Labor & community hold Town Hall

OAKLAND, Calif. – A coalition of three unions, whose contracts with employers expire this summer, held a Town Hall meeting June 19 at a West Oakland Community Center. The meeting focused on the common issues facing labor and the community and commemorated “Juneteenth,” the day when the Emancipation Proclamation was brought to Texas.

The coalition included International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10, whose contract with the Pacific Maritime Association expires on July 1; Teamsters Local 70, involved in national negotiations with United Parcel Service (UPS) against an August 1 deadline; and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 790, representing workers at Oakland Airport and city employees, whose contract expires July 1.

The three unions united in an unprecedented coalition with West Oakland community groups, including West Oakland Neighbors and others, to establish a dialogue on their common concerns and prepare for common support if contract talks break down. A series of speakers from the various unions and community groups spelled out their grievances against corporate and city employers and made clear their common interest in fighting for decent jobs, a living wage and an end to pollution of neighborhoods by diesel trucks and chemical plants.

The meeting was opened by a greeting from area councilwoman Nancy Nadel, who emphasized her support for Assembly Bill 2850, which would place a fine on trucks that run their engines for more than half an hour at port terminals. She also called for support to a protest rally the next day at a local yeast plant that is spreading noxious odors around West Oakland.

Alameda County Central Labor Council Secretary-Treasurer Judy Goff praised the community’s residents for their aid in the fight to defeat anti-labor Proposition 226 in 1998, and pointed to labor’s efforts to pass legislation for raising the minimum wage, unemployment compensation, a living-wage ordinance and hiring local workers for new good-paying jobs on the docks.

Community activist and Oakland School Board member Paul Cobb praised the ILWU for its fight to reroute the Cypress Freeway away from West Oakland. “We need to bring the spirit of Paul Robeson to the fight for jobs for West Oakland,” said Cobb.

Amaha Khassa, co-director of East Bay Association for Secure Employment (EBASE), which led the fight for a living wage at the port, pointed out that 65 percent of the jobs at the Port of Oakland pay below poverty-level wages, and that 80 percent of those jobs are held by people of color.

Dwight McElroy, an 18-year maintenance worker and shop steward for the city, was cheered loudly by the crowd when he said, “What gave the city administrators the audacity to come into Oakland and give themselves the highest salaries in the state while cutting city services and eliminating jobs? Not now, not ever, can they balance their budgets on the backs of city workers!”

UPS driver and Northern California Teamsters Black Caucus Chairman Jerome Otis told of management pressures against African-American workers at UPS, and reported on a company policy of hiring 16-year-olds to work on the assembly line at UPS for $8.25 an hour while the company gets a tax write-off and other government subsides for helping “troubled” youths to get jobs.

A stark picture of the government plans for screening 3 million maritime workers was presented by Local 10 Legislative Representative Lawrence Thibeaux. “The so-called Port Security Act that is now in Conference Committee in Congress after having passed both Houses of Congress, is an effort to control and undermine waterfront unions,” said Thibeaux. “They would like to issue a card that every maritime worker would have to carry that would have imprinted every aspect of the worker’s life, fingerprints, whereabouts and activities.”

Audience participation was lively and rich and all were encouraged by Moderators Clarence Thomas, Local 10 secretary-treasurer, and Willie Keyes, West Oakland Neighbors chairman, to turn out for the Port workers Solidarity Rally and Barbecue to be held on Thursday, June 27, at 11 a.m. at Port View Park on the waterfront.

The author can be reached at ncalview@igc.org