Ryan  Burns, phd
December 13, 2011

brief statement on the west coast port shutdown

I was asked a question today that I’d been cogitating already. The question was, paraphrased, “how will the West Coast Port Shutdown help workers if the port is shut down?” After all, since truck drivers are classified as “independent contractors”, they really took a hit today. While I’ve been encouraged that criticisms of the WCPS generally revolve around a concern for the working class, I fear this criticism was leveled in order to co-opt workers for a broader agenda against collective activism. Still, that workers are getting sympathy from the media is a huge step!

Anyway, here’s how I answered the question. Let me know what you think about my answer, or even the question itself. Please note that I’m fully cognizant of the incredible complexities of labor, activism, and economics writ large, and so this is more me thinking through the problem. I’m not particularly articulate here, and probably should have taken a harder position, but hey, it’s too long to not get more credit than just a Facebook comment! :) Gotta post it somewhere a little more “important”!

That’s a great question! I’ve been really, really encouraged that in most cases criticism of the WCPS came from a concern for workers. That’s actually a bigger shift than I think a lot of people want to recognize! And I’m usually the one backing up the workers over a distaste for corporations - don’t hate that person serving you your latte at Starbucks, they just need a job.

There are no quick, easy answers to this question, either. I was really inspired by an open letter written by the truck drivers affected by today’s actions (http://bit.ly/ubCkGA), and a letter by the president of the ILWU (http://bit.ly/uRz6zz), both expressing a sort of complicated support of the actions. A couple other things are worth noting: 1)contracts vary by person/occupation and so many still received their paychecks today, although certainly not all, 2)the port pretty much shut down before we got there, because of the threat of action, 3)these actions were taken without the sanctioning of port workers’ unions, partly to expose the shortcomings of those unions, and 4)many of the workers who lost work today stayed home to express their solidarity. It’s not a simple situation; a strike would have been preferable, but unions often fail to represent their constituents’ wants/needs. Regarding this last point, many unions felt constrained by federal anti-union laws, and wanted to support the shutdown but couldn’t formally get behind it.

So with those caveats, today’s actions served a couple purposes. First, in terms of public consciousness, it reminded a lot of people just how extensive some of these banks’ reach is; the terminal we shut down today, #18, is by effect owned by Goldman Sachs. Grain exporter EGT was also a target due to its labor practices, but most people probably haven’t even heard of EGT before today. Second, the port shutdown really does impact those profiting *most* by the port transactions, IE Goldman Sachs, EGT, etc. It negatively impacts workers, absolutely, but striking - that other form of non-participatory activism - also does. I think the political goals of the shutdown are important to consider here. More theoretically, capital can be thought of as value in motion, and so any delay in this motion halts capital accumulation. This has been one of the cornerstones of the labor movement since the mid-19th century. I really hate that political activity can hurt the working-class in the short-term, but it’s the long-term here that I think is important. Third, this action is still trying to fall into the tactics of the 99% against the 1% - “against” both in the sense of political representation and in economic process. Again, I hate that some of the 99% had to suffer, but isn’t that precariousness and dependence exactly what we were out there protesting? If they were paid/treated fairly, there would be much less reason to protest! :)

Not to backtrack on some of these ideas, but I can’t stress enough how much potential reasonable dissension there is in any political activism. Some people today wanted to block ALL traffic on the road; others wanted to *only* block traffic into the port. Some yelled at police for not letting a truck through; others asked the police politely what we could do to help the trucker get on his way. Some wanted to relocate to terminal #5, others wanted to stay at #18. Personally, I felt our efforts at #5 were somewhat pointless; but that’s the dissension I’m talking about. All this is to say that it’s a really complicated matter, and that while I fully recognize some of the contradictions in my own participation, I still think it’s highly important for labor and for the political health of our country. Lastly, I’ll also say that some in the media expressed concern for the workers, but only to argue against activism writ large, and that’s a co-option that really bugs me; the media shouldn’t use sympathy for workers as a cheap tool to challenge the port shutdown. Instead it should really engage with the problematics we’re all faced with in our daily lives.

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