Oakland port and airport workers strike over unfair labor practices

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OAKLAND, Calif. - In a pre-Thanksgiving action, over 220 maintenance, administrative and other support workers at the Port of Oakland and Oakland Airport, members of SEIU Local 1021, shut down the nation's fifth-busiest port and walked picket lines at the airport Nov. 20. They said their one-day unfair labor practices strike was brought on by the port's refusal to provide financial information needed in the bargaining process, and its failure to set new dates for bargaining talks.

The night before the strike, hundreds of port workers, union and community supporters gathered at the airport to launch the action.

"This is an unfair labor practices strike for a number of reasons," Local 1021 Vice President Gary Jimenez told the crowd. "First and foremost, one of the key elements is the critical financial information the port refused to provide us in a timely fashion, in order to negotiate a fair and equitable contract for our members here at the port. "

Jimenez said the workers have been without a contract for over 16 months, and despite the workers' calls for port management to return to the bargaining table, no talks are taking place now, and the port has not proposed dates and times to resume bargaining.

"The port talks about investing in the port's future," Jimenez said. "Our workers are the key to that future. What about investing in us?"

Jimenez said the port is insisting on takeaways that add up to about 15 percent in pay and benefit cuts, or the equivalent of more than seven weeks of work.

Interviewed before the rally, painter Gino Valente, who says he maintains the runway stripes that guide arriving and departing planes, said the expired contract covering some 220 workers is supposed to be renewed on a month-to-month basis, but the port has been unilaterally changing provisions including workers' benefits.

"They're trying to capitalize on claims they don't have enough money," Valente said. "But our work is a profit-generating resource for the port and the city."

The rally brought pledges of support, from California Labor Federation head Art Pulaski, Alameda Labor Council leader Josie Camacho, University of California at Berkeley union leader Kathryn Lybarger and others.

Camacho cited a recent Port of Oakland press release saying the port's economic activity supports more than 73,000 jobs in the region and is connected to nearly 827,000 jobs across the nation. "Those workers contribute to our region's economic vitality," she said. "Don't Local 1021 workers contribute to that vitality?"

Al Loera, president of the port workers chapter of the local, emphasized that the struggle "is for all workers. It has to do with being respected as working men and women, individuals who day in and day out, labor to provide for their families and their future. We deserve, and we expect, respect across the table."

Early the next morning, while picketing continued at the airport, the focus shifted to the port itself. There, the picket lines set up by the Local 1021 workers were honored by longshore workers (members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union), effectively shutting the port down.

Ships and trucks alike found themselves waiting at six of the port's seven terminals, with no way to load and unload.

Though the port claims it is in deficit, the union contends that the port is running a $37 million surplus, and points to top management salaries exceeding $200,000 a year.

The union workers have also been upset over recent revelations of "ethically questionable" expenditures by management officials, including thousands of dollars spent on strip club bills, "dessert wine" and expensive golf trips. As a result, the port's executive director, Omar Benjamin, has resigned and its maritime director, James Kwon, is on administrative leave.

Photo: Flickr

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