By William Yardley
SEATTLE – West Coast ports were shut down on Thursday as thousands of longshoremen failed to report for work, part of what their union leaders said was a one-day, one-shift protest against the war in Iraq.
Cranes and forklifts stood still from Seattle to San Diego, and ships were stalled at sea as workers held rallies up and down the coast to blame the war for distracting public attention and money from domestic needs like health care and education. “We’re loyal to America, and we won’t stand by while our country, our troops and our economy are being destroyed by a war that’s bankrupting us to the tune of $3 trillion,” the president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Bob McEllrath, said in a written statement. “It’s time to stand up, and we’re doing our part today.”
About 25,000 union members are employed at 29 West Coast ports, but the protest took place only during the day shift. A spokesman for the main West Coast employers’ group, the Pacific Maritime Association, said it appeared that about 6,000 workers did not show up for work, which meant that about 10,000 containers would not be loaded or unloaded from about 30 cargo ships.
The spokesman, Steve Getzug, cast the action as a strike and therefore a violation of the union’s labor contract, which is up for renewal this summer.
“What the union says and what the union does are two different things,” Mr. Getzug said. “This is genuine defiance.”
Union leaders said that the association had rejected their request weeks ago for Thursday’s one-shift work stoppage, but that local longshoremen continued to promote the protest. It went forward, the union leaders said, despite a demand on Wednesday by an independent arbitrator that they instruct members to go to work.
In many cases, dock workers were joined at port entrances or at rallies by other groups protesting the war or frustrated by economic issues or immigration policies. Some rallies seemed as much like street fairs as angry acts of resistance, with booksellers setting up stands and supporters of the presidential candidate Ralph Nader carrying banners.
In the Seattle waterfront, members of the United Auto Workers and the Service Employees International Union mixed with self-described socialists while many of the scores of police officers on the scene ate box lunches and petted their horses.
In Oakland, Calif., some truckers who said they were angry about high gas prices decided not to cross picket lines at the port.
“I got here ready to haul,” said César Lara, 41, a resident of Richmond, Calif., born in Zacatecas, Mexico. “They told me it was a picket but if I wanted to go in I could. But I’m supporting them and to end the war.”
Several drivers said truckers were planning their own nationwide work stoppage in the next several days to protest record-high gas prices and surcharges.
In Long Beach, Calif., part of nation’s largest port complex, truck drivers from California and neighboring states waited for the port security gates to reopen on Thursday evening, when union members said they planned to return to work. Nearby, in Wilmington, longshoremen met inside a hall while some union members outside read pink fliers stating the reasons for work stoppage.
Kevin Schroeder, director of Local 13’s political action committee, said, “The children of middle-class people are over there dying, so we decided to do something. We are fortunate enough to be in an organization that has a platform to do something.”