stop the truckers from driving through. An hour later a row of cars joined the lined-up trucks as the longshoremen who arrived for work declined to cross the picket line.

“This is not just about a few workers and one employer,” said SEIU member Gary Jimenez, a Fremont School District custodian who participated in what turned out to be a one-day strike—the original plans called for two days of pickets—to protest what the union says are long-stalled contract negotiations. “This is about employers who believe that because of an impasse they can just impose a contract without negotiating fairly.”

Although Local 1021 held the picket signs, members of International Longshore & Warehouse Union Local 10 (ILWU), ILWU Local 91, the foremen who direct Local 10 and ILWU Local 34, honored the picket line but declined to talk about it. They sat in their cars, some reading the newspaper, others huddled in the cold, and waited for their union representatives to meet with the terminal managers.

The protest, which union members called an Unfair Labor Practices strike, was the third public demonstration held by Local 1021, the union that represents mechanical workers at the airport and the Port. These employees have been working without a contract for 16 months, as negotiations broke down in March. The last demonstration, a two-hour rally, took place Nov. 2 in front of one of the airport terminals. The union is pressuring the Port Commission to resolve the contract disputes and sign a new agreement.

Port Commission representatives counter that they’ve tried. The contract they previously proposed would have preserved “above-average” wages, but was voted down by Local 1021, Port spokesman Isaac Kos-Read said in an email statement Monday.

Kos-Read also said the Port of Oakland was open to finding a solution that would resolve the contract dispute.

“We’re respecting the mutually agreed-upon fact-finding process, and would ask that SEIU do the same, rather than take actions that will potentially harm the very customers and community who help us provide such generous compensation packages,” read the email from Kos-Read. “We are still doing everything we can to avoid these actions if possible, and also minimize any potential impacts to workers, shippers, truckers, and passengers who rely on our Port every day.”

Although the truckers outside the Port entrance did not cross the picket line, most of them are independent contractors.  Several said the inability to access their shipments cost them anywhere from $100 to $425 per container, depending on the company they were driving for and the contents of the load.

“It cost me $1400 plus fuel and insurance and my time,” said José Sanchez, who has been driving for 12 years and transports electronic devices to Oakland locations. “Everyone is losing money. But I am not going to cross the picket line, because I understand why they are doing this.”

Another driver, Kendron Fryer, disagreed with Sanchez, although Fryer didn’t cross the picket line either. He is an independent contractor who drove his client’s truck in from Sacramento early Tuesday. He was number five in the line to enter the Port. After it became clear that they would not gain access to the Port without driving through a line of striking workers, many of the drivers left.  But Fryer did not have that option, he said, and needed to waited for instructions from his employer before he could leave the site.

The strike was costing him $200, he said.

“This doesn’t include the load I’m carrying,” Fryer said. “It could cost me $300. I’m going to eventually get this (the load) in, but until then it prevents me from getting other loads. It’s Thanksgiving week, and I’m going to be a day short. I’m not sure if the Port will be open on Friday. It might cost me two days.”

Fryer said he did understand the striking workers’ situation—but that it was costing everybody present. “Everyone isn’t happy about the strike,” Fryer said. “’Hurt one, hurt the other’—that’s hurting us.”

Tuesday afternoon, SEIU representatives for Local 1021 spoke with Oakland Mayor Jean Quan. Both sides issued the same press release, saying said Quan had brought union leaders and the Port of Oakland  together to “get the parties back on a path to contract resolution.”

“We have no times and dates yet just a commitment to return to the table to bargain,” said Jimenez in an email Tuesday night.” If the port bargains fairly with us I believe there will be no need to strike again, but if not…”

The Port is scheduled to resume regular operations Tuesday evening. SEIU has no plans to continue this strike at the Port, and Thanksgiving travel plans at Oakland Airport should not be affected by any labor disruption. Although the parties have agreed to work to resolve the matter as quickly as possible, a meeting to renew contract discussions was not announced.

“The Port of Oakland and Local 1021 are scheduled to proceed with the fact-finding hearings on Nov. 30 and Dec. 3,” the press release read.

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